What a difference a couple of years make.
For the past several years, the Seahawks have been considered one of the favorites to go to the Super Bowl. Last year was a step back in a way because the Arizona Cardinals won the NFC West and the Seahawks had to make it as a wild-card team. This year, the Seahawks and Cardinals entered as the co-favorites to win the NFC.
The Cardinals underachieved and didn’t make the playoffs. The Seahawks didn’t find their true identity on offense and ended up with the No. 3 seed. Still, many outsiders question the Seahawks ability to get to the Super Bowl. ESPN Analytics, for example, only give the Seahawks a four-percent chance to make it to the Super Bowl.
Starting Saturday night, the Seahawks will see if they can regain their swagger and change the odds. Here is what to look for Saturday night when they take on the sixth-seeded Detroit Lions in an NFC wild-card playoff matchup.
• The physical matchup of the Lions’ receivers and the Seahawks’ cornerbacks. First, you have the return of Golden Tate to Seattle. Tate led the Lions with 91 catches for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns. One of the great parts of Tate’s game is how physical he is. He’s one of the few receivers who can get fined for unnecessary roughness. I compare him to Hines Ward, the physically tough former Pittsburgh Steeler. Watching Tate against DeShawn Shead and Richard Sherman will be fun. Additionally, Anquan Boldin is the most physical slot receiver in football. He caught 67 passes for 584 yards and eight touchdowns this season and will go against Jeremy Lane.
• Matthew Stafford’s middle finger. Stafford may not be the first to admit it, but the Detroit quarterback’s middle finger injury on his right hand has clearly hurt the Lions’ passing game. He completed 67.2 percent of his passes in the first 12 games. In the final four, he completed 60.2 percent and the Lions lost three of those games, giving the NFC North championship to the Green Bay Packers. The finger injury clearly affects his accuracy, but don’t discount his total effectiveness. During that four-game stretch, his ESPN QBR number was a respectable 67.8, eighth best in the league. That being said, his finger problem has cut down on big plays through the air. His yards per attempt has fallen to a 6.85-yard average, and he’s had three touchdown passes and five interceptions in his final four games. Stafford set an NFL record by having eight fourth quarter comeback victories, but his injury had made it harder to make those comebacks. In the final four games, Stafford completed 51 percent of passes in the fourth quarter, 27th in the league, compared to 68.8 percent during the fourth quarter of the first 13 games.
• It’s interesting to think that Russell Wilson might remove his knee brace. He’s become dangerous enough running with the brace since coming back from the MCL knee injury. Wilson ran for only 33 yards on 22 carries in the first six games, but over the next 10 games he rushed for 226 yards on 50 carries. Removing the brace could enhance his explosiveness, and an explosive Wilson could open running lanes for Thomas Rawls and Seattle’s other running backs. The Lions will have to commit one linebacker to spy him, so it will be interesting to see if they power rush two defensive tackles to break down the pocket.
• How will the Lions do against Jimmy Graham? The Lions aren’t bad against tight ends. They are near the middle of the NFL against the position, allowing 56.9 yards a game to tight ends, ranking 17th, and 7.58 yards per catch, 15th in the league. Graham caught 65 passes for 923 yards, an impressive 14.2 yard average.
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