Jamal Adams' availability a key to Seahawks avoiding another early exit

SEATTLE -- After their NFC West-clinching win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 16, the Seattle Seahawks sported commemorative T-shirts with a message written across the front:


The meaning?

"We're all set to have bigger goals," Pro Bowl wide receiver DK Metcalf said. "A division title is great and all, but we have our eyes set on a Super Bowl."

The story of the Seahawks' recent playoff appearances has been more like ONE AND DONE. As in, a victory on wild-card weekend followed by a loss in the divisional round. That’s been the case in three of their four trips to the playoffs since they came within a yard of repeating as champions in Super Bowl XLIX. The exception was their wild-card loss at Dallas two seasons ago.

To be sure, four playoff bids in five seasons and three wins is an accomplishment, especially on the heels of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and all the turmoil that followed the second one. Only the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs made the playoffs all five years of that stretch. The Houston Texans were the only other team to equal Seattle's four postseason bids.

But not making it back to the NFC title game in any of the past five seasons has been a disappointment for a franchise with a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback in Russell Wilson.

With the Seahawks set to host the Rams in the wild-card round Saturday (4:40 p.m. ET, Fox), here are four things that could determine whether they make a deep run in the playoffs or suffer another early exit:

Jamal Adams' availability

Already playing through an injury to his right shoulder since Week 10, the Pro Bowl strong safety hurt his left shoulder in the fourth quarter Sunday. He briefly returned but was on the sideline as Seattle closed out its win over the San Francisco 49ers.

Coach Pete Carroll said after the game the initial word from the team's medical staff is that Adams will play Saturday, though he stopped well short of declaring that. Carroll was again noncommittal Monday on 710 ESPN Seattle while giving the impression that Adams is going to have to play through a legitimate injury if he's able to play at all.

Adams is among the players the Seahawks can least afford to lose given how important he has been to their defensive turnaround, particularly in the pass rush. He leads the team in sacks with 9.5, the most by a defensive back since sacks became an official stat in 1982. That despite missing four games with a groin injury.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Seahawks have sacked opponents on 7.2% of their dropbacks with Adams on the field compared to 3.5% without him. They've allowed a Total QBR of 60.3 and 3.7 yards per carry with Adams on the field compared with a Total QBR of 63 and 4.29 YPC without him.

Starting fast

The common denominator in the Seahawks' four most recent playoff losses has been bad starts by either their offense, defense or both. They trailed 31-0 to Carolina, 19-10 to Atlanta, 10-6 to Dallas and 21-3 to Green Bay at halftime. They were able to finish within a score in three of those games, but slow starts have doomed the Seahawks.

That history comes to mind given how sluggish Seattle's offense has been out of the gates in its past two games en route to halftime scores of 6-6 vs. the Rams and 6-3 vs. the 49ers. The Seahawks could overcome slow starts against C.J. Beathard and an injured Jared Goff, who aren't as good as quarterbacks Seattle will face later in the playoffs.

How their defense fares vs. better QBs

The Seahawks' defense went from allowing 28.8 points per game over the first 10 weeks (third most in the NFL) to 15.0 over the last seven (tied for fewest). The turnaround has mostly come against below-average or backup quarterbacks. The exception was Kyler Murray, whose No. 14 ranking in Total QBR (69.1) is easily the best of the quarterbacks Seattle has faced in that stretch. Goff, whose status for Saturday's game is in question because of his thumb injury, is next at 23rd (58.5).

The Seahawks could face Goff's backup, John Wolford, in the wild-card round. Three quarterbacks they could face after that are all in the top 10 in Total QBR: Aaron Rodgers (first at 84.4), Drew Brees (sixth at 74.5) and Tom Brady (10th at 72.4).

The health of their backfield and O-line

Sunday's regular-season finale was supposed to be a preview of the healthy backfield the Seahawks would be taking into the playoffs, a 180 from the disaster that contributed to their postseason demise last year. They might still have their top three tailbacks on Saturday and beyond, but Carlos Hyde missed Sunday's game with an illness that Carroll described as non-COVID-related. Rashaad Penny appears to be fine after cramping up in his first extended action in over a year.

Chris Carson hasn't had more than 17 carries in any game this season; might the Seahawks unleash him in the playoffs knowing they could turn to one of their quality backups if he goes down?

Carroll also expects to have two offensive line starters back for the wild-card round in right tackle Brandon Shell and left guard Mike Iupati. Shell ranks 12th among tackles in ESPN's pass rush win rate at 92.1%. Left tackle Duane Brown is second at 94%. The Seahawks have started their preferred offensive line -- Brown, Iupati, Ethan Pocic, Damien Lewis and Shell -- only five times this season and have won all five games.