Winners of three straight, the Seattle Seahawks will look to take another step towards clinching a wild card against the desperate Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football.
Both teams received plenty of help on Sunday, as the Panthers, Redskins, and Eagles all suffered their seventh loss of the season, creating some margin of error for teams in front of them in the standings. But with only four games left on the schedule, the Seahawks and Vikings understand the significance of this Week 14 clash in regard to playoff positioning.
Seattle has been one of the hottest teams in the league, beating Green Bay, Carolina, and San Francisco to improve to two games over .500 for the first time this season. A fourth consecutive win would move the Seahawks to 8-5, and while they wouldn’t be in the postseason just yet, they’d be a near-lock with winnable games against the Cardinals and 49ers still on tap.
As for Minnesota, they’re in a bit more precarious of a position, as they tied Green Bay way back in Week 3 and only have six victories as a result. While the tie gives quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Vikings an edge over struggling teams like the Panthers and Eagles, falling to 6-6-1 wouldn’t be ideal and would open the door for the Panthers and others to steal the last wild card spot.
With the winner of this prime-time contest sitting pretty in the NFC playoff picture, which five matchups will have the most bearing on the final outcome?
--Seahawks QB Russell Wilson vs. Vikings FS Harrison Smith: There are few things in football better than a chess match between an elite quarterback and a top-flight safety, and Monday will present one of those rare occasions in front of a national audience. Wilson has been red-hot over his past four games, throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions while completing over 67 percent of his pass attempts. But he’ll have to be careful how he attacks Smith in the secondary, as the cerebral 29-year old defender has three interceptions this season and tracks the football as well as safety in the game. He also can be a weapon as a blitzer and has racked up a career-best 3.0 sacks this year, so Wilson will have to be cognizant of where he is on the field at all times.
--Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner vs. Vikings RB Dalvin Cook: Wagner played the finest game of his impressive career against the 49ers last weekend, returning an interception 98 yards for a touchdown, forcing and recovering a fumble, and sacking quarterback Nick Mullens. Somehow, the All-Pro linebacker continues to improve in his seventh NFL season and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. He’ll be tasked with stopping Cook, who has played much better as of late after struggling through injuries during the first half of the season. The former Florida State star had one of his best games last week against the Patriots, rushing nine times for 84 yards while adding eight receptions, though he averaged less than three yards per catch. With Minnesota emphasizing running the football in preparation this week, Wagner and Seattle should expect a big dose of Cook in this contest.
--Seahawks LT Duane Brown vs. Vikings DE Danielle Hunter: Brown has been a savior protecting Russell Wilson’s blind side since arriving via trade last season and has enjoyed a strong first full season with the Seahawks. He’s also served as a mentor for young linemen such as right tackle Germain Ifedi, proving instrumental in the massive improvements up front as a whole for Seattle. He’s going to have his hands full with Hunter, however, who ranks fifth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks so far this season and already has a career-high 58 tackles and 15 quarterback hits for Minnesota. The 6-foot-5 defensive end can win with speed around the edge as well with power as a bull rusher, presenting quite the challenge for Brown.
--Seahawks WR David Moore vs. Vikings CB Holton Hill: Minnesota dodged a bullet when Xavier Rhodes was able to return to action in a part-time role last week against New England, but they can’t catch a break in the secondary. Right after Rhodes returned from a hamstring injury, starter Trae Waynes left with a concussion and he’s been ruled out for Monday’s game. Hill, an undrafted rookie out of Texas, will step into the starting lineup as his replacement. Hill’s draft stock plummeted due to character questions coming out of college, but at 6-foot-3, he has great length along with excellent athletic traits. With that said, he doesn’t have much starting experience and with Rhodes monitoring the other side, don’t be surprised if Wilson tries to go after Hill frequently as he did against Panthers cornerback Corn Elder a few weeks ago.
--Seahawks CB Shaquill Griffin vs. Vikings WR Stefon Diggs: Griffin hasn’t quite met outside expectations in his second NFL season, struggling to find consistency in coverage and as a tackler. On the plus side, he matched up against Diggs briefly in a preseason game back in August and held up well, registering two passes defensed while covering him. Defending him in a game that counts will be a different animal, however. Diggs has evolved into one of the best receivers in football, catching 84 passes for 839 yards despite nursing a nagging knee injury that has limited his practice time for several weeks. With Adam Thielen closing in on 100 receptions himself and commanding plenty of attention, the Seahawks may not be able to give Griffin much help, creating an opportunity for Cousins to try and exploit him in coverage against Diggs.