The Dallas Cowboys will host the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday in the NFC Wild Card round. It is the Cowboys third playoff appearance over the last five years. Dallas saw their season effectively come to an end last year in Week 16 after losing to Seattle 21-12. Both teams were trying to grab one of the final playoff spots, but both fell short, finishing 9-7 on the outside of the playoff picture. This season both teams finished 10-6, which surprises a lot of people as they both got off to a poor start. The Seahawks have won six of their last seven, while the Cowboys have won seven of their last eight. It should be an exciting contest. Here are five things to watch in this big game on Saturday.
1. The running battle
The Cowboys have been a top 10 rushing team in each of the last five seasons. In fact, in three of those seasons (2014, 2016, and 2017), they have finished as the second-best rushing team in the league. It helps when they have the league’s leading rusher every other year. The running game is a big deal for Dallas.
It’s also a big deal for the Seahawks as well. They are this year’s top rushing team, churning out 160 yards per game. Seattle valued the running game so much that they invested their first-round draft pick in San Diego State’s RB Rashaad Penny with the 27th overall pick. It was the highest draft pick they’ve used on a running back since they selected Shaun Alexander 19th overall in 2000.
Despite the high draft investment, Penny has taken a back seat to last year’s seventh-round pick, Chris Carson. Even though Carson missed two games with an ankle injury, he still managed to finish top five in rushing this season.
Carson is a grind-it-out runner, just like Ezekiel Elliott. In fact, both running backs are averaging 4.7 yards per carry this season. But while Zeke will shoulder the workload alone, the Seahawks can keep Carson fresh by spelling him with Mike Davis and Rashaad Penny. Look for those guys to get five to 10 touches between them.
Being able to establish a strong running game will be key for both teams. It will help keep their quarterbacks in manageable down and distances and help sustain drives. Both teams have good linebackers with Bobby Wagner leading the charge for Seattle and the trio of Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch will handle things for the Dallas. Tracking down ball carriers will be very important for each defense. This game could be decided by which team has more success in the running game.
2. On the move
There have been four quarterbacks who have been sacked more than 50 times this season. Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson are two of them. Both offensive lines have struggled at times, but sometimes these sacks are self-inflicted when the quarterback dances around too long. Dak is notorious for hanging on to the ball longer than he should and Wilson has a knack for extending plays with his feet so this game will feature a lot of quarterback scrambling. And both quarterbacks can be dangerous out of the pocket.
Prescott was outstanding against the Giants on Sunday throwing the ball on the run. He hit Dalton Schultz for a 17-yard first-down completion on a bootleg, Cole Beasley for a 16-yard first-down completion, Blake Jarwin for a 39-yard touchdown, and Allen Hurns on a 49-yard deep throw. All of these plays came with Prescott rolling to his right. But then Dak completed his best pass of the game when he spun away from a potential sack on fourth-and-15 and rolled to his left to hit Beasley for a 32-yard touchdown.
But when it comes to throwing on the run, there might not be anyone better than Wilson. Time and time again he has carried his offense.
Russell Wilson has delivered under pressure in 2018. pic.twitter.com/7SyrPoOwjP— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 28, 2018
In a contest that could be decided by a few points, the game could come down to which quarterback makes the biggest plays when they have defenders draped all over them.
3. A fast game
With both teams running the ball a lot, it’s very possible that this game could go by in the blink of an eye. That means possessions become precious and the Cowboys need to make them count. The offense needs to be efficient, converting on third down and keeping those chains moving. But most importantly, those drives need to turn into points.
The Cowboys offense has struggled throughout the season finishing drives. They are the fourth-worst team when it comes to scoring touchdowns in the red zone as they’ve only converted 48% of the time. They don’t want to settle for field goals, especially since field goals aren’t a sure thing like they used to be. Rookie kicker Brett Maher has a big leg (6/7 from 50+), but he’s only hit 13/19 from the 30 to 49 yard range. The easiest way to avoid that is to just score touchdowns.
The Seahawks, on the other hand, don’t have the same problem when they get the ball deep as they score touchdowns on 65% of their red zone opportunities, ranking them eight in the league in that department.
When these teams met last year, the Cowboys offense had eight drives into Seahawks territory. Seattle only strung together two drives into Dallas territory. Yet it was the Seahawks who scored three touchdowns, whereas the Cowboys had none.
The Cowboys must be efficient on offense, even if it means using all four downs to do it.
4. Who catches the lucky breaks?
The Cowboys haven’t been fast starters in recent playoff games. In their last four playoff games dating back to 2009, the first touchdown scored in the game has been from their opponent. In their first playoff game in 2014, they fell behind 14-0 to the Detroit Lions. In 2016, they fell behind 21-3 to the Green Bay Packers.
While the Cowboys have been able to get back into the game at times, they cannot dig themselves a hole if they expect to beat Seattle. And that means they can’t fall victim to bad luck as they have been on the wrong end of some bad bounces at times. That certainly was the case when these two met in Dallas last year when they were fighting for a playoff spot. Dez Bryant had a fumble near midfield that spoiled a drive, and even though he was near the sideline the ball hardly bounced and stayed in the field of play. Then, on the ensuing touchdown drive by the Seahawks, Wilson fumbled the exchange on a read-option near the goal line, but he was able to pounce on it.
Speaking of nice breaks, over the last two meetings between these two teams, Dak Prescott has thrown four interceptions. Three of them have come off of deflections. To win games in the playoffs, it helps if the ball bounces your way.
5. One big play is all it takes
This game will feel like a chess match. They may play the field position game early on if the defenses are winning the battles. But even though the offense might spin their wheels at times, all it takes is for one receiver to get loose. With Amari Cooper and Tavon Austin on the team, the Cowboys have added big playmakers to the receiving game. Austin has a 64-yard touchdown to his credit and Cooper has a handful of big receiving plays, including a 90-yarder against the Redskins.
But it’s the Seahawks deep threats that are worrisome. Doug Baldwin has been their reliable hands guy who keeps the chains moving, but they have couple other guys the Cowboys defense can’t lose sight of - Tyler Lockett and David Moore. Both have 50+ touchdown plays and are averaging 17 yards a reception. Lockett has been particularly dangerous and he and Russell have developed a great connection.
Wilson’s ability to escape and his tendency to let it fly down field could be a problem if this Seattle speedster gets behind the defenders.