Wild-card breakdown: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys
When the Seahawks have the ball: Seattle is first in rush yards per game and fifth in yards per carry. QB Russell Wilson is part of that, but less so than you might realize. He has career lows in rushes (67) and yards (376) and failed to run for a TD for the first time in seven seasons.
More often, the Seahawks feed Chris Carson and Mike Davis, and perhaps Rashaad Penny if he can return (knee injury). This will be an excellent test against a Dallas defense ranked fifth in yards per carry allowed, led by LBs Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
Wilson quietly had one of his best seasons — 35 TDs, seven INTs — despite his fewest pass attempts since Year 2. His sack rate remains too high, even if the Cowboys are middle of the pack in that department. Even with the Seahawks’ improved OL play, they need injured OGs D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy back to face a good Dallas front.
The Cowboys’ secondary is also strong, but it’s ranked 28th in INT percentage. They have length and athleticism, but contending with the Seahawks’ WR trio of Tyler Lockett, Doug Baldwin and David Moore will be tough. Lockett gave Dallas some trouble in Week 3, but Baldwin missed that game with an injury and Moore had yet to emerge.
When the Cowboys have the ball: In that first meeting in Seattle, Dak Prescott struggled. He threw two picks, took five sacks and completed only three passes longer than 13 yards. The Seahawks pressured a patchwork Cowboys O-line and harassed Prescott. But he also didn’t have WR Amari Cooper (53-725-6 in nine games), who has helped reshape Dallas’ offense after a midseason trade from Oakland.
Ezekiel Elliott gashed the Seahawks defense (which finished 30th in rush average against) with 127 yards on 16 carries, but he also lost a fumble. The Cowboys rested the NFL’s rushing champ in Week 17 and also sat Pro Bowl OLs Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, but all are expected to play. Elliott blossomed as a receiver this season, and the Seahawks allowed 99-906-6 receiving to RBs.
Seattle’s defense still features a strong core with Pro Bowl LB Bobby Wagner; DL penetrators in Frank Clark and Jarran Reed; and a feisty, competitive secondary that held strong following the season-ending injury to Earl Thomas. This defense tallied 43 sacks and tied for the league lead with 14 forced fumbles.
Special teams: Neither unit is spectacular, although Cowboys kicker Brett Maher gives them a long-range weapon (6-of-7 on FGs from 50-plus) and Seahawks rookie punter Michael Dickson has been mostly terrific. Seattle kicker Sebastian Janikowski has missed three extra-point tries in December and struggled with FG misses early in games (all five were in first halves). Neither team has a kick- or punt-return TD this season; the Cowboys’ longest kick return is only 35 yards.
Coaching: Jason Garrett was deemed a dead man walking when the Cowboys hit 3-5, but the Cooper trade and better play calling has them hosting a home playoff game. But he’s only 1-2 in the playoffs in nine seasons and could use a win to prevent entering 2019 under further pressure. Seattle’s Pete Carroll should be a Coach of the Year candidate, bringing this team together after starting 0-2. Carroll is 10-7 in the playoffs with one Super Bowl win in two tries.
Prediction: The Cowboys haven’t advanced past the divisional round since the 2014 season, but they are entering the playoffs with more momentum than their opponents. They’re 7-1 in Dallas this season and have won seven of their past eight games with all of those victories coming in one-score games. Elliott will be the difference in this one, as he should be able to provide more punch against the Seahawks’ subpar run defense than Seattle’s run game can against a Dallas defense that has been mostly great against the run the last half of the season.
Cowboys 23, Seahawks 20