The Seattle Seahawks recorded their most lopsided victory of the season on Dec. 6, when they built a 35-0 lead against an injury-riddled Minnesota Vikings team and held the Vikings without an offensive touchdown in a 38-7 win.
Five weeks later, the Seahawks return for an NFC wild-card game against the Vikings, who'll host the Seahawks in much colder temperatures and are confident this game will have a different outcome.
The Vikings should have safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Anthony Barr on Sunday, and the team is hoping for the return of nose tackle Linval Joseph, whose absence in the first game loomed large while the Seahawks ran for 173 yards. The Vikings have won three of their four games since then, but they'll face a Seattle team that's recorded two more blowout victories since Dec. 6, including a 36-6 thumping of the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Seahawks reporter Sheil Kapadia examine the matchup:
Goessling: Sheil, the last time the Seahawks came through here, the Vikings were unable to slow down Russell Wilson. With temperatures expected to hover around zero, the cold might do that on Sunday. How much are the Seahawks worried about the temperatures, and do you expect more Marshawn Lynch because of them?
Kapadia: Wilson is not one to admit that external factors affect him. The stadium could literally be crumbling to the ground and he would likely be barking to teammates about how the separation's in the preparation. The Seahawks are used to playing in less-than-ideal weather conditions, but that has usually meant rain, not freezing cold. Wilson has only played one NFL game where it's been below 32 degrees. He posted a 98.2 passer rating, but the Seahawks lost to the Chiefs, 24-20, in 2014.
Regardless of the weather, the Seahawks want to run the football. Pete Carroll said this week that he has no concerns about Lynch handling a full workload, and by all accounts, the team is expecting him to start at running back. Lynch hasn't played since Nov. 15 though, so trying to predict how he will perform is difficult. Don't be surprised if Wilson plays a role in the run game. He quietly rushed for 553 yards during the regular season, including 51 in the first meeting against the Vikings.
What about Minnesota's game plan? The Seahawks held Teddy Bridgewater & Co. without an offensive touchdown in the first meeting. What adjustments do you think they'll make from that performance?
Goessling: It won't matter what adjustments they make if they can't protect Bridgewater better than they did the first time. The Seahawks sacked Bridgewater four times and pressured him for much of the game, despite only blitzing him twice, and if he's under siege the same way again, it's going to be a long day. I'd expect the Vikings will have more of a commitment to Adrian Peterson than they did that day; Peterson only got eight carries in that game, and said afterward the Vikings were "outcoached." Since then, a steady diet of Peterson has been the foundation of the Vikings' game plan. I'd expect to see him early and often on Sunday, especially with temperatures as cold as they're expected to be. The Vikings can't abandon the run if it doesn't work for the first drive or two. They're at their best when Peterson gets a chance to wear teams out, and that's when the big plays come.
While we're on the subject of Peterson, how do you expect the Seahawks to defend him on Sunday -- assuming he is, in fact, more involved this time around?
Kapadia: One thing about the Seahawks is they don't change much of what they do defensively based on their opponent. They'll play with Earl Thomas as the single high safety for much of the game and put eight men in the box to slow Peterson down. On the season, they've allowed just 3.60 yards per carry, fourth-best in the league.
My guess is the Seahawks' game plan will be pretty simple: load up to stop Peterson and make Bridgewater beat them. Assuming strong safety Kam Chancellor returns, the Seahawks should have all 11 regular starters healthy and available to them.
Speaking of Peterson, I noticed his numbers haven't been great down the stretch. He's averaged 3.57 yards per carry since Week 13. What has the issue been there?
Goessling: He's had nagging injuries that took him out of parts of two of those games -- he sprained his ankle against Chicago and had back spasms against Green Bay -- but he also has had a harder time finding room to run. He's only averaged more than 2 yards before contact in one of those four games -- probably not coincidentally, the one game he ran for more than 100 yards -- and he could have his hands full on Sunday, too. The Seahawks limited him to 0.13 yards per carry before contact last time, and like you said, they're going to stack the box and make it tough for him to find room. Breaking tackles and making people miss for a few big runs will be important for Peterson on Sunday.
The Seahawks got the benefit of a Vikings defense that was ravaged by injuries the last time around. This time, the Vikings will have Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr, and they might have Linval Joseph. They chased Aaron Rodgers all over the field on Sunday night; after the way the Rams pressured Wilson a couple weeks ago, should the Seahawks be concerned about protecting him against the Vikings' pass rush?
Kapadia: Pressure on Wilson is the one thing that can slow down the Seahawks' offense. When he's had time to sit back in the pocket and survey the field, he's been fantastic. But as you mentioned, in Week 16, the Rams were able to blitz effectively and win their matchups up front. That disrupted the Seahawks' rhythm, and they looked like the team we saw early in the season when they got off to a 2-4 start.
The Seahawks' offense has averaged 32.0 points per game since Week 11. Slowing them down is easier said than done, but you're absolutely right about pressure being the key.
The Vikings were really without four starters -- Smith, Barr, Joseph and Andrew Sendejo -- in the first game. How much different has this defense looked with them back in the lineup, and where will those guys make the biggest impact?
Goessling: If Joseph is indeed back, I'd start there. The Seahawks were able to run the ball up the gut on the Vikings last time with Joseph out, and there's a case to be made that he's the most important piece of their defense. Smith and Barr give Mike Zimmer quite a bit of flexibility for his blitz packages, but the Vikings' defense starts with an ability to stop the run, and if Lynch is back Sunday, that'll be especially important. This game could come down to whoever is more successful stopping the run, and the Vikings will have an easier time doing that if they add Joseph back to the middle of their line.