2017 NFL Playoffs, Wild Card Round: Detroit Lions vs. Seattle Seahawks
Entering the postseason, there are often two types of matchups in the Wild Card Round. On one hand, you can get a streaky team riding a Wild Card berth against a solid division winner. Then there are the matchups where both teams limp into the game, ailing for one reason or another. Saturday’s matchup with the Detroit Lions heading to CenturyLink Field to face the Seattle Seahawks falls in the latter category.
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The Seahawks come into the Wild Card Round of the 2017 NFL Playoffs as the No. 3 seed, but looking nothing like what many expected them to this season. Russell Wilson has been inconsistent all season and their defense has taken some heavy blows, thus even limiting the effectiveness of their biggest strength.
However, not being at their peak is child’s play in comparison to how the Lions enter this matchup. Once the leader in the NFC North late in the season, Detroit dropped their final three games of the regular season. Their Week 17 loss to the Green Bay Packers cost them the division. Even still, they were able to back into the No. 6 seed thanks to a bit of luck. If that weren’t bad enough, the Lions also have Matthew Stafford dealing with a serious finger injury.
Subsequently, this clearly isn’t a marquee matchup that it might’ve been had they met earlier in the 2016 season. Even if that’s the case, though, there’s still reason to believe that either team could get hot. Therefore, we’ll look at how each team got here, what they must do on Saturday, and predict how the game ultimately turns out. Let’s dive in.
Jan 1, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) walks to the huddle during the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field. Packers won 31-24. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
How Detroit Got Here
As the Lions entered Week 15, they were sitting pretty. They held a two-game lead in the NFC North over the Packers, had a 9-4 record to their credit, and seemed to be primed to prove themselves with a tough finishing stretch. Instead, Detroit went out and fell for three-straight weeks—albeit to all playoff teams—and largely confirmed the suspicions that many have had about them this season.
The Lions have made a living out of playing in close games this season. Of their nine wins on the year, eight of them have been the result of fourth-quarter or overtime comebacks. Subsequently, that means that Detroit was trailing or tied late in 15 of their 16 games this season. That’s not exactly the mark of a great playoff team.
Perhaps worse for the Lions is the finger injury to Matthew Stafford. Prior to that, he was absolutely phenomenal for his team in his first full season under new offensive coordinator, Jim Bob Cooter. While his stats may not say that, his performance and the team’s success indeed do. However, the finger has severely and obviously affected his performance. There’s no consistency in the power and accuracy of his throws and the offense has suffered as such.
As you’d expect considering all of the close games this season, Stafford’s offense isn’t exactly the most threatening in the NFL. But they have the potential to beat teams in a number of ways and had done so when it mattered before the three-game losing streak to close the year. With the injury to their general on offense, that somewhat dissipates.
January 1, 2017; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll (left) and quarterback Russell Wilson (3) talk against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter at Levi
How Seahawks Got Here
Coming into the 2016 season, as is the case recently, the Seahawks were considered one of the possible favorites in the NFC. Obviously the defense was a big part of that, but so too was quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson was viewed as an MVP candidate for this team and, even with the departure of Marshawn Lynch, he was expected to keep the offense afloat to not even miss a beat in the 2016 season.
Unfortunately for Seattle, that was not the case. Wilson had arguably his worst season as a pro. He tossed just 21 touchdowns to 11 interceptions on the year, struggled with injuries early in the year, and had the Seahawks in the bottom-half of the league in terms of scoring offense—in fact, quite close to the Lions in that regard. For most of the year, though, the defense kept them humming in the unexpectedly down NFC West.
Ranked third in scoring defense for the entire season, Seattle still has plenty of punching power with their defense. However, even that unit isn’t at full strength coming into this Wild Card Round matchup. The defense as a whole has looked completely out-of-sync since the season-ending injury to safety Earl Thomas. He’s the anchor for the Legion of Boom and defense as a whole. Without him, the defense has looked lost far too often.
Seattle’s season ended with a loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16 and then a narrow win over the two-win San Francisco 49ers in the regular-season finale. They are not even close to playing their best football right now, even if Saturday’s game is at home.
Nov 20, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (94) and cornerback Darius Slay (23) celebrate after a play during the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Ford Field. Lions won 26-19. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Lions Keys to Victory
Obviously playing on the road doesn’t present Detroit with an easy task in the Wild Card Round. That’s especially the case in the Pacific Northwest and the confines of CenturyLink Field. Subsequently, they’ll need to make sure to stick to the game plan and do the necessary things it’ll take to win well.
It’d be great to say that the Lions could wish away the Stafford finger injury and get their passing offense back to it’s full effectiveness. That’s not in the cards, though. With that said, the passing attack will play a role if Detroit is going to get the road playoff win. Without Thomas, the Seahawks are left with Kam Chancellor trying to do more than ever. Subsequently, they’re more susceptible deep down the field. If Stafford can hit his mark with Marvin Jones deep down the field, that could be game-breaking for the Lions.
Staying on offense, Detroit also needs to keep riding running back Zach Zenner to give their offense balance. Zenner has seemingly come out of nowhere in the last two games. While he’s not going to threaten for a rushing title, he’s been more effective than anyone else running the ball for Jim Caldwell’s team. To maintain balance, they must not stray from that.
On defense is where the biggest key lies, though. The Seattle offensive line has been abysmal this season, leaving themselves and Wilson in a bad spot. While the Lions defense doesn’t do terrible much well, Ezekiel Ansah can be a pass-rushing force. As such, they need to have him create pressure off of the edge to keep Wilson from picking their shaky secondary apart. If they can, they’ll have a narrow window for a win.
Dec 15, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett (72) celebrates after sacking Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks won 24-3. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Seahawks Keys to Victory
Russell Wilson not turning the ball over and getting frustrated sticks out as the first key to victory for Seattle. Five of his 11 interceptions came in one game, but he’s still been more prone to making mistakes due to the pressure he’s faced this season than ever before. Even if the Lions defense isn’t great overall, they have playmakers that can pounce on mistakes to make plays. Wilson can’t allow them to do so.
Meanwhile, it’s going to be pivotal for Wilson to feed Jimmy Graham all day long. Not that anyone does, but Detroit doesn’t have the player on defense that can slow down the star tight end. Over the middle, down the field, and wherever else, Graham simply can’t be stopped in this matchup. Subsequently, the offense must feature him heavily right from kickoff.
The Seattle special teams are going to be key here as kicker Steven Hauschka has been quite inconsistent and entirely frustrating throughout the year. For a team that has proven to be dangerous late in close games, the last thing the Seahawks want is for a close game to be in effect because of a missed field goal or extra point.
Most pivotal for the Seahawks, though, is going to be their pass-rush with Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. When healthy, they’ve been as fearsome and as disruptive as they’ve always been. However, they have to try and negate the Lions attacking with Jones and Golden Tate downfield by limiting the time that Stafford holds onto the ball. If they can do that, the Lions offense is going to be in for a rough day.
Oct 5, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, (9) congratulates Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) after a game at CenturyLink Field. Seahawks won 13-10. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Prediction for Lions vs. Seahawks
At home, the Seahawks come into this game as heavy favorites. Moreover, it feels like the public opinion around the team has them with no chance at all at going on the road and pulling off the upset. With Stafford’s injury and their ineffective defense, the Lions are truly in a bad spot coming into Saturday night. Even if that’s the case, though, I’m not counting them out.
I know that Detroit isn’t as good as their 9-4 record earlier in the season would have anyone believe. However, that doesn’t mean that you should be fooled into thinking that the Seahawks are even nearly as good of a team right now as their overall record of 10-5-1 would indicate. In their current state, they’re far from it. Their defense isn’t the force you’d expect them to be and the offense has been disappointing all season.
With the Lions able to potentially get a little pressure through the Seattle offensive line in addition to being able to move the ball, I think they not only compete, but pull off the upset in the Wild Card Round.
Frankly, I think the ineffective Seahawks offense with Wilson struggling and Detroit defense play to a stalemate. That leaves the Seattle defense and the Lions offense to determine a winner. At full-strength, I take the home team every single time. But without Thomas at safety as the glue, I think Stafford’s able to break them and pull off the win—bad finger and all.