The first quarter could also loom critical for a Dallas team looking for just its second playoff win since 2009 and a Seattle team looking for just its fourth road playoff victory in its history.
Here it is, what NFL teams fight all season for — a spot in the playoffs and a chance at the Super Bowl.
Seattle will have to get to Atlanta the hard way, having qualified as a wild card, which likely means having to win three road games in three weeks to get to the Super Bowl.
But it’s been done before. Four teams since 2001 have won it all as a wild card, including the 2005 Steelers, who won the Super Bowl against Seattle, and most recently the 2011 Green Bay Packers.
SEAHAWKS vs. COWBOYS
NFC Wild Card
Saturday, Jan. 5 | 5:15 p.m. | FOX
Seattle’s road to Atlanta starts Saturday night in Dallas, a 5:15 p.m. kickoff on Fox.
Here’s our weekly look at the game.
The playoff is also a rematch of Seattle’s 24-13 win over Dallas in September, a game that jump-started the Seahawks’ season. They were 0-2 heading into the game and won 10 of their last 14 to get the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, ending a one-year absence from the postseason.
Dallas, meanwhile, won seven of its last eight to take the NFC East and the fourth seed.
While this is Seattle’s 13th playoff game since 2012 — the Seahawks are 8-4 in that span — this is just Dallas’ fourth postseason game since 2009. Dallas, though, has the home-field edge. While Seattle has won two road playoff games in the Pete Carroll era (2013 at Washington, 2016 at Minnesota) the Seahawks are just 3-11 all-time on the road in the postseason.
If the Seahawks win they will advance to the divisional round next weekend with the opponent determined by what happens in the Eagles-Bears game Sunday. If the Bears win, then the Seahawks would play the Saints on Sunday in New Orleans. But wins by Seattle and the Eagles would send the Seahawks to Los Angeles for a third game this season against the Rams next Saturday.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Russell Wilson and the Seattle receiving corps against the Dallas secondary
The more obvious matchup to mention here might be a Seattle rushing attack that led the NFL with 160 yards per game against a Dallas defense that was fifth against the run, allowing just 94.6 yards per game.
But here’s to thinking that matchup could be something of a push and the real key will be what Seattle does when it wants to — or has to — throw. The Cowboys held the Seahawks to just 2.9 yards per carry in the first game, the second-lowest average this season (lowest was 2.7 at Carolina). But the Seahawks got the points they needed thanks largely to two big pass plays (a 3-0 edge in turnovers aided greatly by two Earl Thomas interceptions also helped a bit).
That game was one of three Doug Baldwin missed this season and his presence could help open up the passing game more. Dallas’ secondary has played more consistently since then, though, and Cowboys defensive-backs coach Kris Richard — Seattle’s defensive coordinator from 2015-17 — probably hasn’t slept since this matchup was announced looking for ways to avoid the couple of blown coverages that proved critical in the first game.
Simply put, while much will be made of Seattle’s rushing attack, Seattle is going to have to make a few big plays in the passing game to get the W.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Weakside linebacker K.J. Wright
Seattle gave up 127 yards to Ezekiel Elliott on 16 carries in the first game, the most the Seahawks allowed to any single rusher this season. Elliott went on to lead the NFL in rushing with 1,434 yards despite sitting out the final game of the season.
Many of Elliott’s yards against Seattle came late in the game and he also lost a fumble. But 127 yards and 7.9 yards per carry might be harder to overcome this time.
That’s where Wright comes in. The veteran weakside linebacker not only is a huge presence physically but also in how he teams with Bobby Wagner to help set the defense. The team eased Wright back into action the past two weeks after he returned from a knee injury, but he could be an everydown player in this game, tasked not only with helping to contain Elliott’s running but his receiving. Elliott led the Cowboys this season with 77 receptions, good for 567 yards.
Seahawks cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin/Tre Flowers
Mentioning those two is another way of noting what is the biggest change in the Cowboys since the first game — receiver Amari Cooper, acquired in a trade with the Raiders (Cooper played his last game with Oakland against Seattle in London, knocked out via a hard hit from Bradley McDougald in the second quarter).
Cooper lines up all over the place but has been used more on the outside with the Cowboys than he was with the Raiders, and figures to get matched up in some man-to-man assignments with Griffin and Flowers, each playing their first playoff game. Griffin is also battling a sore ankle.
Cooper has been a little quiet after his breakout debut with the Cowboys. He has 13 catches but for just 83 yards in the past three games after he had 75 or more yards receiving in four of his first six games with Dallas.
Expect Dallas to try to test Seattle’s young corners early.
WILD-CARD PLAYER WHO COULD SURPRISE
DE Dion Jordan
Of course, the best pass defense is a good pass rush and Seattle will hope that maybe Jordan can help add to it in this game. Seattle’s gotten great seasons out of Frank Clark (14 sacks) and Jarran Reed (10.5). But no other Seahawk has more than three sacks and Jordan — of whom much was expected heading into the year — has just 1.5. But one of his sacks came against Kansas City, a game in which he also had a forced fumble, before he was held out of the regular-season finale against Arizona to rest his knee.
The Seahawks will hope there is a lot more where that came from against Dallas.
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That’s Dallas’ first-quarter scoring, the only quarter this year in which the Cowboys have had an advantage.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, have outscored opponents just 78-71 in the first quarter — their lowest margin in any quarter.
And Seattle fans don’t need reminding of the habit the Seahawks have too often exhibited under Carroll of falling behind early, especially on the road — 19-10 at the half at Atlanta in 2017, 31-0 at the half at Carolina in 2016, 20-0 at the half at Atlanta in 2013 and 14-0 in the first quarter in 2013 at Washington.
Maybe you can’t win the game in the first, second or third quarters, but this feels like a good game for Seattle to break that trend and see what happens.
THE FINAL WORD
Dallas 20, Seattle 17
These are two of the hottest teams in the NFL as well as two of the hottest quarterbacks and running backs. It’s tough to bet against Russell Wilson — he’s 8-4 in the postseason in his career. But this could be a bad matchup for Seattle going against a Dallas defense that ranks fifth in the NFL against the run and is playing at home. Seattle has beaten Dallas twice in the past year in the regular season, holding a 3-0 turnover edge in each game. If that continues, chalk up another win for the Seahawks. If not. ….