With the #3 seed Minnesota Vikings drawing the #6 seed Seattle Seahawks in the Wildcard round this weekend- a re-match of the week 13 game at TCF Bank stadium that resulted in the Vikings worst defeat of the season- let's revisit that game, and the two teams, to get a better picture of the upcoming playoff game.
Week 13 Revisited
Going into the December 6th game against the Vikings, the Seahawks were on a tear. They had just come off of a big win at home against the Steelers, and following a 4-4 start and their week 9 bye-week, were starting to rack up 30 point games scoring, which apart from the St. Louis game, has continued through the end of the season. Meanwhile, the Vikings, having won 5 straight since their week 5 bye-week, were taken down week 11 by the Packers, which hurt confidence, but also rebounded against the struggling Falcons week 12.
Going into the Seattle game, Linval Joseph was out, along with starting SS Andrew Sendejo, and the rumor was that Zimmer had game-planned to have Anthony Barr spy Russell Wilson to counter him as a run-threat. The only problem with that was Barr was injured in pre-game warm-ups, and was a last minute scratch. Talk about screwing up your game plan. Then, to make matters worse, Harrison Smith went down during the first series of the game and did not return. Those key- and unplanned- losses on defense were telling.
The Vikings defense, which had up to then surrendered only around 18 points per game on average for the season, gave up 38 points. That point total was built in part by Seattle converting 9/13 on 3rd down, and 1/1 on 4th down, a monster 173 yards rushing and 260 yards passing, and converting 3 of 4 chances in the red zone. The Seahawks held the ball over 10 minutes longer than the Vikings as well en route to a 21-0 halftime lead and 38-7 drubbing of the Vikings.
That story severely impacted the game plan on offense as well, as the Vikings were quickly forced to play catch-up, which they were ill-suited to do, abandoning the run against a stout Seattle defense and exposing the Vikings weaknesses along the offensive line. The offense never made it to the red-zone, and was held scoreless- the only Vikings points coming off of a kick-return from Cordarrelle Patterson in the 3rd quarter.
In short, key injuries very early in the game compromised the Vikings game plan on defense, which in turn allowed Seattle to take an early, commanding lead- compromising the game plan offensively as well. The result was an uncharacteristically bad performance for the Vikings on both sides of the ball. The Vikings uncharacteristically committing 9 penalties for 95 yards didn't help either.
What's Changed Since Week 13
Since that game, Seattle has continued to roll- again with the exception of week 16 against the Rams who swept Seattle this year- putting up big points in every game on the back of Russell Wilson playing his best football and in the absence of Marshawn Lynch, while remaining stout on defense.
The Vikings are also 3-1 since that loss, which resulted in something of a re-think on offense, the one loss being a close and well-played game at #2 seed Arizona the following week.
What's changed on offense for the Vikings is a move from a strictly run-first game plan, to more of a balanced attack, and a shift to a shorter passing game- helping to mitigate the Vikings weakness up-front along the offensive line. The changes have helped Bridgewater's passer rating, which apart from a poor performance against Green Bay, has averaged over 100 since the loss to Seattle. The Vikings have also averaged 31.75 points per game since losing to Seattle.
The Vikings have also returned to form defensively, averaging 17.5 points allowed since week 13, and now have Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith back in the starting line-up, with Linval Joseph is currently listed as questionable (50% chance) of playing against Seattle on Sunday.
For the Seahawks, their top RB Marshawn Lynch, having been out most of the season, could return against the Vikings, but is currently listed as questionable as well. Offensively the Seahawks have averaged 29.5 points per game offensively, while defensively remaining the stingiest defense in the league- allowing a meager 12 points per game since week 13.
Looking Ahead to the Wildcard Weekend Match-Up
Once again, by virtue of compiling an 11-5 record, winning their division and the #3 seed in the NFC playoff tournament, the Vikings will host the 10-6, #6 seed Seattle Seahawks at TCF Bank stadium. There is one noteworthy difference from week 13, however - the weather. In the Week 13 match-up the temperature was in the balmy upper 30s, without much wind. The current forecast Sunday is for a high temperature of 7 degrees, and 10-15 mph wind, resulting in a sub-zero windchill factor. Seattle has lost all three of its last cold weather games- when the temperature has been below 32 degrees- and have not played a cold weather game this season. That, along with a playoff atmosphere, can make for a more significant home field advantage. Seattle is 2-9 in road playoff games, the last win coming against the Redskins in 2012, before losing at Atlanta the following week.
Seattle and Minnesota are very similar teams in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Both have stout defenses (ranked #1 and #5 in the NFL respectively in average points allowed per game), and strong running games (ranked #3 and #4 respectively), but not-so-great passing games (ranked #20 and #31 respectively). In most key metrics for both offense and defense, Seattle maintains a slight advantage. The Vikings have a slight advantage in special teams, turnovers, and a large advantage in penalties, with the fewest in the league.
But overall, going into this game Seattle has all the intangibles in terms of momentum (they are ranked #1 in the league in terms of statistically-based power rankings, the Vikings #5) and extensive playoff experience, having been to the Super Bowl the last two years.
So what do the Vikings need to do to win this game?
They have to beat Seattle at their own game, which is how the Vikings are built. Stout defense, run the ball effectively, mixing in the pass effectively to maintain balance. In week 13, the Seahawks executed their game plan to perfection, while the Vikings were quickly forced out of theirs. Turning the tables on Seattle on Sunday will require a healthier, more resilient Vikings performance, and a more effective game plan. Here are some key elements:
It is notable that the Seahawks have lost consistently over the past couple years to an otherwise inferior St. Louis Rams team, which is also built like the Vikings- stout defense, run-game, not so much passing. The Rams have beat Seattle in large part by exposing the Seattle weakness- their offensive line- stopping the run, while pressuring and containing Russell Wilson. The Rams defensive line is both stout and quick- especially on the edge- which is what the Vikings need from their defensive front on Sunday. The Vikings unit was largely successful in executing a similar game-plan against the Packers, and will need to do so again as Russell Wilson, perhaps more than Aaron Rodgers, is the biggest threat when he is outside the pocket. The Vikings had Brian Robison spy Aaron Rodgers, but he doesn't have the wheels to do the same against Russell Wilson. Anthony Barr, as was originally planned week 13, or perhaps Eric Kendricks, maybe the more effective choice to help keep Russell Wilson in check, along with awareness from both defensive ends to help keep him in the pocket, where he is less effective.
Similarly, whether it is Marshawn Lynch or Christine Michael or Thomas Rawls at RB, the Vikings need to stop the run. Seattle's offensive line is the weak point, and the Vikings defensive line needs to win this trench battle. They clearly have the talent advantage, and the depth to do so. The Seahawks offensive line has been hampered by injuries of late, with G Sweezy (concussion) and T Okung (calf) out last week against the Cardinals.
Keeping the Seattle offense in check will allow the Vikings offense to maintain its game plan and wear down the Seattle defense.
Offensively, the Vikings need add some unseen aspects to their game plan, to help keep the Seahawk defense off-balance, and on the field. In general, the Vikings offensive line has been playing better, with the exception of Matt Kalil, but the improvement of TJ Clemmings has strengthened the weak link along the offensive line, and they'll need a strong game from him to keep Michael Bennett in check.
The Vikings also could use a strong game receiving from TEs and Jerick McKinnon, to help keep the Seattle LBs off-balance. Mixing in play-action passes over the middle effectively can help in that regard. Winning those match-ups against the Seattle LBs and Kam Chancellor on 3rd downs will be critical at times to keeping drives alive.
Overall, the Vikings will need to play a physical game against the Seahawks and win the battle in the trenches. If they can hold their own in that respect, it should be a close game. But for the Vikings to win, they'll like need some help beyond that. The weather could provide it, and help neutralize the Seahawks, who may be looking a little past the Vikings as they start another playoff run. It wouldn't be the first time a hot team entering the playoffs suddenly fizzled. Indeed, the 2010 New England Patriots are a case in point, who blew away the Jets in week 13 of that season en route to a 14-2 record, only to lose to them in their first playoff game.
But, getting back to this year, and this match-up, the early line has Seattle the 5.5 point favorites, which may be generous to the Vikings. It's hard to pick the Vikings to win in an upset against the two-time Super Bowl team, but I will. I like the Vikings to come out strong at home, in a game everybody expects them to lose, play tough, giving the Seahawks more than they expected, and beat them with a little help from mother nature, 23-19.
PS - here's an interesting tid-bit about Seattle's playoff record I came across:
Since 2005, Seattle is 9-0 in home playoff games. In that same span, Seattle is 0-3 in cold weather road playoff games, all three losses coming against NFC North teams- twice to Chicago, once to Green Bay.