The Seahawks travel to Dallas looking to keep their playoff hopes alive, and to do so they know they need to bounce back well from a tough Week 15 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. The Cowboys, meanwhile, also have an 8-6 record and a shot at the postseason, meaning plenty is at stake for both teams as they play their penultimate game of the regular season.
If the Seahawks are going to come out on top in this showdown between NFC playoff hopefuls, these are three key matchups that could make the difference on Sunday afternoon:
1. Ezekiel Elliott vs. a run defense looking to get back on track.
Over a nine-game stretch of the season between Weeks 4 and 13, the Seahawks had one of the stingiest run defenses in the league, allowing a league-low 3.3 yards per carry while facing some of the best rushing attacks in the league like the Rams in Week 5, the Falcons in Week 11 and the Eagles in Week 13.
Over the past two games, however, the Seahawks have given up 400 rushing yards with the Jaguars and Rams averaging a combined 4.88 yards per carry. One big factor in those numbers is that the Rams and Jaguars both have strong running games led by two of the top running backs in the league, Todd Gurley and Leonard Fournette, but another big reason for the struggles has been injuries to linebacker Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Wagner left Seattle's loss to Jacksonville with a hamstring injury early in the third quarter, and while he played last week, he was not at full speed and ended up leaving that game early as well. Wright, meanwhile, also left the Jaguars game in the third quarter due to a concussion, an injury that caused him to miss last week's game.
"The first thing we want to do is stop the run, and we haven't been doing that," Wagner said. "I feel that it's a mindset. It's a situation where we've been down this road before, and all it takes is focus and everybody doing their job to get back on the right track. I feel like everybody is there. We've just got to go out there and execute it."
Wright is back this week, and Wagner, while still dealing with the injury is feeling better, leading the Seahawks to believe they'll improve their run defense. And the Seahawks will need to be better, as they're facing yet another talented back, Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott, a first-team All-Pro selection as a rookie last season. Elliott is coming back from a six-game suspension this week, which should mean both a motivated player and one coming into the game with fresh legs.
"Ezekiel Elliott is a once-in-a-lifetime type of running back," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "Obviously, he can do every single thing that you can do as a running back; he can run the ball, he can catch the ball, and he can block. He's a special talent. I think when he is in the game, the Cowboys are one of the hardest teams to face in the NFL. I think him coming back is always a great challenge and especially after having the run-defense that we have had the last two weeks, so I know he is probably wanting to run, but we have to be ready for what he does and what we can do best."
2. The Seahawks offense vs. itself.
The Rams deserve plenty of credit for making life difficult on Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense last week, but Seattle's offense also did plenty to get in its own way. From Tanner McEvoy's fumble on the opening possession to Wilson's fumble later in the game to penalties and other miscues, the Seahawks never got going on offense in large part because of self-inflicted wounds.
Being behind-the-sticks, so to speak, meant the Seahawks never really had a chance to get the running game going, allowing a very dangerous Rams pass rush to tee off on Wilson, sacking him seven times.
"It just ruined the whole day," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said of the offense not staying on schedule. "I mean it didn't give you an opportunity to see what the game plan was, the things that we had planned, how we wanted to play out. We were never able to get the game plan, basically, come to life. It's frustrating in that way when you look at third down, where it is important for us to convert. When we were in normal ones, we did a really nice job, but we had 24, 25, 26, 18 (yards to go), I mean the percentages of being able to make those and come back from those is really tough so that made it really difficult."
The Seahawks don't need to be perfect to move the ball against the Cowboys, but they need to do a better job of staying out of their own way.
"Pretty much the whole game was third and longs," Wilson said. "It's hard to beat a team when it's third and longs like that. We've always said that. I think that we just have to stay on schedule and really focus on staying on schedule and making sure that doing our part to do that, and just play better in that sense. I think that gives us a really good chance."
3. Seattle's Pro-Bowl playmakers vs. Dallas' pass defense.
The Seahawks will continue to strive for balance on offense, and have shown sparks in the running game in small doses of late, but throughout the season their best weapon has been the passing game. But in back-to-back losses, Wilson has not, for various reasons, been able to get things going with his top two playmakers, Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham. Baldwin made the Pro Bowl last season and is an alternate this year, while Graham has been selected the past two seasons, and for good reason, but they have not been as involved in the offense the past two games nearly as much as they or the Seahawks would like. Graham has just one catch in the past two games, and that went for a 1-yard loss, while Baldwin had only one catch for 6 yards last week. He did have three receptions for 78 yards and a touchdown in Jacksonville, but did not have a catch in a first half in which the Seahawks were shutout.
"We've just had two weeks of the ball not getting there, and the plays haven't amounted to much," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Graham's last two games. "We just didn't convert; we haven't been in the red-zone like we like, where he has been such a factor, but there is no reason to think that we're not trying. We want to, and we're counting on him being a big part of it this week. It's going to be important to get him in there."
The Cowboys haven't put up particularly impressive overall numbers on defense—they're 18th in total defense, 17th in scoring defense and 18th against the pass—but that doesn't mean it'll be easy to get the offense and passing game going this week. Most notably, the Cowboys have been considerably better when playing with middle linebacker Sean Lee this season than when he was out for five games, and he's playing this weekend. And secondly, one of the Cowboys' strengths on defense is their ability to prevent big plays, something the Seahawks count on in their passing game. The Cowboys have given up only 60 explosive passes this season (16-plus yards), the sixth fewest in the NFL.