The Seahawks are playoff bound for the fourth straight season, but they still have business to attend to before the postseason begins, and this week the task is a game against the St. Louis Rams, who always seem to be a tough matchup for Seattle, regardless of either team's record.
If the Seahawks are going to extend their five-game winning streak and get closer to locking up the No. 5 seed in the NFC, these three matchups could make the difference.
1. Aaron Donald and the Rams pass rush vs. the Seattle's improved pass protection.
Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin have been on fire for the past five games, as has the entire Seahawks passing game, and the league's hottest quarterback and receiver are going to present a tough matchup for the Rams' defense. However, there is a potentially more important battle that could affect the Seahawks passing game far more than how well Wilson throws the ball or how open his receivers can get.
If the Seahawks can't keep a clean pocket for Wilson, then it won't matter much that Wilson has been the best pocket passer in the league for more than a month. Seattle's offensive line has made huge strides in the second half of this season, but facing an aggressive and talented Rams front, which has sacked Wilson 31 times in seven games dating back to 2012, including six in the season opener, will be a good test for just how much progress has really been made.
"(Rams defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams does a great job on defense, he gets those guys playing really hard," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "They're flying around to the ball, they're big hitters, and they do a really nice job with their pressure package. I think that's going to be a huge challenge for us, particularly in the third-down area. We've got to really handle that well. The last time I remember we didn't do a great job in that area, so it's something that's going to be a big focus for us, and we need to make sure that we continue to make strides in the protection and in third down area. So that will be a good challenge for us this week.
"This will be a great test. They're second in the league in third down. So it's a great defense over there. They present such great problems with the pressure package, obviously with the personnel that they have as well. They have some really stellar players over there."
In particular, the Seahawks need to worry about defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who has 11 sacks in his second season, and who has already established himself as one of the league's most disruptive defensive players.
"He's a special football player, there's no doubt," offensive line coach Tom Cable said. "You turn the film on, and it doesn't really matter who he's playing against, what team or where, he's consistently dominant. A very good football player… It's been a while since you've had that dominant a player in the NFL, and when you do, you've got to have a plan. You go for it, and everybody's got to do things right consistently, because he's going to be really good.
"There's no one in football like him. You have to go back to guys like Warren Sapp and those kind of people who have been that impactful. He definitely has our attention."
2. Rams RB Todd Gurley vs. Seattle's run defense.
The Seahawks run defense, which ranks third in the NFL, allowing 83.3 rushing yards per game, has gone 20 straight games without allowing an individual 100-yard rusher, the longest current streak in the league. Keeping that going, however, won't be an easy task against the Rams and rookie running back Todd Gurley, who missed the season opener against Seattle while recovering from a knee injury.
Since making his debut in Week 3 of the season, Gurley has rushed for 1,023 yards and nine touchdowns, and has five games of 128 yards or more.
"He looks exactly like the guy you want (for a running back)," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's big and fast and tough and savvy, and he can catch and all that. He's got everything."
Yet as good as Gurley has been, the Seahawks believe they are up to the challenge of stopping another good rushing attack. After all, Seattle held the NFL's leading rusher, Adrian Peterson, to just 18 yards on eight carries, and have been allowing just 54 rushing yards per game during their five-game winning streak.
"We feel like we're one of the best running defenses in the game," said linebacker Bobby Wagner. "When we finally go up against a good running back, we kind of lick our chops. We want to make sure that we hit him hard. We always try to focus on making a team one-dimensional, and when they come in wanting to run the ball, this team's going to run the ball whether they get yards or don't get yards. I feel like they are really committed on the run game, and I feel like that's a game that we kind of look forward to. We look forward to taking on the fullbacks, and hitting the running back."
3. The special teams battle.
Every time the Seahawks face the Rams, a game-changing play on special teams seems inevitable. After the Rams burned the Seahawks with a couple of trick plays last season to help win a game, it looked like Seattle might have the upper hand this year when Tyler Lockett took his first career punt return, but St. Louis struck back later in the game with a Tavon Austin 75-yard punt return touchdown.
Facing the Rams doesn't just take good execution on special teams, but also discipline to avoid being falling victim to the trickery of a team and coaching staff willing to take a lot of risks on special teams.
With the way the Rams can affect an offense with their pass rush, and their improved running game with Gurley, their talent and aggressiveness on special teams makes them dangerous in all three phases of the game.
"They've been a monster to deal with defensively," Carroll said. "They've been really hard. We've also had to deal with their kicking game too. Their kicking game is extraordinarily good. Those two phases of it are enough to control a football game, and the way they run the football now, it makes for a really good winning formula too."