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.
Sure, listing Russell Wilson as Seattle's primary player to watch could be called a key to every game but let's dig deeper. 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 Seahawks emerge victorious.
Put simply, whether it be setting the edge to help contain Adrian Peterson or collapsing the pocket to harass Teddy Bridgewater, Bennett (and Seattle's defensive front as a whole) must control the line of scrimmage Sunday.
Posting career-highs in tackles (52) and sacks (10) over the regular season, Bennett earned his first Pro Bowl nod in 2015, his seventh NFL season. Bennett's burst off the ball gets a lot of praise (as it should) but he's also strong and quite savvy and uses his hands well to work himself free. These are attributes which helped him record four tackles (including three solos) and a sack against Minnesota in Week 13 and could make Bennett an even greater factor on Sunday.
When lined up at left defensive end Bennett (or Frank Clark) will be matching up against Clemmings, a rookie tackle from Pitt and a former defensive end, himself. The 6-5, 309 pound Clemming looks the part of a future NFL star with vines for arms (35 1/8"), broad shoulders, a trim middle and light feet. While gifted, he's understandably raw still in his technique and struggled with veteran edge rushers at the Senior Bowl - part of the reason why the top 50 talent fell to the fourth round.
Bennett and Clark combined for three of Seattle's four sacks in the 38-7 blowout win five weeks ago. Duplicating that production would go a long way in Seattle earning another win over the Vikings.
Given the frigid (and potentially windy) conditions forecasted for Sunday, neither quarterback is likely to be throwing many deep balls in this game. This fact, along with Seattle's Cover-3 defense, should funnel action inside towards Seattle's four-time Pro Bowler, Chancellor, who is expected to return to the starting lineup Sunday after missing the past three games with a bruised tailbone. While Kelcie McCray has performed admirably in his stead during that time - recording 21 tackles and two pass breakups - he's not the intimidating presence in the middle against the run and short passes that Chancellor provides.
Run fits against Peterson will be Chancellor - and every other Seattle defender's - top priority on Sunday but he'll need to keep an eye on Rudolph, who led the Vikings with five touchdown receptions in 2015 on the strength of 49 grabs for a career-high 495 yards. Rudolph has shown a knack for stealing the spotlight in big games before. He was named the MVP of the 2013 Pro Bowl after catching five passes for 122 yards and a touchdown, joining San Diego Chargers great Kellen Winslow (1982) as the only tight ends in NFL history to win this recognition.
The 6-6, 265 pound Rudolph wins with size, surprising agility and body and soft hands, making him an ideal complementary threat on play-action fakes to Peterson. Though he's not a true speed threat, Rudolph is a reliable route-runner who uses his size and physicality well to shield defenders from the ball to make the contested grab.
Though the Seahawks and Vikings' terrific return specialists won't actually be competing each other, they certainly play a key role in the outcome of this game.
Lockett, a rookie Pro Bowler, has emerged as one of the NFL's most dynamic playmakers this season, scoring eight touchdowns overall, with six coming as a receiver and one each as a punt and kick returner. Certainly, the Arizona Cardinals would attest to Lockett's terrific play given the way he dominated them a week ago, setting a new franchise record with 139 punt return yards in last week's win.
The Vikings, meanwhile, have been even more effective in the return game with Patterson and Sherels splitting up the duties and scoring a combined three touchdowns this season.
The Seahawks experienced Patterson's explosiveness first-hand in Week 13 with the Vikings only score of the game coming on his 101-yard kickoff return. The 6-2, 220 pounder blessed with great vision and sudden acceleration returned another 93 yards earlier in the year for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders.
Sherels doesn't get nearly as much attention as Lockett or Patterson but he averaged a healthy 9.1 yards per punt return and has a 65-yard touchdown of his own on the year.
Given the weather and run-first mentality of both head coaches, this game could be a 60-minute marathon of field positioning featuring few points. In such a game, a big return could be the only thing needed to swing the pendulum in one or the other club's favor.