Two of the league's hottest teams will square off tonight when the Washington Redskins host the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Wild Card Round.
Thought to be also-rans before the season (and even halfway through it) both teams have fought back with a vengeance over the last couple of months; they've combined to go 13-1 since Nov. 5.
Seattle and Washington are virtual mirrors of each other offensively. Both teams employ a rookie quarterback, both dabble in the read option and both rely on the running game for most of their yards.
But that doesn't mean there aren't heaps of questions heading into tonight's showdown. Here are four X-factors whose performances could shape the outcome of this game:
Seattle Seahawks: QB Russell Wilson
I won't bore you by talking about his first playoff start, Washington's crowd or any other conjectural reasons Wilson might fail on Sunday. You've heard that already.
What you maybe haven't heard is how mightily Wilson struggles against blitzing defensive backs.
Per ESPN Stats & Information, Seattle ranks dead last in the league with 3.6 yards per play against a secondary blitz (h/t Football Outsiders). Superficially, you'd expect the athletic Wilson to be adroit against these blitzes, but the numbers disagree. For one reason or another he's been much stronger against a four-man rush.
That could be a problem since —again, per ESPN Stats & Information —Washington blitzed a defensive back on 15.8 percent of defensive snaps. That's once in every six or so plays, and that came against teams that didn't rank last in the face of those situations.
Much like he did against the Cowboys, Jim Haslett is going to have his defenders pin their ears back and get pressure on the quarterback. If Wilson doesn't remedy the problems he's had against that scheme, the Seahawks could be in serious jeopardy.
Washington Redskins: WR Pierre Garcon
Pierre Garcon has missed six games this season, the Redskins are 0-6 in those games. It doesn't take much extrapolation to figure out that they are 9-1 with him in the lineup.
That's not a coincidence.
Garcon doesn't post gaudy numbers, but he gives the Redskins something they otherwise lack: a legitimate receiving threat. Unlike the team's other pass-catchers, most opponents aren't content leaving Garcon on an island. The extra attention he attracts has manifold benefits, not the least of which is added running room for Alfred Morris.
But here's the thing: Seattle isn't one of those teams that's scared to put Garcon on an island. With Richard Sherman on one side and Brandon Browner back in tow on the other, they aren't scared to put anybody on an island.
The Seahawks' first, second and third priority on Sunday will be slowing down Alfred Morris. They're going to load up the box, get in the backfield and dare a hobbled Robert Griffin III to beat them from the pocket.
Garcon will thus be counted on the punish Seattle for leaving him in single-man coverage. Against the best cornerback duo in football, that won't be an easy task. But no one ever said beating the Seahawks would be easy.
Seattle Seahawks: DE Red Bryant
On paper, one of the Redskins' few advantages lies along the offensive line. According to Football Outsiders, Washington had the seventh-best run-blocking in the league, while Seattle's front four was 21st stopping the run.
That could be problematic for the Seahawks' undersized linebackers, who might struggle against Alfred Morris' second-level, tackle-breaking ability.
In order to stop Morris at level one, Red Bryant must perhaps have his best game of the year. Whether he likes it or not, the 'Skins will be running right at him. Per Football Outsiders, Washington runs 18 percent of their carries off the right end (tied for second-most in the league) and do so with the league's 10th-best efficiency.
By contrast, Football Outsiders ranks Seattle's defensive line 23rd defending runs off the right end. Which is, not-so-coincidentally, the exact spot where Bryant lines up.
There won't be any way to mask Bryant's run deficiencies come Sunday. If he finds a way to improve his output, it would throw a major wrench in Washington's gameplan.
Washington Redskins: CB DeAngelo Hall
Much ado has been made about stopping Marshawn Lynch, and rightfully so. But that's how the Seahawks get you. They trick you into thinking they can only run, then unleash one of the league's most efficient passing attacks.
Washington's pass defense has been above average all season, thanks in large part to their discipline. Per Football Outsiders, they're one of the few teams that isn't appreciably worse against play-action passes.
But there's one player on Washington's defense capable of undermining the whole, disciplined system and OH MY GOD, THAT'S DEANGELO HALL'S MUSIC.
The outspoken Hall ranked dead last among cornerbacks this year with a 41-percent success rate in coverage, allowing 10.1 yards per pass (h/t Football Outsiders). For all his bluster and machismo on the outside, Hall rarely gets the best of opposing receivers. He's avoided public opprobrium due in large part to his interception prowess, but the big plays just serve to mask his glowing faults.
As noted earlier, Washington's biggest defensive advantage will be blitzing Russell Wilson. But that strategy will leave DeAngelo Hall in man-coverage more often than Washington is likely comfortable with.
He'll need to vastly outperform his averages on Sunday. Otherwise, it could be a short postseason in Washington.
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