The Seattle Seahawks, fighting for an elusive NFC playoff berth, face a must-win game against the Buffalo Bills in Toronto this Sunday.
The schedule-makers were kind to Seattle, blessing them with only seven true road games this season. But even though this game won't be played in Buffalo, it will be far from an easy victory.
The Bills are considerably better than their 5-8 record erroneously suggests. Football Outsiders rates them the 17th-best team in football—better than "playoff contenders" like Dallas, Minnesota, Indianapolis and the New York Jets.
So while they're hardly the team Seattle is, they certainly have what it takes to pull the upset in Week 15. Especially with the 'Hawks away from the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field.
Here are three matchups that will help determine the outcome:
C Max Unger vs. DT Marcell Dareus
The Bills' young defensive tackle has earned well-deserved plaudits this season—at least when he's been rushing the passer. But against the run, he's left a lot to be desired. According to Pro Football Focus, he's the worst run defender on the Bills' roster, posting a rating of minus-eight.
That could be problematic on Sunday, when Dareus will be tasked with taking on Max Unger, the Seahawks' impressive young center from Oregon.
Unger is the highest-rated run blocker on the Seahawks, and the third-best run-blocking center in the NFL (h/t Pro Football Focus). He's athletic enough to move around when need be, but also strong enough to carve holes up the A-gap.
Buffalo's 25th-ranked rush defense will have its hands full with Seattle's third-ranked rush offense (h/t Football Outsiders). If they want to stand a chance, Dareus will need to defy the numbers and hold his own versus Unger.
CB Richard Sherman vs. WR Stevie Johnson
Per Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver, Richard Sherman's Adderall-induced suspension appeal will be delayed even longer than it previously had been. Which means the Seahawks' shutdown corner will be able to suit up for an all-important matchup with the Bills' Stevie Johnson.
Buffalo is anything but an aerial juggernaut. But because of Stevie Johnson, it is able to plod along without struggling too much in the passing game. If Johnson is shut down, however, the results tend to be brutal. He's been held under 40 yards on four occasions this year, and the Bills are 1-3 in those games—their only win coming over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
But he could have his hands full with Richard Sherman on Sunday. I wrote at length about Sherman this offseason—asserting that he was the NFL's next great cornerback—and he hasn't disappointed in 2012. In fact, off-field snafus notwithstanding, he's far exceeded even my lofty expectations.
According to Pro Football Focus, Sherman has been the best cover cornerback in the NFL. That's a label normally reserved for Darrelle Revis, but with the Jets' superstar injured, Sherman has made an aggressive coup d'etat for the title.
If Johnson is unable to shake loose of Sherman's grasp, the Bills won't be able to keep up with the Seahawks in Toronto.
Seattle Rush Defense vs. C.J. Spiller
The Seahawks' defense has been mostly impermeable this season, ranking fourth in the league according to Football Outsiders. A closer look at those rankings, however, reveals that they are average at best defending the run.
Which means that C.J. Spiller could be the Bills' saving grace this Sunday afternoon.
Between Spiller and Fred Jackson, Football Outsiders ranks Buffalo the ninth-best rush offense in the NFL. But as steady as Jackson has been this year (when healthy)—and his whole career (again, when healthy)—Spiller has been making jaws drop with his performance in 2012.
According to Pro Football Focus, Spiller has been the second-best running back on rushing plays this season. There's a considerable gap between him and top-ranked Adrian Peterson (as well there should be), but there's an ever bigger gap between him and third-ranked Marshawn Lynch (who just so happens to be lining up on the other side of the football on Sunday).
If Spiller continues to tap into his potential, the Bills might be able to exploit the Seahawks' lone defensive weakness. And if they can do that, the upset won't be too far out of reach.