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NFL Playoff Preview - Seattle (11-5) at Washington (10-6)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - They took separate paths to the NFL and ended up in the same place. When the NFL playoffs commence this weekend, a pair of rookie quarterbacks will go head-to-head on the biggest stage of their early careers.
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was coming off a Heisman Trophy campaign and took a Rolls Royce-like ride to where he is today. The No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft, Griffin will lead the Redskins into Sunday's wild card showdown versus Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks.
Wilson's road to the NFL wasn't as glamorous as Griffin's, as he waited until the third round (75th overall) for a team to take a chance on him when the Redskins knew right away Griffin was their man. Wilson wasn't even supposed to sniff the starting lineup after the Seahawks invested millions on quarterback Matt Flynn. Flynn couldn't match Wilson's determination and became an expensive backup during the preseason, when Wilson proved Seattle made the right choice by drafting the former baseball player.
Blessed with a strong arm and quick feet, Wilson led the Seahawks to an 11-5 record and a trip to the playoffs -- the team's second in three years. Wilson passed for 3,118 yards with 26 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 100.0 quarterback rating. His 26 TD passes tied Peyton Manning for the most by a rookie in NFL history. Wilson, who also helped Seattle to an 8-0 home mark, led the Seahawks on a five-game winning streak to end the regular season.
Wilson was asked about facing RG3 at FedEx Field, which is near his hometown of Richmond, Va.
"It's pretty awesome. Obviously he was the No. 2 pick overall and I was a third-round pick. So it's a great opportunity to play a great quarterback, and their football team," Wilson said. "But I'm playing the Redskins, we're playing the Redskins. I'm not playing him."
Wilson and Griffin are the only rookie quarterbacks in NFL history to post a 100.0-plus passer rating. Griffin had a 102.4 QB rating.
There are a lot of similarities between the two quarterbacks, none more striking than their surrounding cast. While RG3 gets the job done with his legs, Redskins running back Alfred Morris, another rookie making his debut in the 2012 playoffs, has aided Washington's top-rated ground attack (169.3 ypg). Wilson has Marshawn Lynch behind him and the Skittles candy fiend ran for 1,000-plus yards for a second year in a row (1,590 yards, 3rd in NFL). The Seahawks are third in the NFL in rushing (161.2 ypg).
Like all NFL teams, the Redskins set some goals in training camp and so far the plan has worked out in their favor. Step one was to win the division and the Redskins captured their first NFC East title since 1999 with a 28-18 victory over the rival Dallas Cowboys Sunday night. RG3, Morris and the defense did their job in that one, which is why the Redskins are hosting a playoff game and reached the postseason for the first time since 2007.
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said the team will prepare normally and treat each day the same. He added there must not be any letdowns on goals.
"I think these football players understand that at the beginning of the season there's only one team that's going to accomplish the ultimate goal and that's what we're all shooting for," Shanahan said. "What you have to do is pay attention to detail every day."
Shanahan expressed his respect for the Seahawks, mentioning how well they have played in all three phases. The seven-game winning streak for the 'Skins -- the longest since 1996 -- has the players used to winning and expecting to win every week. The mindset has changed tremendously for the Redskins the past month or so, especially after a 3-6 start to the season. Players now trust each other and the system, and the proof is where they're at today.
"Hopefully, we can take advantage of an opportunity and play our best football here (FedEx Field)," Shanahan said.
Seattle turned it on in November and beat the likes of New England, Green Bay and San Francisco along the way. Reaching the postseason was an obvious goal for the Seahawks, but winning the NFC West went up in smoke courtesy of an 11-4-1 record by the 49ers. Seattle closed the regular season with a 20-13 win over the division-rival St. Louis Rams.
Staring down a 4-4 record after eight games, the Seahawks road the coattails of Wilson, Lynch and a stingy defense; three areas which guided the Redskins to the playoffs as well. Seattle coach Pete Carroll credited similar attributes to the team's success much like Shanahan with the Redskins. Continuity, a common feel with the players and understanding what's expected of them resulted in a 10-win season for just the second time since 2006.
Carroll was asked what's the difference with the regular season and playoffs.
"It's more fun ... because of where you are and the focus and all of that," Carroll said. "There will be a feel about it in the playoffs. There's an air about it you can sense that's different. But the key is not allowing that to factor into what it really takes to prepare well and not miss the message."
Momentum by the youth movement is another area Carroll praised for the team's success, and that remark is directed toward Wilson mostly. He also said the players will be excited to face Washington.
"It's a very challenging team that we're playing," Carroll said of the Redskins. "We're excited about the opportunity."
The Redskins lead the all-time series with Seattle, 11-6, including the postseason. However, the Seahawks have eliminated the Redskins in both of their playoff matchups (2005, 2007). Seattle has won its first playoff game in each of the past four tries, including three straight wild card games.
Seattle has lost its last three trips to the nation's capital, last winning there Nov. 19, 1995 in a 27-20 triumph. Rick Mirer, Chris Warren and Joey Galloway were Seattle's offensive weapons that year. Gus Frerotte, Terry Allen and Henry Ellard were Washington's big three then.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The turf on FedEx Field will fade tremendously after Sunday's game. And the reason for that is the respective running backs from both sides. This is uncharted territory for Morris, who ran for a team record in rushing yards and reached the 100-yard mark seven times, including a 200-yard effort last week. Morris averaged 4.8 yards per carry and ran for an NFC-best 13 touchdowns. He's not much of a pass catcher as he ended the regular season with 11 receptions for 77 yards. Morris did fumble four times, losing three.
Morris, a sixth-round pick out of little-known Florida Atlantic, has rushed for 744 yards and eight scores in his last eight games and has carried the football at least 20 times in the previous seven. His contributions helped Washington finish the season with 2,709 rushing yards, breaking the 1983 team's mark of 2,625. Morris is the fourth rookie in NFL history to reach the 1,600-yard mark in rushing, joining Eric Dickerson (1,808 in 1983), George Rogers (1,674 in 1981) and Ottis Anderson (1,605 in 1979).
Morris was asked about the seven-game winning streak and what it means to the team heading into the playoffs.
"All odds were against us but we have faith in each other; we became a selfless team," Morris said. "We put ourselves in a playoff situation. We believe in ourselves even if no one else believes in us."
He said the Cowboys were too aggressive on defense, which opened creases for the run game and made the job of the offensive line a lot easier. Running behind left tackle Trent Williams is an added plus, too. Seattle was 10th in the league in rushing defense, allowing 103.1 yards per game. The Seahawks run a 4-3 defense and were led by middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who registered a team-best 140 tackles in the regular season. Leroy Hill did not play in the season finale against St. Louis, but should be back for the playoffs. K.J. Wright plays opposite of Hill on the outside and finished second on the team with 98 tackles.
Of course, RG3 is another area of concern for Seattle. But not for defensive ends Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin. Clemons had a team and career-high 11 1/2 sacks this season (his third straight season with at least 11), but has been held without one in two straight games. The biggest name in the Seattle secondary is Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas. Thomas will also move up to the box for extra support against the run. Also, cornerback Brandon Browner is back from a four-game suspension and his teammates were delighted to see him.
"It's real big for us," Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant said of having Browner back. "B.B. is a big part of this team, a big part of the defense. Now that we get him back, it makes us even better."
The Seahawks won all four games Browner missed and rookies Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell played well in his absence. Thomas was impressed with how well the youngsters performed, but said getting Browner back is "big for us." Thomas noted how the chemistry in the secondary will be restored.
While the Seattle defense has to prepare for Griffin and Morris, Washington won't have a walk in the park either trying to stop Lynch. Lynch, selected to his second career Pro Bowl and first with Seattle, faces a Redskins run defense that was fifth in the regular season (95.8 ypg). The Redskins haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Ray Rice posted 121 yards on 20 carries Dec.9.
Lynch ran for 100-plus yards 10 times this season and averaged 5.0 yards per carry. He scored 11 touchdowns and, much like Morris, isn't much of a threat with his hands even though he caught 23 passes for 196 yards and a score. He will represent problems for Washington's defense, a team that persevered through injuries and adversity all season. Veteran middle linebacker London Fletcher is the heart and soul of the defense and led the team with 139 tackles. Outside linebacker Perry Riley was second with 128 stops. Both Fletcher and Riley were able to slow down Dallas RB DeMarco Murray, but Murray is no Lynch.
"They've got a talented offensive line. Marshawn Lynch is one of the best running backs in the league and Russell Wilson is using his ability in many different ways," Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said. "It's going to be a tough task. It's probably gonna come down to the defenses. Both offenses are potent, both can run the ball. So it's probably going to come down to whose defense plays the best."
Cofield said it took time for the defense to adjust and become familiar with each other when injuries took their toll early on. Linebacker and Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo was probably the biggest loss for the defense, which allowed linebacker/defensive end Ryan Kerrigan to step up. Kerrigan led the Redskins with 8 1/2 sacks. The Redskins hope to get cornerback Cedric Griffin caught up on the Seahawks since he is eligible to return following a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drugs policy.
"I was a track athlete growing all the way up, so my conditioning has never been a problem for myself," Griffin told the Washington Times. "Lifting weights has never been a problem. I'm in great shape, to be honest with you. If I get my chance to get out there on the field, I'm sure I'll get out there and prove it to you guys."
Josh Wilson, DeAngelo Hall and D.J. Johnson are the other defensive backs for the Redskins, but Johnson sustained a knee injury against Dallas and his status for Sunday is uncertain. Rookie Richard Crawford will most likely be the fourth CB if Johnson is out. The Seahawks have decent receivers in Sidney Rice and Golden Tate, and both caught seven TD passes this season.
Santana Moss led Washington with eight TD receptions and first-year Redskins Pierre Garcon finished with four and added depth to the corps. Moss was a member of the Redskins the last time they reached the postseason in 2007.
"It feels really good. Really sweet," Moss said of returning to the playoffs.
Creating turnovers and making big plays is what Sunday's game will boil down to, according to Cofield, who will get an up-front look at both Lynch and Wilson the entire afternoon. It's not always about stats and yards gained even though it helps, but more of making crucial plays and big stops. Usually the best team in the tournament is the hottest, and both the Redskins and Seahawks are sizzling at the right time.
"It's a great opportunity. It's a blessing. We've gotten wins so far in the regular season and now the whole season starts over," Wilson said. "The mindset doesn't change. We have to go 1-0 every week and continue to compete. We're really excited about the opportunity and we'll be ready to play."
Griffin is also excited to be in the playoffs.
"To me, it's just incredible," Griffin said. "The sky's the limit for this team, not only for this year, but in the future. We are definitely looking to capitalize on it this year."
Washington runs the read option and can hurt defenses that haven't experienced what it's all about. Carroll, though, has seen plenty of the read option as head coach at USC. But this is not college and these are not college players. Even if RG3 or Morris doesn't perform up to code, the defense will be the backbone to victory Sunday. Having the opportunity to play at home is another advantage for the 'Skins because had this game been in Seattle, it would be a long flight back to D.C.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Redskins 20, Seahawks 16
01/03 13:19:22 ET