The NFC Wild Card Round of the 2019 NFL playoffs will get underway Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys meet for the second time this season. Seattle won the first meeting back in Week 3 by a score of 24-13 at CenturyLink Field.
The Seahawks won their 10th game of the season last week as they stumbled and bumbled their way to an ugly 27-24 victory over Arizona. Sebastian Janikowski’s 33-yard field goal on the final play of the game gave Seattle its second walk-off win over the Cardinals on the season. Defensively, the Seahawks were strong, limiting Arizona to 191 yards and constantly pressuring Josh Rosen. Special teams as a whole was a debacle as rookie Michael Dickson had two punts blocked for the first time in his career and it set the Cardinals up with great field position, which kept them in the game. Instability on the offensive line due to injuries held back the offense as Russell Wilson was under duress all afternoon long.
Dallas (10-6) survived an uneven performance against the New York Giants but still found a way to win (36-35) a game in which nothing but pride was at stake. Dak Prescott completed 27 of 44 passes for 387 yards and threw four touchdown passes. These numbers could have been even better if he and Amari Cooper (5 rec. for 31 yards on 11 targets) were able to connect a few more times. The defense was a bit lackluster, surrendering 441 yards as Eli Manning (301 passing yards, 2 TDs) and Saquon Barkley (109 rushing yards, TD) did some damage. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch did suffer a minor shin bruise but the standout rookie should be ready to go on Saturday night.
In Week 3, Seattle beat Dallas at home as the Cowboys turned it over three times, including two interceptions thrown by Prescott. Earl Thomas was responsible for both of the picks but he's now on injured reserve while Dallas has since added Cooper. Ezekiel Elliott and Chris Carson both ran for more than 100 yards in that game, which also featured a total of 17 penalties (10 by Seattle).
NFC Wild Card Playoff: Seattle at Dallas
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan 5 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Russell Wilson vs. Dak Prescott
Wilson (8-4 in the playoffs) has the postseason experience advantage in this matchup against Prescott (0-1) without question. There were a couple of milestones set by Wilson last Sunday as he has thrown for 35 touchdown passes to set a new franchise record and also picked up his 75th career regular-season win in his 112th consecutive start.
Prescott duplicated his touchdown total from last season (22 passing, 6 rushing) while cutting his interceptions from 13 to eight. His completion rate and passer rating both went up as well as he and Amari Cooper have formed a nice tandem. Cooper should help against a Seattle secondary that is without All-Pro Earl Thomas and has other injury issues, but it will be up to Prescott to make the right reads and decisions when he drops back to pass.
Wilson will need to do what he has done so well all season, which is play quarterback like a point guard and distribute the ball to Tyler Lockett, Doug Baldwin, his running backs and tight ends to take advantage of a Dallas defense that has just nine interceptions (vs. 22 TD passes allowed) on the season.
2. Which defense is going to step up?
A big reason why both teams are in the playoffs is the performance of their defensive units, especially over the course of the second half of the season. The Seahawks have been a bit of a bend-but-don’t-break unit as they rank 16th in the NFL in total defense at 353.3 yards per game. The Cowboys rank seventh in that respect (329.2) and have been particularly tough against the run (94.6 ypg, fifth).
For Seattle, Bobby Wagner, Frank Clark, K.J. Wright and Jarran Reed are going to be critical in this game as they will need to cause havoc in the backfield and force Prescott to beat them along limiting huge plays on the ground from Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas is going to try and use its pass rush to at least keep Wilson in the pocket so the Cowboys don't have to worry about him beating them with his legs. In the first meeting in Week 3, Chris Carson's 102 rushing yards were the bulk of Seattle's running game as Wilson finished with minus-one yards on two carries (and was sacked twice). Dallas will need big efforts from DeMarcus Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch, and Jaylon Smith as well as Sean Lee, who is questionable because of a lingering hamstring injury that has wrecked his season.
3. Special teams
This is one area where the Cowboys could punish the Seahawks if they can bust a couple of field position-altering returns in the kicking game. Brett Maher and Sebastian Janikowski have had their issues on field goals this season with the latter (three missed PATs) a little less reliable on extra point attempts. In a game like this, it will be critical for both special teams’ units to execute on their kicks.
Punt protection also is going to be an issue that has to be addressed for Seattle, who can ill afford to have any kicks blocked on Saturday night. Thus, if the Seahawks can protect punter Michael Dickson and let him go to work and pin the Cowboys deep it will be a potential game-changer as that will shift more of the pressure on Prescott and company to find a way to put together long drives to create scoring opportunities.
This game should go down to the wire as neither offense is going to be good enough to blow out the other. Taking care of the football is going to be vital in this contest as the Seahawks have the best turnover differential (+15) in the NFL thanks to a league-low 11 giveaways while the Cowboys are only at plus-three because they are a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of creating takeaways (20, tied for 16th). In the end, look for Seattle to get one more key play from Russell Wilson in the passing game as the Seahawks find a way to get the job done on the road and advance on to the NFC Divisional Round.
Prediction: Seahawks 23, Cowboys 20
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.