The Seahawks have to beat the Cowboys to keep hope alive of making the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season. Here are three keys to getting a win-or-else victory.
The Seahawks have to win at Dallas on Sunday to keep hope alive of making the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season. Simply put, a loss Sunday and Seattle’s season is over other than one final, meaningless, game against Arizona next week.
Here are three keys to getting a win-or-else victory, in no particular order:
1. Start fast, darn it!
Seattle’s frustrating inability to get much done early in games reached epic heights the last two weeks as the Seahawks were outscored 37-0 in the first half by the Jaguars and Rams. True, the Rams accounted for 34 of that total. But in a game where everyone will be watching to see how the Seahawks respond, a quick start may be more vital than ever.
The Seahawks offense has had 13 drives in the first half the past two weeks and hasn’t gotten closer than the opponent’s 20-yard line on any of them; only four moved past midfield. And the old days of the Seahawks just waiting until the second half to pull a game out might indeed be in the past. Seattle has come back to win from a halftime deficit just twice this season — against the lowly Giants and Colts.
In Seattle’s last seven games, the team ahead at halftime went on to win. The Seahawks actually aren’t the worst first-quarter team in the NFL or even close to it — Seattle’s 49 first-quarter points are actually more than 11 other teams. But if there’s ever a game when scoring early would seem like a big deal, this is it.
2. Stop the run at the pass
The most obvious matchup to watch in this game is Seattle’s run defense against Dallas tailback Ezekiel Elliott, who is making his return after serving a six-game suspension. Seattle has allowed 400 rushing yards the last two weeks in losses to the Jags and Rams, falling to 17th in the NFL against the run at 112.9 per game.
But much of that yardage came after injuries to linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, who are each expected back Sunday. Their return should undoubtedly make Seattle’s run defense better. But the Cowboys will provide a stiff challenge regardless, with an offensive line that includes three Pro Bowl selections (center Travis Frederick, right guard Zack Martin and left tackle Tyron Smith — though Smith is nursing a leg injury suffered last Sunday against Oakland) as well as Elliott, who has 783 yards in nine games this season and had 93 or more in each of his last four before his suspension. While Wagner and Wright’s returns will help, Seattle also has to win more battles up front and tackle better in the back end.
3. Don’t forget the third phase
Rarely have the Seahawks been as dominated on special teams as they were last week against the Rams, when Seattle allowed a whopping 128 punt return yards as well as an average of 26 yards on two kickoff returns while doing very little on its own returns. That the Rams are generally acknowledged as having the best special teams in the NFL was ultimately no real consolation.
The Seahawks should get some reinforcements this week with the expected return of cornerback DeShawn Shead, long one of the team’s best special-teamers, who is back after being out since January with a knee injury. The Cowboys, though, present another real challenge as Dallas has allowed just 55 yards on punt returns all season — the fewest in the NFL — with punter Chris Jones having 29 of his 56 attempts finish inside the 20.
Dallas has also had a decided advantage in kickoff returns this season and rank third in the NFL at 25.8 per kickoff return thanks mostly to rookie Ryan Switzer, a fourth-round pick last spring who handles the majority of all returns for the Cowboys. And suffice to say this is a game where Seattle needs to convert any scoring opportunities that it has. While Seattle’s Blair Walsh has had his struggles, going 20-27 on field goals — and 14-21 from 30 yards or longer — Dallas’ Dan Bailey is 11-13 and 10-10 inside the 50.