Rarely does a midseason matchup between two teams with losing records feature so much talent on the field, but when the 3-4 Seahawks and 2-4 Cowboys face off Sunday afternoon, a pair of playoff teams from a season ago will have plenty at stake. For Seattle, a win means a return to .500 heading into the bye, followed by three straight at home, giving the Seahawks a chance to give their season a much different feel at the end of November than it had three weeks into October. Dallas, meanwhile, is still very much alive in a struggling NFC East, and knows that the eventual return of injured quarterback Tony Romo could spark a second-half run, one they'd love to jumpstart this weekend at Seattle's expense.
Here are three things that could determine the outcome of Sunday's game at AT&T Stadium:
1. Both teams' rushing attacks vs. defenses that have done a good job stopping the run.
When Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch gets going, it doesn't just mean more yards for the offense, it's something the entire team can feed off of, which was the case again last week when Lynch carried nine times on Seattle's opening drive, including a 1-yard touchdown, setting the tone for a dominant victory.
"Marshawn, he's the best at it," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "He's so physical, he loves the game, we love playing with him. He's a spectacular football player. The things he can do from run blocking, to catching the ball, to the plays that he makes. Just watching him run the football—I get to hand it off to him and watch him make people miss—is one of the coolest things to watch in sports, honestly. I'm glad he's on my team, that's for sure, glad he's a Seattle Seahawk and he's playing with us. That's a lot of fun, to watch him play football."
While last week's game was Lynch's first 100-yard performance of the season, the Seahawks are still second in the league with 143.3 rushing yards per game. Not far behind is Dallas, which is seventh at 127.7 per game even after losing DeMarco Murray in free agency. Replacing Murray has been a challenge for Dallas this season, but last week Darren McFadden rushed for 152 yards on 29 carries, and with one of the best offensive lines in the league leading the way, the Cowboys will have a chance at running the ball regardless of who is carrying it.
>>> READ: Seahawks at Cowboys Picks & Predictions
But what really makes the running game so important for both teams isn't just the yards they hope to gain, but rather what establishing the run can do for their offenses. For Seattle, a strong rushing attack means more manageable third downs and less opportunity for Greg Hardy and the rest of Dallas' pass-rushers to pin back their ears and get after Wilson, who has already been sacked 31 times this season. Hardy vs. the Seahawks' tackles could be one of the biggest matchups in the game, but the best way for Seattle to come out on top isn't for it to win a bunch of one-on-one battles with Hardy while Wilson drops back to pass, but rather to limit the chances Hardy has to rush Wilson in obvious passing situations.
For Dallas, meanwhile, rushing the ball well will mean asking less of quarterback Matt Cassel, who joined the team in-season and is making just his second start. Cassel has accomplished a lot in his career, but he is still catching up in a new offense, and he threw three interceptions in his Cowboys debut last week. Asking him to carry a one-dimensional offense will likely lead to problems for a team that is already last in the NFL with a minus-9 turnover margin.
2. Seahawks CB Richard Sherman vs. Cowboys WR Dez Bryant*
*We don't know for sure yet if Bryant, who's listed as questionable after missing the past five games with a foot injury, will play Sunday, nor do we know if the Seahawks will have Sherman move around to cover Bryant if he does play, but if those things happen…
When Byron Maxwell injured his calf early in the Dallas game last season, Sherman spent the rest of the game following Bryant around the field. At the time, that was more of an exception for the Seahawks defense than the rule, but more and more this season, the Seahawks are having Sherman do more than just stick to his usual spot at left cornerback.
Sherman played both left corner and the nickel spot against St. Louis, he followed A.J. Green around in Cincinnati, and last week he shadowed San Francisco's Torrey Smith. The Seahawks aren't going to give away their plans for this week's game, but here is what defensive coordinator Kris Richard said of having Sherman cover an opponent's top target: "Strength on strength ultimately is kind of what it comes down to. Guys that they want to feature, it's just good coaching in our minds in regards to taking our best guy and putting it on their best guy. At the end of the day we'll see who comes out victorious."
Sherman always says his assignment in any given game is up to his coaches, but even if he won't lobby for Dez duty, safety Earl Thomas said he will with "both hands up."
"The big thing about that is it's a clear conscious for me when he's moving around and he's following a number one guy," Thomas said. "That's all I can say about that. I don't have to worry about the number one guy."
3. Cowboys TE Jason Witten vs. Seattle's pass coverage.
The Seahawks have allowed a few big games and big plays to opposing tight ends this season, which could be a cause for concern this week considering Dallas's No. 1 target with Bryant out has been veteran tight end Jason Witten, who leads the Cowboys with 344 yards on 36 catches. A big season for the 33-year-old tight end is hardly a surprise—he has had at least 60 catches and 700 yards in 11 straight seasons and is a 10-time Pro Bowler.
"He's got tremendous consistency," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "To be a great player you've got to last the tests of time, and he has. He's been productive and unique, and explosive, clutch, for a long time. He runs really good routes, he's got great sense, he's got an incredible catching range and hands. They know it and they use him accordingly. He's a featured player in the offense too so you get to see him. So really he's just an all-around terrific football player. And he's been that way for a long time, I think that's what makes him special."
But while players like Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert and Carolina's Greg Olsen have given Seattle problems from that positions, Carroll doesn't see that as a huge flaw for his team, but rather a product of how his defense takes away opposing receivers.
"I think it's because we do play aggressive outside, and the ball does get pushed inside a lot, pushed inside and underneath," Carroll said. "And we've played very good players and all that. We would like to do better against those guys, but I think that's the first thing I think of. We're lining up on those wide guys as much as we can, and getting right up in their face and trying to make it hard on them outside. And the ball gets pushed inside a little bit more because of that."