We've been analyzing tomorrow's game against the Seahawks all week, looking at stats, weather, Vegas betting lines, injury reports and all kinds of other elements to try to figure out what might happen. By and large all this analysis has led many of us to be pessimistic about the Vikings chances of beating the Seahawks. But some recent developments have given me a dose of optimism about the Vikings chances. Think of this as a rebuttal against my own Matchup Index from earlier in the week.
Seattle Offense vs Vikings Defense
Perhaps the biggest change from the last time these two teams faced off against each other is the look of the Seattle offense against our defense. In the first go-around, the starting running back for Seattle was Thomas Rawls. He came in as the backup to Marshawn Lynch and had a fantastic run of games before getting injuried. This Sunday, Marshawn Lynch has been ruled out, and Rawls is on IR. The Seattle run game is one of the best in football, but they will not have Lynch or Rawls at their disposal. Rawls averaged 5.6 yards per carry on 147 attempts this season, and Lynch has averaged 4.3 yards per carry for his career. Tomorrow a combination of Christine Michael and Bryce Brown will be manning their backfield. Michael has been the more effective back averaging 4.9 yards per carry in his career with Seattle on 96 attempts. Michael can still be an effective runner for Seattle, but he won't be quite as dynamic as Rawls, or Lynch (when 100% healthy).
Secondly, Linval Joseph will be back in the lineup as our best run stuffing defensive lineman. We will also have Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo back in the lineup, which will move Terrance Newman back to his usual cornerback position. With four starters down, and another playing out of position the last time we faced Seattle, we were effectively playing with only half of our defense. Having Barr available to "spy" Wilson, and a more dominant run defense up front gives us a much better chance to contain the Seattle offense. I would expect us to play much better defense than the last time around where we allowed 38 points, the most all year.
Chris broke down the weather forecasts yesterday afternoon, but the forecasts have actually trended colder since yesterday. As of this writing, forecasts from the same three sources peg the actual temps to be between 0 and -2 degrees at kickoff with windchill between -4 and -17 degrees. One would think that the colder temperatures might lead to less scoring, and less effectiveness, but there is evidence that it's actually the opposite. In addition, the winning percentage for home games of cold weather teams increases dramatically in the colder months of December through February. This all bodes well for the Vikings. Who knows what the reasons are for these statistical changes, but it could be because the Vikings will have acclimated themselves better to the colder temps, as they live and work in the Twin Cities. In other words, their bodies will be more adjusted to the colder temperatures than the Seahawks players. Seattle does not have the bitter cold weather to deal with, and their players will not be as accustomed to the cold. The statistical evidence linked to earlier suggests that maybe defensive players wear out faster in the extreme cold weather, hence scoring averages increase in cold weather games. With our defense returning so many starters in this rematch, and our players likely being better acclimated to the cold, I expect our defense to perform much better. And since Seattle's main strength as a team is their defense, there is some evidence that perhaps the extreme cold weather will neutralize this advantage to some degree, especially in the 2nd half.
A second thing that happens in cold weather games, is that the ball changes a bit in temps of 10 degrees or colder, becoming less bouncey. This results in minimal downgrades in punting distance, completion percentage and field goal percentage, which doesn't really give either team a distinct advantage, with the exception of maybe field goals. Both the Vikings and Seahawks have a dynamic punt returner in Marcus Sherels and Tyler Lockett respectively, and both Russell Wilson and Teddy Bridgewater are top 10 in completion percentage. Steven Hauchka however is 4th best in field goal percentage this season, whereas Blair Walsh is only 14th in field goal percentage. If the cold presents a slight downgrade to kicking percentage, this would seem to give the Seahawks a bit of an edge. But again, if we go back to the same "body acclimated to cold" argument above, perhaps the Vikings could gain an edge in the handling of a football in extreme cold weather.
In Week 13 we were assigned Terry McAulay's team of referees. His crew assigned the 3rd most penalties (out of 16 crews) in the NFL averaging 17.9 penalties assessed per game. If you remember, that game was one of the most penalized on the Vikings side of things, and we seemed to have questionable call after questionable call. The majority of those calls led directly to field position swaps or scoring in favor of the Seahawks. McAulay's crew called 18 total penalties in our week 13 matchup, with 9 penalties against each team. But the Vikings were assessed 95 yards worth of penalties, while Seattle was only assessed 65 yards worth. We were literally the least penalized team in the NFL during the regular season. But this time we get Walt Coleman's crew who called only the 11th most penalties in the NFL, averaging 15.9 penalties per game, or a full 2 less penalties per game on average than McAulay's crew. This will be a pretty significant change and we should expect to see a little less "laundry" on the field this time around. That should bode well for the Vikings.
While I think the Vikings have several things to be optimistic about when it comes to this rematch against the Seahawks, from returning half their defense, the cold weather, a better referee crew and not having to face Lynch or Rawls, ultimately they will have to play better on both sides of the ball than they have all year to pull out a victory. As we've seen throughout the regular season, if teams are able to shut down Adrian Peterson and jump out to an early lead, the Vikings have struggled to mount a come-back. They will have to figure out how to keep their offense moving the chains and perhaps the cold weather and referee crew will give them an edge in that department. While I still think the Vikings have an uphill climb ahead of them, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their chances to move on to the semi-final round of the playoffs.
SKOL Vikings. Beat the Seahawks!