The Seahawks return to CenturyLink Field for just their third home game of the season, and do so feeling good about the way they're playing, having won four of their last five. Keeping that momentum going this week won't be easy, however, as the Seahawks host the Los Angeles Chargers, who have won four in a row and should be well-rested following a Week 8 bye.
Here are three key matchups that could determine the outcome of Sunday's game at CenturyLink Field:
1. Philip Rivers vs. Bobby Wagner and Seattle's pass defense.
Usually when you think about a defense trying to stop a dangerous passing offense, you think about the secondary, or maybe the pass rush. But when it comes to facing Philip Rivers and the Chargers, the pre-snap battle of wits between Rivers and Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner might be as important as anything that happens after the ball is in play.
"He's so smart," said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who over the years has spoken as highly of Rivers as just about any quarterback. "You just can't fool the guy. He just sees everything. He's got great sense. That's kind of where it starts, but he also has extremely great accuracy. He throws the ball in all kinds of situations whether he's in trouble or not. He's not a guy that's going to run around a lot, but he moves really adeptly in the pocket and then he finds ways to make great throws. We saw him in preseason. He made a couple of great throws in about a six-play sequence, but he's doing it. He's doing a great job to get the ball out so you can't sack him, because he's so smart and so fast with the football. Just as hard as it gets."
Wagner saw first-hand this preseason just how smart Rivers, whose 117.8 passer rating ranks third in the NFL, can be on the field.
"He's really smart," Wagner said. "Even in the preseason game, he called a timeout one time because he was in an offense that wasn't good for the defensive play that we had, he knew the name. I think he knew the name because of (Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley), so he called timeout. It was kind of a funny thing… It's always fun to go against somebody like that that's really, really smart and really challenges the way that you show things, the way that you kind of hide your coverages. He's confident in his arm and whether you're on it or not on it, he's going to throw it and we're going to be there."
Of course it takes more than just pre-snap recognition to be good in the NFL, and Rivers and his targets have operated at a very high level, with the Chargers completing nearly 70 percent of their passes and Rivers throwing 17 touchdown passes with just three interceptions. And as good as Rivers has been, he also benefits from throwing to some very good receivers, led by Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams.
"They're really good," Carroll said. "They're just really good ball players all around. They happen to be pretty tall. They can do everything. They can run good routes, short, deep, intermediate, all that stuff is no big deal to them. They're really good at the point of attack on the ball when the ball is up. Philip does a great job of using space to get the ball in the right positions for them to make plays. He has great trust and faith in those guys. You can tell by the way he throws it to them. It's a top-notch crew."
2. Seattle's offense vs. L.A.'s defense on third down.
The Seahawks offense went just 2 for 12 on third down in a season-opening loss and 5 for 13 the following week, but as the running game has gotten on track, and as the pass protection has improved, Russell Wilson and company have been very efficient on third down, with the Seahawks converting at a 59.5 percent rate over the past three games. Those numbers could be even better if the Seahawks hadn't been focused on running down the clock with big leads in their past two games—for example, Seattle was 6 for 8 through three quarters last week, but finished the game 6 for 12 after running on pretty much every play in the fourth quarter.
The Seahawks' third-down efficiency, as well as their success in the red zone—they rank third, converting 73.7 percent of red-zone trips into touchdowns—speak to the overall growth of the offense and the efficiency of Wilson over the last five games.
"If you notice, (Wilson) has been really clean in the pocket," Carroll said. "He's had great pockets and it's extended beyond just the play passes and the third downs. We're protecting well. He would always be this efficient if we protected him like this, is what I feel about him. There's nothing that he can't do and we've just got to give him a chance. In years past, he had been ducking and dodging quite a bit more. It's pretty obvious in the style of play where he's been all over the place. He hasn't had to be. He's really taking off when he needs to for the most part and hopefully we'll keep that going."
The Chargers, meanwhile, have not been great getting off the field on third down, allowing opponents to convert at a 46.1-percent rate that ranks 28th in the league.
3. The turnover battle.
Of all the things the Seahawks have done well this season, few make Carroll happier than the way the Seahawks have won the turnover battle this season. Through seven games, the Seahawks have built a plus-10 turnover differential, which ranks second in the NFL. And it's hardly a coincidence that as the Seahawks have gotten better at taking care of the ball, they have been winning more. After turning the ball over five times in the first two games, both losses, the Seahawks have just one giveaway in their past five games and have won the turnover battle in all five.
"Huge accomplishment at the midway point to be in double-digits," Carroll said. "That's always something we shoot for and to get there the week before game eight, that's a big deal. We're on track with the way our whole mentality is about, the philosophy about taking care of that ball and getting it (back). It's a good start. That's kind of all it is and we've got to do something this week."
The Chargers, meanwhile, are plus-five in turnover differential, and their only two losses this season came in games in which they didn't win the turnover battle. In their five wins, the Chargers are plus-seven in turnover differential, and they have only two turnovers with seven takeaways during their current four-game winning streak.