Seahawks-Cowboys: NFC Wild Card Weekend preview

The Backstory


Do you remember the 23rd day of September? That's when these two clubs first met, as Seattle forced three turnovers against Dallas' dim offense in a 24-13 win. The venue is different this time around, as is the nature of the participants. The Seahawks and Cowboys teams that will meet on Saturday evening in Jerryworld barely resemble the units that met on that early-autumn afternoon, and for the better.

After seeing four starters from the Legion of Boom exit this offseason, Seattle was expected to be in a rebuilding year. That looked to be the case even into November, as the 'Hawks lost Earl Thomas to injury and started 4-5. But they won six of their final seven contests, thanks to their league-leading running game, and walked into a sixth playoff berth in seven seasons.

Dallas was a miserable offensive unit up until the bye, when the Cowboys traded a first-round pick for Amari Cooper. The receiver's addition expanded the offense, and strong play from Dallas' young linebackers, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, anchored a rising defense that shut down second-half opponents. Once an afterthought in the East, the Cowboys won seven of their last eight and seized a second division title in three seasons.

Under pressure


Seattle's offensive line: Russell Wilson no longer carries the team on his back/arm/legs like he used to. But he's still the most valuable player on the field anytime he's on it, and protecting him remains the highest priority.

That's the case this Saturday, when Dallas' blitz-happy pass rush, led by DeMarcus Lawrence, could have a game-changing impact. When the Cowboys blitzed this season, they sacked the QB 14.4 percent of the time (second-best in NFL) and allowed just two passing TDs (second-fewest in NFL), per Pro Football Focus. That pressure figures to affect on Wilson on Saturday. The 'Hawks signal-caller averaged a league-worst 3.9 yards per attempt and saw a league-worst 77.8-point decrease in passer rating when pressured in 2018. So Seattle's offensive line will literally be under pressure to protect Wilson against Dallas.

Led by Duane Brown on the blind side, the long-maligned line had its best year in quite some time, but still ranked just 17th in pass-blocking efficiency by PFF. The banged-up front is coming off one of its worst games, after allowing Arizona to sack Wilson six times. Hopefully for Seattle, Brown, D.J. Fluker and J.R Sweezy will be healthy and back in form come Saturday.

Dak Prescott: Dallas' signal-caller is not the engine behind what makes this offense move. That honor belongs to Elliott, who led the league in offensive touches. However, as quarterback of "America's Team" starting a playoff game in his building, the responsibility is Prescott's to shepherd the Cowboys into the next round.

Dak's been here before. In his rookie season, he was under center for Dallas' Divisional Round loss to the Packers. Prescott finished strong after a slow start, leading three scoring drives in the game's final 18 minutes to bring the 'Boys within an Aaron Rodgers sideline strike of sending it to overtime. The end of games is when Dak is at his best. No quarterback has led more game-winning drives in his first three seasons than Prescott (14).

But for Dallas to take command of this game, which is begging to be close, Prescott must get off to a hot start, feed Amari Cooper and wear down Seattle's inexperienced defense. There's more than a Divisional Round berth on the line here, too. Prescott is entering the final year of his rookie deal. If the favored 'Boys flop yet again in Dak's second playoff game, his value when extension negotiations begin could decrease.

Matchup to watch


Seahawks running backs vs. Cowboys linebackers: Boasting the league's top running game, the 'Hawks have rushed for at least 150 yards in all but one of their last 10 games. Dallas has allowed over 100 yards rushing just six times, but lost all but one of those games. Key to shutting down the Seahawks' ground attack will be getting to their trio of backs at the line of scrimmage, something no team is better at than Dallas. The 'Boys allowed the fewest rushing yards before contact per rush (0.9), per PFF. That's where LVE, Smith and even Sean Lee (who was healthy scratch last week, however) come into play. If that unit can penetrate Seattle's line on early running downs, Dallas can force long down-and-distances, rely on its improved secondary and eventually control time of possession.

Prediction


A back-and-forth nail-biter built for the prime-time stage, this game will come down to the final two drives. The difference will be the experience of Super Bowl champions Wilson and Bobby Wagner. Since 2008, Super Bowl-winning QBs are 11-1 on Wild Card Weekend vs. QBs without a playoff win. Wilson will lead two fourth-quarter scoring drives, and Frank Clark will log a game-winning strip sack of Dak at the bell to send Seattle back to the Divisional Round.

Seattle Seahawks 20, Dallas Cowboys 16