How Doug Baldwin Has Become the NFC's Biggest Playoff X-Factor

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How Doug Baldwin Has Become the NFC's Biggest Playoff X-Factor
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Football is a game filled with suddenness. One deep strike can alter the course of a contest, and one muscle rip can change the path of a season, or worse, a career.

The 2015 Seattle Seahawks are quite familiar with the latter form of change. Marshawn Lynch, their five-time Pro Bowl running back, has been out since Week 10 while recovering from an abdomen issue. His replacement, Thomas Rawls, showed Offensive Rookie of the Year potential before suffering a severe ankle injury. Then, finally and mercifully, a long-term blow came when tight end Jimmy Graham tore his patellar tendon.

Each injury haymaker landed squarely on the offense's nose. There was first panic and then the same question. How will the defending NFC champs replace the production of a player who seemed irreplaceable?

In hindsight, the answer each time was the same: Doug Baldwin.

The fifth-year wide receiver's role progressively expanded when those key offensive components crumbled. Baldwin was never an afterthought or some forgotten role player, but his contributions throughout the Seahawks' two straight seasons that ended in Super Bowl appearances have been sporadic at best. 

His single-season high prior to 2015 was 825 receiving yards. Looking back further, his career per-season average before 2015 was 689.3 yards, and he had scored 15 total touchdowns.

Nothing about his recent past screamed breakout under normal circumstances. But normal circumstances vanished a long, long time ago for both the Seahawks and Baldwin.

Instead of normal, Baldwin has now made historic the appropriate word to describe his season.

In one season, he's nearly matched his touchdown total from the previous four years. His 14 scoring receptions are tied for the league lead, and with that total, he's already broken a Seahawks record that stood since 1985.

That's only where Baldwin's history-making begins. He's smashed all his previous production peaks and averages with 1,023 receiving yards through 15 games while becoming the first Seahawks pass-catcher since 2007 to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark.

Even more impressively, as NFL.com's Gil Brandt noted, the 11 touchdown connections between Baldwin and quarterback Russell Wilson since Week 12 are tied for the most by a QB-WR duo over a five-game stretch.

The history keeps flowing from Baldwin. Between Weeks 12 and 15, he scored 10 touchdowns, which tied Jerry Rice for the most receiving scores in a four-game span, per ESPN's Trey Wingo.

Yes, I just wrote the names of Baldwin and Jerry Rice in the same sentence. And yes, it did feel weird, but let's carry on.

Baldwin has emerged as more than just a replacement after several key injuries. The 27-year-old has gone from a third option to the option, and he's done it in a remarkably short period of time.

Short enough that it's not hard to see a near future in which his regular-season heroics carry into the playoff spotlight. And he'll continue to be an offensive pillar.

Doug Baldwin's production spike
Games Yards Receptions Yards/catch TDs Longest catch
First 8 games 345 31 11.1 2 46
Last 7 games 678 42 16.1 12 80

Source: NFL.com

Before the Seahawks' Week 9 bye, Baldwin was averaging a pedestrian 43.1 receiving yards per game. In the seven games since then, his average has shot up to 96.9 yards. It's a right-angled spike fueled by much more than being just some scrappy slot receiver grappling for yards after the catch.

He still does that, to be sure, and at 407 yards, Baldwin currently ranks 10th among all wide receivers in yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus. But he's excelling in another category, too, and has separated himself from many of his position peers with his, um, separation.

The Seahawks' receivers were often the subject of scrutiny in 2014 because of their inability to separate from coverage or at least do so consistently. They were part of a unit that averaged only 203.1 passing yards per game, which is minuscule even for a run-oriented offense.

A shift needed to occur after the injuries to Lynch and Rawls this season. But who could take on the added burden, particularly in or near the red zone, with Graham's field-stretching ability up the seam also gone? Baldwin, of course.

Most touchdowns on balls traveling 20 yards or more in 2015
Receiver Touchdowns
Sammy Watkins 8
Doug Baldwin 7
DeAndre Hopkins 7
Odell Beckham Jr. 6
Brandin Cooks 6

Source: ProFootballFocus.com

Baldwin has one less deep touchdown than league-leader Sammy Watkins of the Bills—on half as many targets. The Stanford product has also gotten only 18.5 percent of his targets on passes that travel 20 yards or more, which is by far the lowest number of the above group.

Yes, I just put Baldwin alongside the Texans' DeAndre Hopkins and the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. And yes, it did feel weird, but let's carry on.

Half of Baldwin's touchdowns have been of the 20-yards-or-more variety. He's done that while still staying mostly in the slot, taking 79.2 percent of his snaps there and leading all pass-catchers with 980 yards as an inside receiver, per PFF.

The uniquely shifty slot presence Baldwin brings through precise route running could make him playoff Kryptonite for opposing defenses. And one potential first-round matchup would be extra juicy.

The Seahawks' playoff seeding and wild-card opponent rests with two things: The outcome of their Week 17 game against the Arizona Cardinals and which team wins the NFC North. The only scenario in which they move up is a Seahawks win and a loss by the Minnesota Vikings.

Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

Don't worry—that's it for the playoff-scenario dot-connecting, an annual cause of throbbing late-season headaches.

Just know that if the Vikings can't clear the always frosty hurdle of winning at Lambeau Field in January and they're leapfrogged by Seattle, then a date with the Washington Redskins could be coming for the Seahawks, along with a delicious matchup for Baldwin.

Jordan Matthews of the Philadelphia Eagles is the only other receiver on Baldwin's slot-production level. Those two are the only wideouts who have logged 900-plus slot receiving yards in 2015. That's significant because Matthews has faced the Redskins twice, and the results were, well, positive.

Matthews posted 154 yards over those games, averaging 17.1 yards per catch. Baldwin would be poised to exploit that same 22nd-ranked pass defense.

The Packers could present an appealing matchup, too, after they allowed 115 receiving yards to the Lions' Golden Tate over two games. Tate has run 57.2 percent of his routes from the slot, per PFF, and his success against Green Bay also included a 43-yard reception.

Or maybe the matchup won't matter at all. Baldwin has been nearly matchup-proof, posting 134 yards against the Cardinals' seventh-ranked secondary and two touchdowns on the Vikings' ninth-ranked pass defense.

The hope is that Lynch will return to rejuvenate a power-running offense, and Seattle won't have to lean on Baldwin as much during the playoffs. But if Baldwin is needed, he'll be ready to separate, shake and score.

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