Saturday's rubber match between NFC West rivals to determine which team moves on to the Divisional Round
Super Wild Card Weekend in the NFL will kick into high gear on Saturday afternoon as the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams will meet for the third time this season. The NFC West rivals split their two meetings during the regular season with each team holding serve at home. The Seahawks are hoping that pattern holds true with this game taking place at Lumen Field. Either way, those who tune in can expect to see another hard-fought, physical slugfest between teams that know each other very well.
It wasn't easy for Seattle (12-4) last Sunday, but the Seahawks found a way to get the job done, rallying from behind to beat San Francisco 26-23 in State Farm Stadium, the displaced 49ers' temporary home. Seattle's offense was non-existent for the better part of two quarters, going 27 minutes without a first down. However, Russell Wilson and company got things going late, scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter. The defense also did its part, sacking San Francisco's C.J. Beathard three times, forcing one turnover, and holding the 49ers to 86 rushing yards.
Although shorthanded, Los Angeles (10-6) played to its strengths last week against Arizona, punching its playoff ticket with an 18-7 victory behind a dominating defensive effort. Troy Hill's 84-yard interception return was the Rams' Los Angeles' lone touchdown on the day, but the defense held the Cardinals to just 214 yards and also recorded a safety as Kyler Murray missed the majority of the game due to an ankle injury. Rookie quarterback John Wolford had a rough start filling in for Jared Goff, as his interception on his first pass attempt of the day, set up Arizona's only touchdown.
Injuries are going to be a key storyline this week for both teams. For the Seahawks, the primary concern is safety Jamal Adams, who left the game in the second half for a while with a shoulder injury. Adams could end up being a game-time decision, as head coach Pete Carroll was noncommittal about his status during his weekly radio hit on 710 ESPN in Seattle on Monday. For his part, Adams said on Wednesday that there's "no question" he will play Saturday. Otherwise, the Seahawks are relatively healthy and are expected to have starting right tackle Brandon Shell back after missing last week's game because he was on the reserve/COVID-19 list as a close contact.
For the Rams, Goff has returned to practice less than two weeks after having surgery on his broken thumb, but his status for this game is uncertain, at best. Running back Darrell Henderson Jr. is on injured reserve and defensive lineman Michael Brockers remained on the reserve/COVID-19 list as of Thursday morning. But there also is some good news. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who missed last week's game, was activated from the list on Wednesday, and starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth (knee) was activated from IR on Thursday, so both of those should be back.
NFC Wild Card: Los Angeles at Seattle
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 9 at 4:40 p.m. ET
Spread: Seahawks -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Seahawks' offense stay patient and take care of the ball?
The weather is expected to take a time out on Saturday and give both teams a break as far as not having to deal with a ton of rain or swirling wind, which can happen in January in Seattle. Thus, all eyes will be on Russell Wilson as he is coming off another game without turning the football over in the win over the 49ers. Wilson threw for 4,212 yards, 40 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in the regular season while completing a career-best 68.8 percent of his passes. Running backs Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde will be needed as well, but this offense will have its work cut out for it against the NFL's No. 1 defense. The Rams are giving up 281.9 yards and 18.5 points per game to lead the league in both categories. Patience, particularly with the run, is paramount for Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer as balance will be needed or else Los Angeles' pass rush (53 sacks, second in the league) will look to tee off on Wilson.
Top targets Tyler Lockett (100 rec., 1,054 yards, 10 TDs), and DK Metcalf (83, 1,303, 10) both put up big numbers but neither had much success against the Rams. The duo combined for 16 catches for 197 yards and no scores in the two divisional meetings. One or both will need to find a way to come up with at least one big play against Jalen Ramsey and Los Angeles' solid secondary or Seattle will have to put together long, methodical drives or could end up settling for field goals. In splitting the two regular-season matchups, the Seahawks scored 36 total points by way of three touchdowns (two rushing, one passing) and five Jason Myers field goals.
2. Which Rams offense is going to show up?
Regardless of who is at quarterback, Los Angeles' offense has been a Jekyll and Hyde outfit during the regular season. When the offense is clicking and Jared Goff takes care of the football, the Rams are difficult to stop. On the other hand, there were games against teams like the New York Jets in which Goff threw for 209 yards and averaged 6.1 yards per pass attempt. He fared even worse (234 yds., 5.4 ypa, INT) against Seattle two weeks ago before breaking his thumb on a pass attempt. Less than two weeks removed from surgery, it will be challenging for Goff to get a lot of practice reps even if he's given the green light to play on Saturday. Head coach Sean McVay is keeping his cards close to the vest regarding his quarterback situation and the starter probably won't be known until just an hour or so before kickoff. If John Wolford gets the nod again, expect a heavy dose of Cam Akers and Malcolm Brown running the ball to try and keep the offense on schedule to open up play-action passes. McVay called a league-high 189 play-action pass attempts during the regular season. Given Wolford's rough debut (22-for-38, 231 yds., INT) last week against Arizona, expect the game plan to feature lots of quick, short passes at least early on to help the young quarterback find his rhythm. If Seattle's Jamal Adams is limited in any way by his shoulder injury that could impact the Seahawks' defensive plans but expect pressure to be part of the approach.
For all of the attention Los Angeles' defense is getting, and rightfully so, Seattle has been playing pretty well on that side of the ball lately. After giving up 456 yards per game through the first eight, the Seahawks have trimmed that number to just 305 over the last eight, a span that includes both matchups against the Rams. Points may be hard to come by on Saturday the way these defenses have been performing.
3. Will the Seahawks avoid a catastrophic slow start?
Seattle is going to have the challenge of not having the 12th Man at Lumen Field to provide a true home-field advantage. The Seahawks have won their last 10 playoff games at home, a streak that goes back to a January 2005 loss to the then-St. Louis Rams in the Wild Card Round that postseason. Incidentally, that's also the only time these division rivals have met in the playoffs. It will be up to Pete Carroll's team to generate its own energy and come out of the gates strong. Last year, in the NFC Divisional Playoff game against Green Bay, Seattle fell behind 21-3 in the first half putting itself into a hole that was too big to overcome in an eventual 28-23 loss at Lambeau Field. If the Seahawks repeat the same scenario and fall behind a couple of scores early on then it will likely be another quick playoff exit for the NFC West champs.
This game will most likely be hanging in the balance heading into the fourth quarter. Seattle is 12-0 this season when it wins the turnover battle so if Russell Wilson can protect the football and not attempt many risky passes, the Seahawks should have a good shot at winning. Los Angeles certainly can't afford to turn the ball over given the uncertainty at quarterback (regardless of who starts) and the last thing the Rams' defense wants to deal with is Wilson in a short-field situation. Aaron Donald and Los Angeles' defensive front will try and control the line of scrimmage to make Seattle earn its yards. In the end, Wilson and his weapons will once again find their groove in the fourth quarter, wearing down the Rams' defense enough to eke out a close win to move onto the Divisional Round.
Prediction: Seahawks 20, Rams 13
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network.