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NFL Playoff Preview - Seattle (8-9) at Chicago (11-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Seattle Seahawks, the first team to win a division with a losing record, showed last Saturday the ultimate example of "any given Sunday."
Heavy underdogs for a second straight weekend, the Seahawks will try to pick up their first road postseason win since 1983 and pull off another upset as they visit the second-seeded Chicago Bears this Sunday in an NFC Divisional Playoff at Soldier Field.
Few felt the Seahawks belonged in the postseason, much less deserved a fourth seed and opening-round home game, after they won the NFC West with just a 7-9 mark. That set Seattle up for a meeting with the defending champion New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card Round, with the Seahawks considered double-digit underdogs.
However, behind four touchdown passes by quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and an amazing game-clinching 67-yard scoring run by Marshawn Lynch late in the game -- in which the running back busted through at least six tackles -- the Seahawks knocked off the Saints, 41-36, for their fifth straight playoff victory at Qwest Field.
Seattle rallied from a pair of early 10-point deficits with a 27-3 run that began early in the second quarter and stretched through the third. That made the Seahawks the first team to defeat a defending champion in the postseason after trailing by 10 or more points.
"We don't really worry about what other people say," Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock said. "We believe in each other and we just want to go out there and play like we know we can play. If we keep winning games, we'll get more believers. It's really up to us."
Things don't get any easier now for the Seahawks, who have lost seven straight road playoff tests since winning their first and only postseason game as the guest on Dec. 31, 1983 at Miami. Head coach Pete Carroll will also have to make sure his team isn't still caught up in last weekend's victory.
"Last week is gone, forgotten for us and our focus is truly on what's going on right now," said Carroll.
Seattle, though, does own a victory in Chicago already this season, a 23-20 win that came right after the Seahawks' bye and was their only one versus a playoff-bound team during the regular season.
With the extra week to prepare, the Seahawks sacked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler six times and Chicago went 0-for-12 on converting third downs. Offensively, Lynch and Justin Forsett combined for 111 rushing yards and both running backs found the end zone.
Chicago gave up a pair of long touchdown drives in that loss and did not record a sack or a takeaway. The Bears come into this rematch healthy and fresh, while Cutler thinks the extra week will benefit the club, especially when it gives offensive coordinator Mike Martz some extra time to scheme.
"He gets a better feel for what [the opponents] are going to do in certain situations, which in turn gives him an advantage in calling plays," Cutler said. "In third down, in red zone, on second and long, he can see things and he can dial some stuff up that he might be hesitant to call if he hasn't seen enough film on them or if they are doing a lot different stuff."
Chicago won five of its final seven regular-season games to win its third NFC North title under head coach Lovie Smith, but did lose a 10-3 matchup to Green Bay in Week 17. Smith will hope this weekend for a better result than that meaningless finale or the one his team put up against Seattle earlier.
"When you play someone again for the second time and you know each other fairly well, you want to of course add a few things, which both of us will do," Smith said of the rematch. "But as much as anything, just try to execute a little bit better than we did the first time around."
Chicago is back in the postseason for the first time since 2006, a run that ended with a Super Bowl loss to Indianapolis.
These teams have met one time before in the postseason, with the Bears coming through with a hard-fought 27-24 overtime triumph over Seattle in a 2006 NFC Divisional Playoff at Soldier Field, a win that helped propel Chicago to its last Super Bowl appearance.
The Seahawks took an 8-4 lead in their all-time regular-season series with Chicago after the previously-noted Week 6 verdict. Before that victory, Seattle hadn't prevailed at Soldier Field since 1999, dropping a 2006 encounter there in addition to its loss in that year's playoffs.
Smith is 3-2 against the Seahawks in his career and owns a 2-2 lifetime mark in the postseason. Carroll is 2-1 overall against the Bears, including a loss during his tenure with the New York Jets in 1994 and a win while directing the New England Patriots in 1997, and also sports a 2-2 record in the playoffs over the course of his coaching career.
Seattle's win at Soldier Field in mid-October marked the first-ever head-to- head matchup between Smith and Carroll.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle received inspired play last weekend from Hasselbeck (3001 passing yards, 12 TD, 17 INT), who was forced to miss the club's Week 17 division- clinching victory over the Rams due to a hip injury. He even had to have fluid drained from the hip last week, but still set a team playoff record for touchdown passes in a game. Hasselbeck, a veteran of 10 postseason games, has thrown a touchdown pass in nine consecutive playoff tilts and can become just the seventh player in league history to throw one in 10 straight. Seattle averaged just 19.4 points per game during the regular season, but set a franchise playoff best with 41 points last weekend. Tight end John Carlson (31 receptions, 1 TD) didn't do much scoring during the regular season, but caught a pair of touchdown passes versus the Saints. Wide receivers Mike Williams (65 receptions, 2 TD) and Ben Obomanu (30 receptions, 4 TD) both had five receptions last weekend, with Williams hauling in a touchdown pass, while Brandon Stokley (31 receptions) made four catches for a club-high 73 yards with a score. Williams tagged the Bears for 10 catches and 123 yards in the previous meeting. Seattle ranked 31st in the league with an average of just 89.0 yards per game on the ground, but Lynch (737 rushing yards, 6 TD) became the first Seattle player to reach 100 yards in a game this season with his 19- carry, 131-yard performance versus the Saints.
The Bears will try to keep Seattle's newfound run game in check, something they excelled at during the regular season. Though they struggled against the Seahawks back in October, the Bears still ranked second in rushing defense at 90.1 yards per game allowed. Chicago also ranked second in the NFC with 35 takeaways and had three players finish with four-plus interceptions for the first time since 1986. Safety Chris Harris (70 tackles) and cornerback Charles Tillman (82 tackles) led the way with five each, while corner D.J. Moore (42 tackles, 1 sack) had four. Linebacker Brian Urlacher (125 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) reached 100 tackles for the 10th time in his 11-year career and figures to be Lynch's major obstacle, while Seattle will also have to deal with fellow Pro Bowl honoree Lance Briggs (89 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT). The linebacker did not play versus Seattle earlier this year due to injury. Chicago did rank 20th versus the pass (224.3 ypg), but Hasselbeck will still have his hands full with defensive ends Israel Idonije (49 tackles) and Julius Peppers (54 tackles, 2 INT). The duo tied for the team lead with eight sacks each, a career high for Idonije. Peppers has two sacks, one interception and a forced fumble in eight career playoff games, while Urlacher has 43 tackles, a sack and a pick in five.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Chicago ranked 30th in total offense (289.4 ypg) and 21st in scoring (20.9 ppg) in the regular season, and Cutler, running back Matt Forte, wide receiver Johnny Knox and tight end Greg Olsen will all be making their postseason debuts. Cutler (3274 passing yards, 23 TD, 16 INT) turned in the third-highest season passing yards total in team history, but was picked off six times over Chicago's last four games with six touchdown passes. Typical under a Martz offense, Cutler was also sacked a league-high 52 times. Forte (1069 rushing yards, 51 receptions, 9 total TD) was limited to just 11 yards on eight carries when the Bears last faced the Seahawks, but he joined Hall of Famer Walter Payton as the only Chicago backs with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in a season. Knox (51 receptions, 5 TD), meanwhile, had five catches for 120 yards versus Seattle and tied Forte for the club lead in receptions this season. His five touchdown receptions also matched Olsen (41 receptions) for the team lead, with wideout Devin Hester (40 receptions) adding four. Hester, though, has never caught a pass in the playoffs and Chicago ranked just 28th in passing offense (188.4 ypg) while failing to produce a 1,000-yard receiver.
Seattle both bent and broke last weekend versus the Saints, allowing 474 yards of offense, including 404 passing by New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. Two of New Orleans' four touchdowns also came on the ground to balance out the attack, not surprising given that the Seahawks ranked 27th in total defense (368.6 ypg) and 25th in scoring defense (25.4 ppg) in the regular season. They'll need a better effort this weekend, similar to the one when they last faced the Bears. Chicago had just 307 yards in that game, while safety Lawyer Milloy (88 tackles, 4 sacks) had two of Seattle's six sacks. Safety Jordan Babineaux (46 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) also had a big game with 1 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble. Linebacker David Hawthorne (106 tackles, 1 INT) was busy versus the Saints, making a team-high nine tackles, while rookie safety Earl Thomas (76 tackles, 5 INT) and cornerback Kelly Jennings (40 tackles) had eight each. Brock (32 tackles, 9 sacks) had Seattle's lone sack versus the Saints and also forced a fumble that Hawthorne recovered. He and fellow defensive end Chris Clemons (49 tackles, 11 sacks) will be counted on to pressure Cutler. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu (88 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) suffered a concussion versus the Saints, but is expected to play this weekend.
Both teams have very dangerous return men, with Leon Washington handling the role for the Seahawks. Washington is the first player in league history to return three kickoffs for a score in two different seasons and was fifth in the NFC with a 25.6 kickoff return average. His seven career kick return touchdowns rank seventh in league history, and he also averaged 11.3 yards per punt return. Punter Jon Ryan ranked seventh in the NFC with 27 punts inside the 20-yard line, including a career-high six versus the Bears earlier this year. Kicker Olindo Mare made good on both of his field goal tries last weekend and went 25-of-30 during the regular season with a long of 51. He added 20 touchbacks on kickoffs.
Equally as dangerous to Washington is Hester, who holds the NFL record with 14 career combined return touchdowns (10 PR, 4 KR) and had a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLI. He averaged 17.1 yards per punt return with three touchdowns and 35.6 per kickoff return in the regular season. Danieal Manning averaged 24.7 yards per kickoff return for Chicago. Kicker Robbie Gould was also 25-of-30 this year on field goal tries with a long of 54, while punter Brad Maynard buried 24 of his 83 kicks inside the 20. Gould is a perfect 6-for-6 on field goal attempts in four playoff games.
The Bears seem to be a better matchup on paper for the Seahawks than the Saints were, so a victory on Sunday might not be viewed as that big of an upset. Seattle should have a wave of momentum from last weekend's victory and already owns a win at Solider Field this year. However, as pointed out earlier it was the Seahawks who had the week off before they faced the Bears in October, while healthy Chicago will be the one that's better rested this weekend. Hasselbeck's hip injury could linger, and some hits from Peppers and Idonije could end his day early. Seattle won't be taking anybody by surprise this Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 20, Seahawks 13
01/13 13:21:37 ET
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