As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game. No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis.
The goal here is to identify three critical one-on-one matchups (that few others are talking about) which will likely determine whether or not the Seattle Seahawks emerge victorious.
Matchup No. 1: Seahawks LG Justin Britt vs. Rams DT Aaron Donald
In just his second season in the NFL, Donald has developed into one of the league's best players, regardless of position. He leads the league's defensive tackles in sacks this season with 11. Even more alarming for the Seahawks is that he has been increasingly disruptive in three career games against Seattle, posting five tackles (and a sack) in a 28-26 St. Louis win Oct. 19, 2014, a then-career high seven tackles (and a sack) in Week 17 loss at CenturyLink a year ago and setting a new personal high of nine tackles (and two sacks) in the Rams' stunning 34-31 overtime victory in the 2015 season-opener.
At "just" 6-1, 285 pounds, Donald is much smaller and quicker than most NFL defensive tackles. Donald has the burst to penetrate gaps before interior linemen can grab hold of him, however, and he chops his hands, making him a virtual bowling ball of butcher knives. This poses a problem for the powerful but comparatively slow-footed and stiff Britt, a 6-6, 325 pounder. When Britt is able to latch on, he's generally quite effective, showing strength and tenacity to quietly play a significant role in Seattle's improved offensive performance over the current five game winning streak.
Britt's development this season should give the Seahawks confidence heading into the playoffs but failing to help him against Donald could be a mistake. Keeping a back in to chip Donald or center Patrick Lewis calling slanted protection to facilitate double-teaming of him could be a necessary evil.
Slowing down star rookie running back Todd Gurley is the obvious top priority Sunday. Slowing down Donald from ruining the inside running game and terrorizing Russell Wilson should be priority No. 1B.
Matchup No. 2: Seahawks QB Russell Wilson vs. Rams OLB/SS Mark Barron
The massive talent disparity between the red-hot Wilson and Rams' current starting quarterback Case Keenum is the single biggest reason why the Seahawks are nearly a two touchdown favorite Sunday.
And while Keenum certainly faces a stiff test against the Legion of Boom and a pass rush inflamed by the 12s, Barron is a formidable weapon for St. Louis, as well, essentially serving as a moving chess piece for highly aggressive defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Pete Carroll mentioned Barron specifically when asked whether the "rematch" with the Rams defense could serve as a measuring stick for Seattle's offense.
"Sure it is," Carroll said. "It's an attacking front, pressure wise, scheme wise. The mixed fronts that they do cause problems. They have really interesting personnel, what they're doing with Mark Barron is a really cool thing, it's exciting to figure out. We've got to come up with a plan, because he's a fantastic athlete playing linebacker, much like we see at the Cardinals. There's all kinds of stuff for us, and hopefully we handle it really well."
Whether Barron drops into coverage, attacks as a rusher or serves as a spy against Wilson, it will be up to Seattle's quarterback (and Lewis, the center) to locate the versatile 6-2, 213 pounder prior to the snap and react accordingly.
Matchup No. 3: Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett vs. Rams CB Janoris Jenkins
With starters Doug Baldwin (hamstring) and Jermaine Kearse (calf) nursing muscle strains, the Seahawks activated former Washington Huskies standout Kasen Williams Saturday, giving the club five active receivers. The most active of them could be Lockett, whose 29 catches for 335 yards and five scores during Seattle's five-game winning streak has been overshadowed by Baldwin's historic breakout over the same period.
Named just one of three rookie Pro Bowlers and just the second returner in franchise history (Leon Washington in 2012) to ever get this recognition, Lockett offers a remarkable combination of agility, acceleration, savvy and toughness. For all of his success so far in 2015, however, Lockett isn't used to matching up against the opponents' top cornerback. Jenkins is a formidable draw with the raw coverage skills and competitiveness to harass whomever is playing against him. He is a pending free agent who has already matched his previous career-high with 14 passes breakups this season.
Wilson's decision-making has been impeccable throughout his torrid MVP charge but he's been aided by spectacular efforts from his receivers. Depending on whether Kearse (or Baldwin, for that matter) is able to play Sunday, Wilson could be forced to call upon Lockett or perhaps a different rookie on Sunday.