So here is what’s on the line for the Seahawks on Monday night against Minnesota — win and take over the lead in the NFC West and the No. 2 seed in NFC playoff positioning with a month to play; lose and stay in second in the West and fall to the No. 6 and last seed in the NFC.
Seems pretty important, eh?
The stakes were clarified — if not magnified — by the events of Sunday.
Specifically, San Francisco’s 20-17 defeat against Baltimore on a last-play field goal by Justin Tucker of the Ravens opened the door for the Seahawks to move into first in the NFC West if they can beat the Vikings.
That would make Seattle and San Francisco each 10-2, but Seattle would officially be in first due to having the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to the victory in Santa Clara last month (the two teams will play again in Seattle on Dec. 29 to end the regular season). That would also give Seattle the No. 2 spot in the NFC behind only New Orleans, which also is 10-2 but has a victory over the Seahawks.
But if the Seahawks lose to the Vikings (sorry, but we’re just covering our bases here), then Seattle would fall behind Minnesota for the final wild-card spot in the NFC even though each team would be 9-3 because the Vikings would have the head-to-head tiebreaker.
And Seattle would fall to sixth also because Green Bay won against the Giants in New York to improve to 9-3 and remain in the lead in the NFC North no matter what the Vikings do — the Packers hold the tiebreaker on Minnesota at the moment due to a victory over the Vikings earlier this year (the two teams will play again in Minnesota on Dec. 23).
And the difference in those two fates? A bye in the first round of the playoffs and at home in the second round, or going on the road the first weekend (and as of today, if Seattle were the No. 6 seed, that would mean a trip to Green Bay).
In other words, the 5:15 p.m. kickoff Monday against the Vikings indeed feels like a “championship opportunity’’ in the regular season, to paraphrase Seattle coach Pete Carroll.
Carroll, of course, would use that phrase to describe a no-pads workout in May.
But this one truly fits the bill — consider further that with a victory Seattle would move into first place at the latest point in a season since winning the division in 2016 (the Seahawks spent the second halves of the past two years looking up at the Los Angeles Rams).
“It’s going to be a great matchup,’’ Carroll said Saturday. “I hope we’re up for it and play like we’re capable.’’
That’s rarely been a problem in prime time as Seattle is 28-5-1 overall under the lights under Carroll, 9-2 on Monday night and 18-2 in prime-time games at home. And not that they’ve ever seemed to need any extra anything to add a little extra juice to night games, but the Seahawks are pulling out a new uniform combination for this one, matching the “action green’’ jerseys they often wear for prime time with blue pants.
But in the Vikings, the Seahawks will get one of their toughest tests of the year.
Minnesota has won six of seven, scoring at least 23 points in all but one game in that span, and is coming off a bye.
In their last game, the Vikings fell behind Denver 20-0 at half, then outscored the Broncos in what seemed like rather ho-hum fashion 27-3 to pull out the victory.
Under coach Mike Zimmer, a former defensive coordinator under Mike Price at Washington State who while in Pullman helped build the famed “Palouse Posse’’ defense, the Vikings are again a hard team to score against, allowing 18.6 points a game, sixth fewest in the NFL entering the weekend.
But the real key to the recent surge has been the turnaround of the offense following a rough first month that led to some questions about whether quarterback Kirk Cousins was playing it too safe.
That hasn’t been a problem since then as Cousins has turned in a string of impressive games that has seen him take over the NFL lead in passer rating.
He’s been greatly helped by a rushing attack that is among the best in the NFL. Third-year vet Dalvin Cook entered the weekend third in the league in rushing with 1,017 yards and the Vikings are fourth in the league in total rushing yards and 10th in yards per carry at 4.6.
In fact, for all the obvious emphasis on Cousins, Seattle defenders said this week the real key is Cook.
“They’re definitely a team that’s committed to running the ball,’’ Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “They’re going to hand it off to Cook, and we have to do a great job of stopping that because I feel like that opens up their whole game.’’
But if the Vikings offense has been at its best lately, so has the Seattle defense, which is coming off its two best games of the season, road victories against the 49ers and Eagles in which Seattle forced eight turnovers and had eight sacks, the latter total more than half of the 15 the Seahawks had for the season before the San Francisco game.
To that end, this game also serves as something of a referendum on the validity of Seattle’s recent defensive turnaround — there are no asterisks that can be placed on this one as there could have been for the domination last week of a beat-up and pretty bad Eagles squad.
The Seahawks are hoping they will have their full complement of players on defense — four key defenders were listed as questionable, including end Jadeveon Clowney and tackle Jarran Reed. But each is expected to play with the only real intrigue said to be the status of linebacker Mychal Kendricks (hamstring), portrayed as a game-time decision.
As for the game itself, there is nothing questionable or doubtful about the importance of a December contest whose impact figures to be felt well into January.