When it gets to Week 14 every game is a "must win" game in the NFL. That definitely goes for this week when the Seahawks travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles in a late afternoon game on Sunday. Just a few weeks ago, some that thought the reigning Super Bowl champions wouldn't even make the playoffs. Now, with division leader Arizona faltering in the wake of Carson Palmer's season-ending knee injury, the Seahawks are just one game out of first place.
The mighty Eagles on the other hand, fresh off a win over their hated division rivals from Dallas, are leading the NFC East by one game. One of these team's playoff future may well rest on the outcome of this game. Here are my three questions that should have the most effect on who wins on Sunday.
1. Will Bruce Irvin have a big day?
The Eagles use a lot of 11 personnel, one tight end and one running back. Rather than going to nickel to match up with the three wide receivers, I would expect the Seahawks to keep Irvin in the base as a Sam linebacker with an eagle front so he is on the line and setting the edge. That way he can help contain the run, take the quarterback on read option and be a pass rushing presence if the Seahawks elect to blitz.
The Eagles love to try to get to the perimeter. Whether it's Shady McCoy bouncing a zone run outside or the bootlegs they run with Mark Sanchez to get him away from the rush, the Eagles are constantly testing the edges of the opposing defense. If Irvin can funnel everything back inside on strong side running plays and put pressure on Sanchez on the bootleg passes, the defense will have a real shot at slowing the Eagles down on offense.
Irvin can also be useful as a blitzer. The Eagles are fifth in the league with 18 sacks allowed on the season. Irvin already has 4.5 sacks and could force one-on-ones across the board with a five-man rush. Until recently the Seahawks' four-man rush had underachieved, so it would make sense for the Seahawks to bring more than four a lot on Sunday. I don't think the Eagles match up well on the right side against Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who have 9.5 sacks between them. That can be exploited further with Irvin either coming off the opposite side or blitzing to Bennett's side.
The biggest problem for the Seahawks on Sunday will be trying to find something to take away from the Eagles, because Philadelphia is so good at both running and passing the ball, ranking sixth and fifth in those categories, respectively. You concentrate too hard on taking away the run or the pass and they will eat you alive with the other. Keeping Irvin in the game allows the Seahawks to continue to be stout against the run while also having a weapon to generate pressure against the pass.
If Irvin can have a big day keeping McCoy contained and getting some pressures on Sanchez, the Seahawks stand a good chance of winning this game. Otherwise I do think their pass defense will get exploited a bit on the back end.
2. Can the Seahawks take advantage of the Eagles' poor pass defense?
Trading away Percy Harvin likely solved a chemistry problem for the Seahawks, but it also left them hurting for talent at the receiver position. Over the last two weeks, Seahawks starting receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse have caught a combined eight passes for 67 yards. Again, that's two receivers' numbers combined for two games. Suffice it to say that the Seahawks have not been lighting it up with their passing game of late.
On the other hand, the Eagles defense is easy money against the pass, ranking 26th in the league giving up about 259 yards a game in the air each week. And it ain't the front four because those boys are balling. Connor Barwin is second in the league in sacks with 12.5; as a team, they are second in the league with 42 sacks. That back end though? Yuck.
So here is the perfect opportunity for the Seahawks to get their passing game back on track, but the question is will they git 'er done? I would expect that the Seahawks will have plenty of success running the ball with Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson leading the way, but they're also going to have to get some points throwing the ball if they expect to be able to keep up with the Eagles on the scoreboard. At some point, they are going to have to score quick, and to win Kearse and/or Baldwin are going to have to hit the Eagles for a big play downfield. If Wilson can't get the passing game going this week, then Seahawks fans shouldn't brood too much because they weren't going to last long in the playoffs anyway.
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3. Will Mark Sanchez avoid turning the ball over?
Y'all know I don't consider "wins" to be a legitimate quarterback statistic, but Mark Sanchez has quarterbacked the majority of five games this season for the Eagles and they've won four of them. For a lot of people that evidently means Sanchez is "fixed" now, cured of all the ailments he acquired his first five seasons in the league as the starting quarterback of the New York Jets. I'm calling bullshit on that.
Is Sanchez making some plays for his team and helping them win? Absolutely. His accuracy has certainly improved some as has his pocket presence. However, Sanchez has thrown at least two interceptions in three of the last five games. That includes the Week 11 loss to the Packers in which he also lost two of the three fumbles he committed. It's not a stretch to say that Sanchez still has ball security issues.
The Seahawks defense has been disappointing most of this season when it comes to taking the ball away from their opponents. They are only 21st in the NFL in interceptions with nine after notching 28 last year for the season. One thing is for sure, Sanchez is going to give them opportunities to take the ball away. He didn't throw an interception last week against the Cowboys, but it wasn't for lack of trying. Just off the top of my head I'm remembering an interception that Cowboys corner Orlando Scandrick dropped in the red zone.
I don't expect a zebra to change its stripes and I don't expect that Sanchez will avoid making those same kinds of passes on Sunday. The question will come down to whether or not the Seahawks defenders will make good on those opportunities. If they can pick off Sanchez twice, the Seahawks have an excellent chance to win the game. If they don't come up with at least two turnovers, I don't see how they go back to Seattle victorious.