The Seahawks are about to kick off postseason play for the fifth straight season and sixth time in seven years under head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, and they'll do so by hosting the Detroit Lions, a team looking to bounce back from last week's loss to Green Bay that kept them from winning the NFC North.
If the Seahawks are going to advance to the divisional round for the fifth straight season, these are three matchups that could make the difference when they face the Lions in the postseason for the first time.
1. Matthew Stafford's multitude of weapons vs. Seattle's defense.
While the Lions don't necessarily present the most balanced offensive attack, that doesn't mean they don't have a diverse offense. Detroit doesn't run the ball often, but they're not predictable, not with quarterback Matthew Stafford using so many different weapons effectively in the passing game.
While the Lions passing game used to lean heavily on Calvin Johnson, Stafford has spread the ball around more than ever since the man known as Megatron retired this offseason. In his first season without Johnson, Stafford has completed at least 50 passes to five different players, marking only the fifth time in NFL history a team has had five players with 50 or more receptions.
"Stafford makes this really difficult," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's so equipped with everything, he can do it all. He's going to read your coverage, read your pressures, change and affect their protections properly and make it as hard on you as possible. He's tough, he's competitive, he's resourceful… We will treat him with the utmost respect, he's got terrific players. They all have their own style, they're unique players in their own right. Their running back is, their tight end is, Eric Ebron is a really cool tight end that can do all kinds of stuff. They've got all of that worked out and they know exactly what they have. It's 60 minutes, and you can't give these guys an inch."
Leading the way for the Lions is a player the Seahawks know well, receiver Golden Tate, who led the team with 91 catches for 1,077 yards. Veteran Anquan Bolden added 67 catches and a team-high eight touchdown, Eric Ebron had 61 catches for 711 yards, and receiver Marvin Jones has proven to be a dangerous downfield threat, averaging 16.9 yards-per-catch on 55 receptions.
"Their quarterback is a fantastic football player, there's no doubt about that," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "He has weapons on the outside, they're explosive. That Marvin Jones guy can absolutely stretch the field, he's got great speed. Golden Tate, we know him, we love him. We absolutely know once he gets the ball in his hands, he's a guy that you have to tackle. Of course we had a lot of years competing against Anquan Boldin and he can still get the job done out there. Those are guys that are going to work in the intermediate zone that you know you're going to have to tackle. They're strong, they're fast, the quarterback is a better athlete than a lot of people want to give him credit for. He's got craftiness in the pocket and he can make things happen."
2. The turnover battle.
Carroll emphasizes turnovers—both preventing them and creating them—more than just about anything when it comes to his coaching philosophy. And it's easy to understand why Carroll preaches an "all about the ball" message to his team—few stats, if any, correlate more closely to wins and losses than turnover differential, and that has definitely held true for the Seahawks this season. Seattle is 7-0 when winning the turnover battle this season and 3-5-1 when being negative or even in that category. And when the Seahawks have failed to turn the ball over, regardless of what their defense does, they're 6-0-1.
The Lions, meanwhile, have a negative turnover differential this season at minus-1, but that has a lot more to do with a lack of turnovers created by the defense than the way they're taking care of the ball. Detroit committed just 15 turnovers this season, their lowest giveaway total since 1940. One positive from a Seahawks perspective is that five of Stafford's 10 interceptions this season have come in the past three games as he has played with a finger injury on his throwing hand.
One area in which the Seahawks might have an advantage when it comes to creating turnovers is in their ability to pressure the quarterback. While the Seahawks sacked opposing quarterbacks 42 times, which ranked third in the NFL, the Lions recorded only 26 sacks this season. And though the Seahawks have allowed 42 sacks this season, Russell Wilson has actually been sacked at the lowest rate in his career while attempting more passes than he ever has before, taking one sack every 13.3 pass attempts, and he has been sacked three or fewer times in four of the last five games, including only once last week.
"I think it's one of those games that you emphasize just creating havoc for the quarterback whether it's sacks, hurries or hits," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "It's one of those things every game you want to harass the quarterback; this game is no different."
3. Playoff experience vs. a lack thereof.
Does postseason experience matter? Well we might find out on Saturday. While the Seahawks roster is full of players who have not just been to the postseason, but had success when they get there, winning at least one playoff game in each of the past five seasons, the Lions have only played in one postseason game during that stretch, a game they lost to Dallas two years ago.
"The playoffs are something we're used to around here now and getting back to the Super Bowl is something we have to get back to," Bennett said. "Being able to play at home and have something that's familiar to us. When you've played in the playoffs and you've done it some many times it's just something that we're used too. We just have to go out there and play great."
Add to that the fact that the Seahawks are playing at CenturyLink Field, where they have won nine straight postseason games, and in primetime, where the Seahawks are 19-3-1 under Carroll, and the Lions have a lot working against them in their quest for their first postseason win since 1991.
"I think it is real valuable," Carroll said of his team's playoff experience. "Really, in the area of helping other guys who haven't been through, makes sure they understand how we do it and how we approach this thing so we can all be on the same page. The message is strong in the locker room."