After a dominant 42-13 performance on Sunday night, the Seattle Seahawks are looking to finish off with a win against the St. Louis Rams with the opportunity to remain undefeated at home and win the NFC west.
If the San Francisco 49ers lose at home to the Arizona Cardinals, the Seahawks can earn the top spot and be guaranteed a home playoff game. But, unlike the Cardinals, St. Louis is playing for more than simply trying to be a playoff-seed spoiler. A 4-1 record over their last five games has the Rams in position for their first season above .500 since 2003.
Here is a look at 10 keys to the game for the Seahawks this Sunday as they hope to improve their playoff position and finish at 11-5 for the first time in team history.
Overcoming the Rams’ NFC West Dominance
The Rams have won seven games this year, but have yet to lose to an NFC West opponent. These two teams played a close game back in September, with the Seahawks losing 19-13.
Since then, the Rams picked up two wins over the Cardinals and a win and a tie against the 49ers.
Of course the Seahawks’ performance on the road against division rivals has not been indicative of their performance at CenturyLink. While they have lost by a combined 17 points on the road, they have won by a total of 87 at home.
In seven road games this season, St. Louis has done just enough to get by. The Rams are averaging 20 points per game on the road with defense holding teams just below 20.
The Seahawks are 7-0 at home. The Rams 4-0-1 in the division, but one of these records will suffer on Sunday.
If the Rams can make it happen, it will be up to their defense to have a dominant afternoon. St. Louis played defense well enough to stop the 49ers twice, but will the team be able to stop this Seahawks offense that is averaging 50 points a game over the last three weeks? It’s doubtful.
Handling off-Field Distractions
There have been several news items this week to pull from the team’s focus, from the recent Pro Bowl selections, debate about who should win Rookie of the Year among the rookie quarterbacks, cornerback Richard Sherman winning his appeal over a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs and whether or not Jim Harbaugh honked his car horn in an annoying fashion.
Fortunately, the news of Sherman, who has intercepted seven passes and broken up 23 on the year, should provide a spark. He has been playing with attitude all season and, with his Pro Bowl snub and winning the appeal of his suspension, he’s going to have more motivation to perform well.
While there have been a lot of distractions, Pete Carroll has obviously done well in recent weeks to keep the team focused. A lack of focus would not suggest a team that has been putting up 40-plus points on a weekly basis.
If production drops off this week, it could be a sign of a team that has lost focus from this week’s preparation.
Containing Steven Jackson
Steven Jackson only has two games this season where he has eclipsed 100-yards rushing, yet he is just on the cusp of breaking 1,000 yards rushing for his eighth-straight season after gaining 154 rushing yards in the past two games.
If nothing else, Jackson has provided a consistent option for St. Louis. But the big question isn’t whether it will be his last game in a Rams uniform, it’s whether or not it’s his last game in the NFL.
Jason Young of the Associated Press quoted Jackson as saying that he would rather go out like Barry Sanders, who also played his entire career with one team and retired after a 1,000-yard year.
For Jackson to go out on a high note, he’s going to have to do something he’s never done against the Seahawks before: rush for 100 yards in a game.
Rookies Stepping Up
With defensive end Jason Jones on injured reserve for the remainder of the season, Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley called on Greg Scruggs to step up in his Thursday press conference.
Bradley equated the situation with the injuries to the Seahawks’ cornerbacks.
“Another guy has to step up now,” said Bradley. “Obviously [Jones] added quite a bit to us, and now Scruggs is going to have to step up in his place. He’ll get his chance and I believe he’s ready to go.”
Getting pressure on Sam Bradford may be important to the Seahawks success in some regards. With no pressure, Bradford has a quarterback rating above 90. Under pressure it drops near 60. But, curiously, Bradford has thrown most of his 12 interceptions this year when he has more time.
Injuries on both sides are allowing other rookies considerable playing time.
With cornerback Marcus Trufant returning from injury, Brandon Browner will serve the final game of his suspension on Sunday allowing Jeremy Lane to continue to continue to get playing time.
“He’s got really great speed,” said Bradley. “First and foremost, that’s one of his greatest assets.”
The 49ers really went after Lane and had some success, so expect Sam Bradford to look attack him as well. Kaepernick threw at Lane on 12 of his 35 attempts and completed seven of those passes for 87 yards.
On offense, guard J.R. Sweezy has shown considerable improvement since his early season performances. Aside from two penalties, he filled in admirably last week against the 49ers.
Red Zone Performance
One of the problems the Seahawks had in their last contest with the Rams was their limited ability to get into the end zone once they got inside the 20-yard line. They settled for two 30-yard field goals late in the game. Scoring touchdowns in those situations would have made the difference.
On the other side of the ball, the defense had two big stops inside the red zone. But one of those stops resulted in a fake field goal that the Rams were able to convert for their only touchdown of the game.
Seahawks’ receivers will have plenty of motivation ensure their passes go for six Sunday and Russell Wilson will be just as motivated to throw to the end zone. If he can get two touchdown passes, he would pass Peyton Manning as the rookie with the most in a single season.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Arizona Cardinals
With a loss or a San Francisco win, the Seahawks are locked into the fifth seed.
If San Francisco gets out ahead of the Arizona Cardinals early and have what looks like an insurmountable lead by halftime, Carroll could elect to rest his players if it begins to look like there is little to gain through a win.
If that happens, Seahawks starters may not see as much action in the second half. On the other hand, the Seahawks may just have this game locked up by halftime, just like they did against the Cardinals.
Russell Okung has put together a dominant season on the Seahawks’ offensive line and was rewarded this week with the starting left tackle spot on the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster.
Amazingly, he has yet to allow a sack this season. Of all NFL tackles on the field for more than 60 percent of the snaps, he is the only one with that achievement. Along with Max Unger and five others, there are a few elite NFL offensive lineman looking to finish the season with that honor. Both are big reason’s for Wilson’s and Marshawn Lynch’s success.
Keeping the Ball From Janoris Jenkins
The Seahawks need to make sure that Janoris Jenkins doesn’t get his hands on the football. Jenkins has ran three of his four interceptions this year back for touchdowns, including two in one game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Jenkins also has a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the Rams’ win over the 49ers. The second round draft pick is having an outstanding rookie year and hasn’t given up a touchdown pass since the team’s bye in Week 9.
More importantly, his scores all seem to have a big impact on the outcome of the games. The Rams haven’t lost a game when he’s gotten into the end zone. Interestingly, Jenkins has as many touchdowns this season as running back Steven Jackson. But the Rams have only won two of those four games in which Jackson has scored.
Showcasing Home Field Advantage
Sunday’s game should have solidified the fact into opponents’ minds that CenturyLink Field is not a place that other teams want to visit. Losing to the Rams in the last game of the year might just give another team a sliver of hope toward believing they can win in Seattle as well.
However, it may not matter. The Seahawks’ only have a slim chance of hosting a playoff game as a fifth seed. The hope is that the 49ers fall to the Cardinals at home.
In addition to the noise, the Seahawks are hoping to add a visual element to the intimidation teams face in Seattle.
The Seahawks are calling for everyone attending the game to wear blue. Clearly, Seattle fans don’t need gimmicks to get fired up for a game, so will the “BlueOut” go over well or will fans ignore the call and scream their brains out anyway in Seahawks Action Green and Wolf Grey?
Either way, if the 49ers do lose, nobody is going to be looking forward to playing Seattle no matter what color fans are wearing.
Avoid Giving Up Big Plays
Jeff Fisher and the Rams have lived for the big play this year. They’ve needed at least one per game in order to win. In fact, the only win in which they didn’t have a big play, was their 15-12 victory on the road in Buffalo.
When the Rams’ offense scores touchdowns on plays more than 30 yards, they are 4-1-1. If you throw in games where they score on special teams or defense, they are 6-2-1.
If the Seahawks get on the board quickly, as they have in their recent division match-ups at home, then allowing big plays will be the only way the Rams can get back in the game. That will also take the possibility of the Rams controlling time of possession as they pound away with Steven Jackson.
Considering how Seattle has been playing at home this season and the stakes that are on the line, it’s difficult to see the Seahawks come away with anything but another dominant performance to finish the season 8-0 at home.
Not to jinx anything, but the last time the Seahawks went undefeated at home was the year they went to their first Super Bowl.