Two of the NFL's most exciting young players face off in the Wildcard round as Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks head to the nation's capital to take on Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins.
Since their Week 11 bye, the Seahawks (11-5) have won five of their last six games and have played some of the best football in the NFL in the process. Coming into the year, everyone was whispering about their great young defense and if it could take the next step. It did. The offense stopped being a liability as well under the direction of Russell Wilson.
The Redskins (10-6) have their own fantastic rookie sensation in Robert Griffin III. They traded up in the 2012 NFL draft to grab Wilson and never looked back. Add in late-round gem Alfred Morris and the 'Skins' offensive future is set. While the defense has been porous at times, they're ranked fifth against the run and will have their work cut out for them against the Seahawks.
So, who wins this Wildcard matchup?
Key Storyline No. 1: Which Rookie Wunderkind Comes Out on Top?
Wilson and RGIII are two of the brightest young stars in all of sports. If this game has nothing else, it has star power.
Yet, the first chapter of these careers has barely been written. These two, along with Andrew Luck, will largely be defined on how their teams do in the postseason this year and in the years to come. Fans are notoriously fickle and playoff losses can quickly lose a lot of goodwill.
This year, of course, no one is calling for anyone's head on a platter. Neither of these teams are supposed to be here anyway. These were rebuilding squads with rookie quarterbacks. Just getting to "the dance" is fantastic. However, how much more fantastic to continue that dream run toward the Super Bowl?
For the loser: A shoulder shrug and hopes of "maybe next year." For the winner: An extra page in their corresponding legend and an added hope to do the impossible.
Key Storyline No. 2: Can Either Team Stop The Other's Running Game?
The Seahawks and the Redskins are 10th and fifth, respectively, when it comes to stopping the run. None of that may matter in this matchup.
Both teams utilize zone-read running looks and have quarterbacks who are incredibly dangerous off of play-action pass—both passing and running. A normally stout defense can fall apart very quickly when the quarterback becomes a running threat.
Similarly, both teams use zone-blocking schemes when it comes to running the football downhill. Mike Shanahan famously married the ZBS to his West Coast passing offense when he was with the Denver Broncos. Pete Carroll brought Alex Gibbs (Shanahan's former OL coach) to Seattle to do the same.
The team that is able to shut down the other on the ground should have this game wrapped up early.
Keys for the Seattle Seahawks
While the Seahawks have largely cured their road ills, it still won't be easy heading cross-country to a fired-up Redskins' fanbase who haven't tasted playoff football in a long time. It will be loud (though, not as loud as the Seattle crowd—no one is) and it will be hostile.
Offensively, the Seahawks need to do what they've done best over the second half of the season. Find run-pass balance and keep the Redskins' defense off balance with a tempo that they're uncomfortable with.
One of the amazing things about Wilson is that he's essentially absorbed a third offensive playbook in two seasons, now, as the Seahawks have added a ton of zone-read plays midway through the season. The ability to switch gears mid-game (even mid-series) will be key to beating the Redskins' defense.
On the other side of the ball, RGIII is going to put a ton of pressure on the Seahawks defense, which has given up big yards before (especially on the road). Scheme aside, the biggest key has to be making RGIII pay both in the pocket and when he runs the football. Speed up his internal clock to mess up his timing with the receivers. If any team can do it, it's probably Seattle.
Keys for the Washington Redskins
It's not telling Shanahan anything new, but they need to run the ball effectively to win this game. RGIII is great, but when Alfred Morris gets going, the Redskins offense can be truly special. That means running the ball on second-and-long and third-and-medium. That means running the ball even if you're down by two scores.
The last thing Shanahan wants is to let Seattle's pass rush come at his rookie with reckless abandon.
When Morris rushes over 25 times, the Redskins are (3-0). When he's over his average (20.9/game), the Redskins are a pretty damn good (8-1). Morris averages 100.8 yards per game (1,613/16) and has crossed the 100-yard rushing mark seven times in his rookie season. In those games, the Redskins are (5-2).
The Seahawks gave up 175 yards on the ground in San Francisco, 243 against Minnesota (at home), 189 at Miami, 132 in a win at Chicago the next week and 118 two weeks later against the Bills in Toronto. Those five games illustrate a pretty favorable picture for the Redskins, as the Seahawks were gashed for 857 rushing yards on 140 attempts or an average of 6.12 per attempt.
Defensively, the Redskins need to make sure Wilson stays inside the pocket. Yes, it is easier said than done, but letting him gash the defense for 10 yards up the middle (and get hit in the process) is better than letting him get to the perimeter with a clear line of sight and the run-pass option still open for him.
The other thing, of course, is sound tackling. Marshawn Lynch doesn't have a magic play that he uses to get yardage. He simply takes advantage of arm tackles, angles and body control to get free even when he is bottled up. He can be stopped, but rarely is. If the Redskins are up to the challenge, they can win this game.
Bold Prediction: RGIII Held Under 200 Total Yards
This isn't ridiculously bold, as it just happened last weekend when the Dallas Cowboys held RGIII to 163 total yards, but as much as people will be talking about him heading into the game, it could surprise many.
Last weekend, the zone-read just wasn't there (often) for Griffin, because the Cowboys kept good contain. Of course, it was certainly there for Morris, who took those hand offs and rumbled for 200 yards. Pete Carroll has watched that tape and will try to do the same.
Against the pass, the Seahawks have one of the better secondaries in all of football and will keep the Redskins' receivers from getting their normal gigantic-sized dose of YAC.
Player of the Game Prediction: Marshawn Lynch
Overall, I'm predicting a good game right up until Lynch wears down the Redskins defense. Home-field advantage will help the Redskins stay in it, but "Beast Mode" will be the difference.
Final Score Prediction: Seahawks 30; Redskins 28
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.