For the Minnesota Vikings, it has been a three-year climb to get back to the NFL playoffs and a six-year fight to get a home playoff game. So what do the Vikings win for their accomplishment? The two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks.
Seattle hasn’t had to go on the road for a playoff game since 2012, winning all four of their NFC games over the last two seasons. Early on, the Seahawks didn’t look as if they would get the chance to defend their NFC title, losing their first two games and starting the season 2-4. It wasn’t until the last week of November that the Seahawks got over .500, part of a five-game winning streak that saw Seattle finish the regular season winning eight of its last 10 games.
The catalyst to the turnaround was quarterback Russell Wilson. Despite losing his top two running backs – Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls – Wilson has taken over the offense like few quarterbacks have in NFL history. In his last seven games, he has thrown 24 touchdowns with just one interception and has suddenly become a dominant thrower as opposed to a game manager. When Wilson played the Vikings in December, he completed 21 of 27 passes for 274 yards with three touchdowns and a passer rating of 146.0. He will be critical to keep contained because, while he is still one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks in the league, he has now proved he can be a dominant passer as well.
The biggest difference in the Seattle offense this season has been the absence of Marshawn Lynch. Beast Mode has missed nine games due to injury, the last seven after having abdominal surgery. Even when he played, he wasn’t the Lynch of old, averaging less than 60 yards a game, but he has been dominant in the postseason. In his last six postseason games, he has rushed for 606 yards and six touchdowns. But after initially declaring him questionable on Friday’s injury report, the Seahawks changed course and ruled him out Friday night. In cold conditions, especially, that should be an advantage for the Vikings.
What has changed with Seattle this year from previous seasons is the unexpected explosion of the passing game. Doug Baldwin has led the way with 78 receptions for 1,069 yards and 14 touchdowns, 11 of them coming in the last six games. But he hasn’t been alone. Rookie speedster Tyler Lockett has caught 51 passes for 664 yards and six touchdowns and Jermaine Kearse has caught 49 passes for 685 yards and five TDs – both of them posting their biggest numbers over the second half of the season. The Seahawks haven’t got much production out of their tight ends since Jimmy Graham was lost for the season due to injury and the loss of Luke Willson for this game won’t help that either, but the receiver corps has more than picked up the slack.
The only offensive weakness that the Seahawks have had this year is on the offensive line. After trading Max Unger, the Seahawks had to shuffle things along the line and it was a slow process. They allowed 31 sacks in the first seven games of the season but seemed to finally find the formula, moving Patrick Lewis to center to go along with tackles Russell Okung and Garry Gilliam and guards Justin Britt and J.R. Sweezy. The results have followed. After being turnstiles in the first half of the season, in the last nine games, Wilson has been sacked just 14 times and the improvement of the offense has followed.
The constant through the Seahawks’ runs to the Super Bowl has been possessing the best defense in the league in the last three years. That hasn’t changed. Seattle has the league’s second-rated defense – first against the run and second against the pass. With most good defenses, it starts up front and the Seahawks are as dominant as any team in the league. The defensive front has been oppressive. Defensive end Michael Bennett is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, having recorded a team-high 10 sacks with the freedom to move across the line to create mismatches. With former Lions pass rusher Cliff Avril, run stuffer Brandon Mebane and disruptive defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, the Seahawks have one of the most impressive defensive fronts in the league. If the Vikings are going to win, their offensive line will have to play technically sound on almost every play because the defensive front for Seattle blows up plays that end drives.
There isn’t a weakness in the defense at linebacker, where Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are all young veteran players who can attack on blitzes, stuff the run and hold up well in pass protection. While they’re the least heralded group on the defense, the production they provide is a key to keeping Seattle at the top of the defensive rankings in nearly every significant category.
The group that does see the limelight is the secondary, known as the Legion of Boom. It includes three Pro Bowlers – cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Sherman is arguably the best shut-down corner in the NFL, Chancellor is a devastating hitter who can intimidate receivers coming over the middle, and Thomas covers as much ground in the deep secondary as any safety in the league. With young players DeShawn Snead, Tye Smith and Jeremy Lane alternating playing time, the Seahawks have depth behind their front-line players and junior members of the L.O.B.
The Vikings achieved a lot this season and earned their opportunity to host a playoff game, but Seattle may have been the worst possible draw the Vikings could have landed. They’re a championship team with all its component pieces ready to make another run. They’re not invincible, but it’s going to take as perfect a game plan as the Vikings can draw up if they’re going to end Seattle’s run of Super Bowl appearances.