Two of the NFC’s longshot wildcard contenders will do battle in a win-or-go-home game this Sunday, as the 8-6 Seattle Seahawks travel to Texas to take on the 8-6 Dallas Cowboys. The Seahawks are coming off of one of their biggest, and most disappointing defeats of the Pete Carroll-era, a 42-7 shellacking at the hands of the L.A. Rams. The Cowboys, meanwhile, benefitted from a friendly index card and a ridiculous touchback rule to sneak out of the Bay Area with a 20-17 win over the Oakland Raiders to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Both Seattle and Dallas are on the verge of elimination, a far cry from schedule release day in late April when a week 16 Cowboys-Seahawks affair was seen as a potential home field advantage-decider. Despite two teams' seasons having gone astray, playoffs are starting early for Seattle and Dallas; here’s what to watch for:
Ezekiel’s Elliott’s return
The Cowboys’ superstar running back has returned from a six-game suspension, just in time for Dallas’s biggest game of the season. For the first time since week 9, Ezekiel Elliott will be in the backfield with Dak Prescott and looking to make history against Carroll’s Seahawks. After allowing 101 yards on the ground to Leonard Fournette two weeks ago and 152 to Todd Gurley last week, Seattle is on the verge of allowing three-straight 100-yard rushers for the first time in the Carroll-era. To stop that from happening, the Seahawks have to stop one of the game’s best running backs and one of the league’s best running teams.
For as great as Elliott is as a football player, the Cowboys running game didn’t slow down much in his absence. Their yards per game on the ground dropped 27 yards, from 148 to 121, but that would still place them in the top-10 over the course of the season. (As it stands, they’re third in rushing yards per game.) Dallas ranked fourth in offensive DVOA following week 9 (the beginning of Elliott’s suspension), and upon his return they rank 10th -- third in rushing. Elliott is sixth in DYAR among running backs; his replacement, Alfred Morris is 14th; Rod Smith, who was also worked into the running game over the last six weeks, ranks fourth among non-qualifying ‘backs.
But despite the success the Cowboys had running the football during Elliott’s suspension, it’s going to be all Zeke, all game against Seattle. And while Dallas’s running game is an incredible display of zone blocking proficiency up-front, schematically it won’t be overly complicated. They’ll line up in 11 personnel with Elliott in the backfield, and give him the football. They’ll give him the football on first down, where Dallas gains the fifth-most yards per carry. They’ll give him the football with Prescott under center, where Elliott has gained the ninth-most yards all season, despite missing six games. They’ll hand it off to him out of the shotgun, where he averages over four yards per carry. And yes, they’ll get it to him in space, where Prescott excels delivering passes with room to run for receivers — and where Elliott is averaging over 11 yards per reception.
Elliott will not be eased back into the offense returning from a suspension. He’s fresh, in incredible shape, and the Cowboys are on the ropes. Elliott’s workload will make Le’Veon Bell in 2016 and 2017, as well as DeMarco Murray in 2014, look like sparsely used backups. And so like last week against Gurley and the Rams, the Seahawks need their linebacker duo of K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner to play, and to be as close to full health as possible.
Wright practiced fully on Wednesday, a positive step towards returning from a concussion. But in the end, it’s going to come back to where it’s all started for Seattle on defense this year, and that’s with Wagner. His DPOY-level play wavered for the first time all season last Sunday, as the incredible recognition and range we’ve come to expect were missing during a long Gurley touchdown run, as well as a 14-yard touchdown reception. His 36 run stops rank second among all linebackers this year, and against a Dallas offensive line that excels at combo blocks and getting their ‘back with sprinter-speed to the second level, the Seahawks will need Wagner’s best game.
Facing a similar game plan
L.A. tore up Seattle’s depleted defense by running the football heavily and taking advantage of the Seahawks’ slowed linebackers in the passing game. Just two of Jared Goff’s 21 pass attempts were over the middle; five were behind the line of scrimmage; the rest were quick hits out to the sideline and into the flats. It worked, with Goff having an efficient performance and making timely throws when needed. Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense might be planning to utilize a similar strategy on Sunday.
Goff attempted just four passes over 10 yards in week 15 against Seattle, while Dallas throws downfield (20+ yards) the fifth-lowest amount in the entire league, on just 8.6-percent of their passes. Instead, the Cowboys rely on short and intermediate passes, and Prescott’s ability to throw receivers open, in the passing game. Slants and comebacks have become a staple of Dez Bryant’s game as his career has begun to fade; Jason Witten will still be creating separation at the top of his route long after we’re all dead; and although Cole Beasley has regressed significantly in 2017, he is still effective underneath.
To combat this passing attack, the Seahawks will need better coverage from their linebackers, tasked with the hook/curl zones, and the flats when Dallas is in shotgun. With a healthy Wright and a closer-to-full-health Wagner, it should be improved. But they’ll also need another game out of Bradley McDougald like they got against the Philadelphia Eagles — and really, an improved performance from the entire defense. In a do-or-die game for Seattle, they need one last stand from an established defense perhaps making their final stand.
Can the Seahawks take advantage of Tyron Smith’s absence?
Seattle might be catching a massive break heading into Sunday’s game, with All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith dealing with a sprained LCL. It’s unclear whether it will cause him to miss any games - especially with a season on the line - but he didn’t practice Wednesday and will be questionable for Sunday.
For as well as the Cowboys running game fared during Elliott’s absence, the same can’t be said for the entire offense during the two games Smith missed previously this season. His replacement, Byron Bell, has been a massive liability in the passing game, highlighted by a six-sack performance by Adrian Clayborn. In the two games Smith missed earlier this season, Dallas gave up nearly half (12) of their season-total in sacks (27). For a Seahawks defense on pace for their second-fewest sacks since 2010, Smith’s injury could be a chance for them to finally heat up. Frank Clark would be the main benefactor, rushing from the defense’s right side and potentially across from Bell. We’ve already seen Clark dominate a game rushing from the right against a backup left tackle, when he won on snap after snap against Halapoulivaati Vaitai and the Eagles, ending the game with two sacks, four tackles and five hurries.
The Cowboys’ running game suffers without Smith as well, averaging 31 yards per game less in the two games Smith missed. Their yards per game without him in the lineup (110), would still rank Dallas in the top-10 of the league over the entire season, but still a large drop off from the 141 yards per game they’ve averaged with him starting. Smith has a tangible impact on the Cowboys’ offense in both the running game and passing game; without him in the lineup, Seattle could win on the road and extend their season at least one more week.
Will Russell Wilson bounce back and attack a young secondary?
With the exception of Orlando Scandrick, Dallas has gone incredibly young at cornerback in 2017. Anthony Brown is a sophomore and started 10 games a year ago; other than that, Xavier Woods, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis are all rookies who have played a considerable amount for the Cowboys. Lewis, a third-round pick who fell in the draft due to off-field issues, has been as close to a ‘number-one corner’ as any of their young corners, while Awuzie and Woods have gotten on the field more as the season has progressed.
Dallas has gone all-in on their young pieces on the backend, with mixed results. They’ve given up more than 300-yards passing just once all season - a 400-yard game by Philip Rivers - but rank 20th against the pass per DVOA. In a week 5 loss to the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers attacked Lewis repeatedly on a game-winning drive that eventually saw Davante Adams beat Lewis to the corner for the winning touchdown. However in the last two weeks, the trio of Lewis, Awuzie and Woods have a combined 12 pass breakups. Dallas’s backend has lived and died with the ups and downs of playing young players at one of the toughest positions to play as a rookie.
After Wilson’s bi-annual beating that is Seahawks-Rams games, he’ll get a shot at bouncing back against a defense considerably less stacked in the front-seven. DeMarcus Lawrence could absolutely takeover lining up across from Germain Ifedi, but he is the Cowboys’ only blue-chip player on the defensive line. If Seattle can double team, or chip Lawrence to slow him down, Wilson will have time to stick in the pocket and test a young secondary.
Without a win on Sunday, the Seahawks will miss out on the playoffs for the second time in the Carroll/John Schneider-era, and the first time since 2011. Even with a win, it’s an uphill battle to meaningful games in January. But if Seattle can get back to the team they were prior to the early December trip to Jacksonville, and get performances from both the offense and defense, there’s a good chance they can extend their hopes into week 17.