Seattle Times staff reporter Bob Condotta breaks down Sunday’s wild-card playoff game in Minneapolis.
Russell Wilson finished the season on one of the hottest stretches in NFL history, throwing for 24 touchdowns and just one interception in the last seven games. He set team records for yards in a season (4,024), touchdowns (34) and passer rating (110.1). Minnesota appears to have found a potential franchise-type quarterback in second-year player Teddy Bridgewater, who has drawn some comparisons with Wilson for the headiness of his play. A 17-11 record as a starter is good proof of his ability.
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Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson is one of the best running backs in NFL history and the best in the league at the moment. He captured his third NFL rushing title this season with 1,485 yards. Peterson has been dealing with a lower-back injury, though. He was held to 18 yards by the Seahawks on Dec. 6. Marshawn Lynch should be back for the Seahawks, but it’s unclear if he’ll be at his usual level (he has six 100-yard performances in 10 career playoff games). Christine Michael appears to be capable complementary back to Lynch after his 102-yard game at Arizona.
The Seahawks won’t have to worry about being the pedestrian group in this matchup. Doug Baldwin set a team record and tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdowns, Tyler Lockett had one of the best rookie seasons in team history with 51 receptions for 664 yards, and Jermaine Kearse had a nice finish to the season and is known for his playoff heroics. Rookie Stefon Diggs finished as Minnesota’s leading receiver with 52 receptions in just 13 games. But he had just 12 receptions for 116 yards in the last five games. Veteran Mike Wallace also had some big games early but tailed off late — he had just 13 of his 39 receptions after Week 7.
The Seahawks won’t get Luke Willson back from a concussion after missing last week’s game against Arizona. With Jimmy Graham on injured reserve, the Seahawks went with Cooper Helfet and Chase Coffman on Sunday at Arizona and will do the same this weekend. Coffman had four catches and a touchdown. The Vikings have a solid tight-end threat in Kyle Rudolph, who had 49 catches and five touchdowns this season.
The Vikings’ line is not considered stellar, but the same five players started all 16 games. Left tackle Matt Kalil might be the best known — he was the fourth overall draft pick in 2012 out of USC (he signed with the Trojans when Pete Carroll was their coach). But he has battled lingering injuries late in the season. Though Minnesota has a fairly mobile QB in Bridgewater and pass fewer times than most teams, the Vikings allowed 44 sacks, which made Bridgewater the NFL’s sixth-most sacked QB this season. Seattle’s offensive line improved markedly the second half of the season and could be back to full strength if left tackle Russell Okung (calf) and right guard J.R. Sweezy (concussion) return from injuries.
The Seahawks got strong play from their defensive line all season. Michael Bennett made the Pro Bowl, and Cliff Avril certainly could have. The Vikings also have a solid defensive front led by nose tackle Linval Joseph, though he has been battling a foot injury and missed the first game against the Seahawks (he is expected to play Sunday). Defensive end Everson Griffen led the Vikings in sacks with 10.5.
The Seahawks’ linebacking corps again was one of the NFL’s best, with Bobby Wagner making another Pro Bowl in the middle, K.J Wright playing at a Pro Bowl level on the weak side and Bruce Irvin steady on the strong side. The Vikings appear to have a rising star in rookie middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, who played at UCLA. He led the Vikings with 92 tackles despite missing two games. Anthony Barr, another former UCLA star, is another promising young player at strong-side linebacker.
The Legion of Boom had a few uncharacteristic outings this season, but enters the postseason on a roll. The Seahawks gave up just three touchdown passes in the last five games. The return of Jeremy Lane and emergence of DeShawn Shead seemed to solidify the right cornerback spot. One big question will be the health of strong safety Kam Chancellor, who missed the last three regular-season games because of a pelvic injury. Minnesota mostly played the first game against Seattle without both of its starting safeties — strong safety Andrew Sendejo, who wasn’t active, and free safety Harrison Smith, who left early in the game because of an injury. Both are back, and that figures to make the Minnesota defense a much tougher test for the Seahawks.
Tyler Lockett helped revive the Seahawks’ return game this year. Steven Hauschka had a few uncharacteristic extra-point-attempt misses but was generally solid this year, and punter Jon Ryan had another good season. For the Vikings, Cordarrelle Patterson is one of the NFL’s more dangerous kick returners. Kicker Blair Walsh had a better year on field goals in 2015 but missed four extra-point attempts.
Mike Zimmer, defensive coordinator at Washington State from 1989 to 1993, had to wait until he was 57 to get his first NFL head-coaching shot. He has made the wait worth it, but this is his first playoff game. He’s going up against a man who is making a case as one of the greatest coaches in the game’s history in Pete Carroll, who led Seattle from a 2-4 start to another 10-win season and fourth consecutive playoff berth.
The BOTTOM LINE
This game doesn’t figure to be as easy for the Seahawks as the 38-7 victory over the Vikings on Dec. 6. The Vikings should be healthier on defense, but it’s hard to figure them moving the ball or scoring consistently.