The opening weekend of the 2013 NFL Playoffs will end with what is probably, on paper, the best game. The Seattle Seahawks, playing perhaps the best football in the league, travel across the country to face the Washington Redskins, winners of their last seven games. Much of the focus heading into the game will be on the head-to-head matchup between the two rookie quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Both have made their argument for the NFL's Rookie of the Year award, but a win on Sunday afternoon in Maryland is obviously the bigger prize.
With Seattle's final-month dominance, the Seahawks enter the game as road favorites against the NFC East champs. But all five of their losses this season came on the road, and RGIII will have had another week to rest and heal his knee injury. The 2011 Heisman winner was clearly limited in the Redskins' final two games of the season, wearing a bulky knee brace that inhibited his explosiveness running out of the backfield. Wilson avoided significant injury in his first year and improved each week to have the Seahawks rolling as the postseason begins.
Meet the Redskins
The Redskins enter the postseason on a seven-game win streak, rebounding from a 3-6 record at their bye to climb to the top of the NFC East. Griffin completely flipped the fortunes of a franchise that had not made a postseason appearance since 2006, and he had one of the more boring offenses in the NFL. RGIII was an instant success, lighting up the Saints in Week 1 and then leading as a newly named captain down the stretch.
Mike and Kyle Shanahan dramatically altered their offense to adapt to RGIII's skill set, utilizing the pistol and the zone-read option. Chris Brown highlighted the offensive changes in Washington, and the Redskins ran it to perfection against Dallas to clinch the division on Sunday night. Griffin is averaging nearly seven yards per carry operating the zone-read, and even with the knee brace, he effectively found running room around the edge against the Cowboys. While he's not at 100 percent, Shanahan and RG3 have picked the right spots to force the defense to make a choice, and he's athletic enough to pick up yardage even when he's not at full speed.
Of course, RGIII isn't the only rookie picking up yardage in huge chunks out of the backfield. In his first season, Alfred Morris has been an extremely productive running back, and the sixth-round pick stole all the headlines in primetime in the season finale. Morris had a monster 200-yard evening against the Cowboys while setting the Redskins single-season rushing record. He finished the year with 1,613 yards -- only Adrian Peterson had more -- and 13 touchdowns, including seven in Washington's final four games. The rookie bursts through holes and quickly gets to the second level of the defense, fitting perfectly in the Redskins new offense. The rookie duo paced Washington to the best rush attack in the NFL with an average of 169.3 yards per game.
The Redskins defense was mostly responsible for the sluggish 3-6 start, but even Jim Haslett's group improved over the second half of the season during Washington's postseason push. Washington repeatedly blitzed on Sunday night and held Dallas to just 18 points and limited the passing attack that put the Cowboys on the doorstep of the playoffs. But, the Redskins' secondary remains vulnerable, giving up 281.9 yards per game -- 30th in the league. Wilson will have his chances to take shots down the field and must get the protection up front to withhold the blitz pressure that Haslett will likely send.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Redskins are among the best in the league against the rush. The ageless London Fletcher has been nursing an ankle injury in the second half of the season, but he leads a defense that is holding teams to just 95.8 yards per game. Like Washington, the Seahawks have one of the best rush games in the NFL, led by some option looks with Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. Fletcher and the defense will have to slow down Seattle on the ground or else Wilson could expose an already shaky secondary with playaction.
Meet the Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks enter the postseason as the team that no one wants to play after rolling through the league with five impressive wins in the month of December. They have one of the best defenses in the NFL, and Wilson's improvement throughout the season resulted in a true dual-threat and well-balanced offense as the regular season came to a close.
Seattle's defense ranks in the top 10 against both the pass and run. The Seahawks apply constant pressure up the middle and off the edge, rattling opposing quarterbacks who serve it up to a solid secondary. Chris Clemons and rookie Bruce Irvin may make up the league's bust pair of edge rushers, using their speed to get to the quarterback. Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane clog up the interior and typically get push into the backfield. It will be a struggle for Washington to block a Seattle front seven that will be a significant upgrade from the unit the Redskins rolled through last Sunday night.
With RGIII's limited mobility, Washington will have to threaten Seattle through the air. But the Seahawks have one of the best defensive backfields in the NFL, led by Richard Sherman, who will be available after winning his appeal of an NFL suspension. Sherman leads the team with eight interceptions and will likely be matched up against Pierre Garcon, Washington's biggest threat outside the numbers. Garcon has provided a huge boost to the Redskins passing game, shaking off a foot injury and creating several big plays down the stretch. But Sherman, the secondary and the pass rush up front will present a unique challenge for RGIII.
As the No. 2 overall pick, Griffin received much of the national attention early in the season, but Wilson's play matched him down the stretch. The Seahawks called things conservatively early in the season, but Wilson hit the big plays when called upon. Over the second half, he's developed into a solid passer in the pocket and on the run, keeping defenses on their heels and developing a connection with Sidney Rice and Golden Tate. He rarely makes mistakes, finishing the season with 26 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions.
Like Griffin, Wilson is also a threat on the ground, whether it's designed or extending plays through scrambling. He averaged more than five yards per carry this season and added four rushing touchdowns. But it's Lynch who is the workhorse out of the backfield, averaging five yards per carry on the second-most attempts in the league. Like Wilson, Lynch rarely coughs it up, losing just two fumbles all year. A positive turnover margin is often the easiest way to victory on the road, and both Lynch and Wilson rarely give it away.
Local Takes: Redskins
Hogs Haven breaks down the film on Haslett's plan to repeatedly blitz the Cowboys and wonders what may be in store for Seattle:
We needed Jim Haslett and his defense to come together and help take us into the playoffs.
And the game plan that defensive coordinator Haslett put together was certainly gutsy, but it was executed perfectly and left Tony Romo and the Cowboys stunned. The Redskins sent blitz after blitz in effort to get to Romo before he could make a play. Sometimes they would disguise a blitz with similar looks, and at other times they weren't trying to hide it at all.
Local Takes: Seahawks
Kenneth Arthur of Field Gulls reviews the Seahawks end to the season and looks forward to Washington:
I sure hope that the NFL is going to overlook the Seahawks again and be picking the Redskins, their Rookie of the YearRobert Griffin III, and their seven-straight wins to run over Seattle. Please do count the Seahawks out. That's exactly what this team loves. We, you and I, are Seattle fans. We wereborn with a chip on our shoulder. We aren't handed anything. Neither was Richard Sherman, or Wilson, or Doug Baldwin, or Brandon Browner. A close win? A 90-yard drive needed to score the go-ahead touchdown? Griffin winning the NFC East on national television? Phew!
For a minute there I was worried we would blow them out.
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@Rich_Campbell - Redskins beat reporter
Mike Shanahan implies Kyle Shanahan would not interview for a head coaching job until the Redskins' season ends: wtim.es/Wbt7uX— Rich Campbell (@Rich_Campbell) December 31, 2012
@Eric_D_Williams - Seahawks beat reporter
An excerpt from the Wild Card picks:
I don't feel very confident about it because RGIII amazes me almost every week, but take the Seahawks in the Wild Card round.
The pick: 23-16, Seahawks
The Seahawks opened as one-point favorites on the road, and according to OddsShark, that's already moved up to 2½ to 3 points in most places.
The winner of this game will face either the 49ers or Falcons. If the Vikings upset the Packers, the Seahawks-Redskins winner will face the 49ers. But if Green Bay takes care of business at home, the Seahawks-Redskins winner will go to Atlanta next week.