Yes, it's going to be cold on Sunday when the Seahawks play the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card round of the playoffs. But while weather has been the No. 1 topic of discussion this week when it comes to this game, and will be a factor in certain elements of the game, ultimately this game will be decided by the players on the field, not the temperature reading on the thermometer. And with that in mind, we take a look at three key matchups that could determine whether the Seahawks or Vikings advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.
1. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson vs. the NFL's No. 1 run defense.
With the Seahawks jumping ahead early, Adrian Peterson finished with just eight carries for 18 yards in the previous meeting between these two teams. Nobody in Seattle's locker room expects Peterson, the league's leading rusher this season with 1,485 yards, to have such a limited work load this time around.
"He'll definitely get more than that," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "It's going to be a completely different ballgame. I don't expect it to go the way it did, like a blowout. I'm expecting we'll see a heavy dose of Adrian and get the real AP."
Yet even if the Vikings are committed to getting Peterson more involved this time around, that doesn't guarantee they'll have success on offense. The Seahawks led the NFL in rushing defense this season, allowing 81.5 yards per game, and have not allowed an individual 100-yard rusher since Week 11 of the 2014 season.
The Seahawks didn't see much of Peterson last month because of how the game unfolded, but this time around they're expecting a steady dose of one of the league's best backs, setting up a great strength-vs.-strength matchup.
"I don't think we kept him in check; they weren't able to run the ball a lot," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "There's not any misconception of what happened in that game to us at all. We think he's an incredible football player. They know how to give it to him and they're going to do that. That was a game that just happens once in a while. That was not an indication of anything that's going to come."
2. Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin vs. an improved Vikings defense.
The Seahawks will want to run the ball, especially if the cold is affecting the ability to throw and catch, but in a battle between two teams with strong running games, and good play on defense and special teams, Seattle's advantage in the passing game could be what separates these teams. When Seattle faced Minnesota in December, Russell Wilson completed 21 of 27 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns, with two of them going to Doug Baldwin, who had 94 yards on five catches.
"He's making great throws, intermediate, short, deep, everywhere," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said of Wilson. "And then his ability to not only run the ball, but to run the ball and then throw it. He's got a unique skill set that he can really do everything. He can stay in the pocket and throw, he can scramble and throw, he can run. So he's making it hard for defenses, and then guys on the outside are stretching the field. Doug Baldwin's obviously having an incredible season, (Tyler) Lockett is a great deep threat, so they're doing a lot of things."
The Seahawks realize they could be in for a tougher challenge this time around thanks to a healthier Vikings defense. Smith and linebacker Anthony Barr both left the previous meeting with injuries early in the game, and defensive tackle Linval Joseph did not play in that game. All three are expected to play this time around.
"When you're missing three starters, then it has an effect on any team," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "Those are some really solid players for them, they really missed Smith in the back end, he's a really nice ball hawk. He searches for the ball, has great ball skills. Plays from sideline to sideline so he makes a lot of nice plays for them. Barr is really their leader there in the linebacking corps, so you miss guys like those guys it has an impact on their defense."
3. The battle on special teams.
While both teams will do their best to make the weather a non-issue on Sunday, the fact remains that extreme cold will affect the way the ball carries, which will impact the kicking game perhaps more than any other phase of the game. Punts won't travel as far, nor will kickoffs, and field goals be a bigger challenge.
Both the Vikings and Seahawks have been strong on special teams this season, particularly in the return game—Cordarelle Patterson's 101-yard kickoff return touchdown was one of the few highlights for Minnesota in the last meeting, and Seattle's Tyler Lockett just earned first-team All-Pro honors as a returner—and a ball traveling less far should equal more chances at returns. That means that whatever team is able to make a big play or two on special teams could have a big advantage in what might end up being a low-scoring game.
"It's going to affect the game, especially the kicking game," cornerback DeShawn Shead said. "In the playoffs it's all about field position, and when it's that cold the ball doesn't travel as far. So we're going to have to adjust some of our techniques, some of our drops on special teams, our leverages on punts."