The Seattle Seahawks desperately need playmaking on offense, and if wide receiver Percy Harvin is unable to go for Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, it will prove costly for the conference's No. 1 seed.
An argument could be made that the Seahawks got to this deep stage of the postseason without Harvin's help, because that's precisely what happened.
Harvin participated in just one game during the regular season, where Seattle went 13-3 and secured home-field advantage at CenturyLink Field throughout the playoffs.
Call it a result of conservatism, preserving a lead or the conditions for part of it, but Russell Wilson completed just nine of 18 passes for 103 yards in last week's 23-15 divisional round win over the New Orleans Saints. A third of those completions went to Harvin before he exited the game with a concussion.
Head coach Pete Carroll said on Thursday, Jan. 16, that Harvin hasn't been cleared to play as he continues to be evaluated, per ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Seahawks HC Pete Carroll said WR Percy Harvin still has not been cleared for Sunday's NFC Championship game.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 16, 2014
Sure, the offense relies more on running back Marshawn Lynch's beastliness than anything produced in the passing game by Wilson and Co. Lynch ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns last week and is one of the best power backs in the game.
But leaning on Lynch on Sunday against the Niners' elite defense can't be all that the Seahawks do. All the yards that Lynch usually generates after contact are far harder to come by versus San Francisco, per ESPN Stats & Info:
.@Black_Majic12 Marshawn Lynch vs 49ers this year: 0.9 yards after contact per rush against all others: 2.1— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 16, 2014
It should be quite a different story than it was in Seattle's victory over New Orleans, where Lynch went off and almost couldn't be tackled:
Marshawn Lynch forced 13 missed tackles rushing vs the Saints. Every other RB put together this week combined for just 17.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 13, 2014
The fact that the top two weapons at Wilson's disposal are Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin—solid, but not spectacular players—has begun to reveal itself at this critical juncture, with a Super Bowl XLVIII berth on the line.
When he was traded in exchange for a first-round pick this past offseason, Harvin was meant to be the X-factor that made the offense an unstoppable force. He began to show flashes of that.
Look at what's happened with Colin Kaepernick, Wilson's counterpart. When he didn't have 2012 leading receiver Michael Crabtree, Kaepernick struggled this season. Now the Niners are on a seven-game winning streak, with Kaepernick's improved play and Crabtree's return providing a big difference.
Also note the total QBR disparity between the signal-callers over the past two postseasons, via the NFL on ESPN's official Twitter account:
Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson in the postseason over the last 2 years. So far, so good >> pic.twitter.com/UJK3EjS2A2— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 13, 2014
Wilson has regressed with a mediocre supporting cast. When it's been time to count on him to keep drives alive, he hasn't delivered as of late, per ESPN.com's Mike Sando:
Russell @DangeRussWilson on 3rd down, last 5 games: 5.3 yards per pass att, 70.1 passer rating, 3 rush for 15 yards and 1 FD, 6.7 Total QBR— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) January 13, 2014
Which QB will perform better in Sunday's likely defensive struggle?
Harvin's ability to field kicks would also provide an edge on special teams, as would his change of pace as an occasional ball-carrier.
Winning on third down will be key for the Seahawks' chances to keep a confident Kaepernick-led San Francisco offense off the field—and for winning on the home turf they've lost on just once in the past two seasons.
This should be a defensive battle, but with the limitations Seattle's passing attack has surfacing and this being the third time the Niners have prepared for it, Harvin's health will be the ultimate decider in Sunday's showdown.