The Seahawks open what they hope will be a strong final month of the season with one of their toughest tests of the year, a Sunday night showdown with the 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles have been one of the best and most balanced teams in the NFL this season, and they come to Seattle with not only the league's best record, but the best scoring differential, the No. 1 scoring offense, the No. 3 scoring defense and a plus-9 turnover margin.
"Philadelphia is doing everything well," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "They're very well-balanced and their numbers are in the right places with turnovers, running the football, explosive plays, quarterback efficiency, and all of that stuff. Everything is really lining up great and they're having a fantastic year. We're going to have to have a great week in preparation to give us a chance."
If the Seahawks are going to knock off the NFC East leaders, these are three matchups that could make a difference in Sunday night's game:
1. The battle of MVP-caliber quarterbacks.
It would be fair to say any NFL game could come down to quarterback play; after all, no position has more influence on the game. But in this particular matchup, both quarterbacks figure to be especially important to their teams. Second-year quarterback Carson Wentz is having a great season, throwing a league-leading 28 touchdowns and just five interceptions while posting a 104.0 passer rating. Wentz has plenty of help around him, including one of the league's best rushing attacks (more on this in a moment), but given Seattle's success stopping the run, at some point Wentz is going to have to make critical plays against a good defense and in a hostile environment.
Wilson, meanwhile, is being asked to do more than ever because of Seattle's struggles in the run game—he currently has passed or rushed for 85.9 percent of Seattle’s yards and all but one of its offensive touchdowns—making his play crucial to Seattle's hopes.
"Everything runs through Russell right now," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said on a conference call. "This kid, he's unbelievable. I loved him when he came out of Wisconsin. I was actually a part of the Eagles staff when I had a chance to work him out and thought he was going to be a special player in this league, and he has obviously turned out to be one. The team feeds off of that and they still do. We got our work cut out for us there."
The Seahawks defense knows it has its work cut out for itself as well, with Wentz looking much improved compared to the rookie who threw two interceptions in a loss at CenturyLink Field last season.
"He just seems more in command of everything," Carroll said. "He was good last year; I said some stuff about him last time around after we had seen him and in preparation for him, I thought he was really going to be a great player. He's just doing everything. He's protecting the football well, he's making big plays, they're very explosive, he has a rushing average, he's running the football, and they have a running game with him as well. He's really tough in the pocket, scrambles effectively, and has been really creative and resourceful with big plays. They have a ton of explosive plays and he's right in the middle of most of that."
2. An explosive Eagles running game vs. Seattle's run defense.
The Seahawks have been phenomenal against the run ever since a bad two-game stretch early this season, allowing just 3.2 rushing yards per carry and only 11 explosive runs (12-plus yards) over the past eight games. Maintaining those numbers will be a challenge against a diverse Eagles rushing attack that is averaging 147.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks second in the league, and has an NFL-best 37 explosive runs this season.
"They have a lot of different schemes and a lot of different ways they try and attack you, whether it's falling back with the Y and just different gap schemes," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "And they have different bodies too. They got (LeGarrette) Blount, a bigger back, but they also have smaller backs. But I feel like we will be ready for them. They are going to come out and they are going to try to throw those little wrinkles out there but I feel like with a good film study we will be fine."
At the center of this matchup is not only the runners like Blount and Jay Ajayi and linebackers like Wagner and K.J. Wright who will fly around trying to tackle them, but also two talented lines that could help decide the game. The Eagles are without left tackle Jason Peters, but even without him have one of the league's best lines, while the Seahawks counter with a loaded and deep defensive line led by the likes Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson, Frank Clark, Jarran Reed and others.
Seattle hopes that line can also produce a pass rush that makes life hard on Wentz, but everyone knows priority No. 1 has to be the running game.
"Stop the run, stop the run, that's first and foremost," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "We've got to make sure we do a really good job of running with their stretch scheme, not getting cut off from the backside. Got to set great edges and then we have to fill up their gap trap schemes."
Added Wright, "It starts with the running game. It starts with Blount and Ajayi."
3. Philadelphia's pass rush vs. an improving Seahawks line.
The Seahawks played with both recently-acquired left tackle Duane Brown and Luke Joeckel for the first time last week, and with those two veterans on the field, their pass protection took another step in the right direction. The result was the first game in which Russell Wilson was not sacked since late in the 2015 season, and while the line was hardly perfect, that group continues to get better, and with Joeckel now back from injury, there's a chance for that unit to build some continuity and continue to grow.
"It's cool to have Luke come back and show his presence," center Justin Britt said. "Collectively, us five up front, the guys throughout the week who help us, it means more to us just to know we can count on each other and Russ can count on us. Russ is always going to be Russ, and he has saved us from a couple of (sacks), but it's really cool to see that (zero in the sacks column)."
The Seahawks won't give up on trying to run the ball, but their recent struggles in that area combined with Philadelphia's success stopping the run—the Eagles are allowing a league-low 65.1 rushing yards per game—would suggest that the Seahawks will have to rely on their passing game. That means the line will have to hold up against a very good pass rush, which is coming into the game with 31 sacks, including 17 over the past five games.
"They are really good across the board," said offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tom Cable. "Really good front seven. Good safeties. You just think about their whole defense, very active. Not terribly complex, but they play defense in a way we are used to seeing our own defense play. They play hard and really get after it."
Added offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, "Their front-seven is very skilled across the board, they're tenacious, they come hard, and they run fast. It's not really this crazy scheme; they get their guys, they play hard, they really get after the quarterback, and they can crush the pocket. They have great rushers, all four of the guys; their nose, their 3-technique, all of them can rush."