There has been one matchup between rookie quarterbacks in the history of the NFL playoffs – last year, when TJ Yates led the Texans over Andy Dalton's Bengals. Yates wasn't exactly the Texans' starter of choice, though – both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart had gone down with injuries, so Yates was the last man standing, to a certain extent. That makes this year's matchup between Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson the first ever intentional matchup of two rookie quarterbacks in NFL playoff history. The battle for rookie of the year is just one of the many subplots to the most intriguing game of the weekend.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) @ Washington Redskins (10-6) – Sunday, January 6th, 4:30 PM Eastern, FOX.
Last Week: The Seahawks had a long-shot at the NFC West crown, and even the #2 seed, but that quickly went by the wayside, making the game relatively meaningless. Still, they left their starters in, and had a surprising amount of trouble against a scrappy Rams team, despite playing at home. Russell Wilson threw his 26th touchdown pass of the season, tying Peyton Manning's record for touchdowns as a rookie quarterback. He could have thrown #27, as well – but decided to run for the game-winning touchdown, rather than try to force a pass into the end zone, to give the Seahawks a 20-13 win. The Redskins game was, of course, anything but meaningless – the matchup against the Dallas Cowboys was for the NFC East crown and a playoff berth – essentially, a playoff game already. It wasn't their rookie quarterback that led them to the playoffs, though – it was their rookie running back. Alfred Morris ripped the Cowboys for 200 yards on the ground while the defense forced Tony Romo into throwing three interceptions, as the Skins celebrated a 28-18 victory.
Last Meeting: It seems silly to even include this category for teams that have been changed so much by the draft, but perhaps it's interesting to see how far these teams have come since last year. Rex Grossman and Tarvaris Jackson dueled at quarterback for two teams going nowhere. The Seahawks took a 17-7 lead early in the fourth quarter when Golden Tate caught a touchdown pass, but Good Rex then kicked into gear, scoring 16 points in the fourth on the back of a number of Seahawks mistakes to give them the 23-17 win, putting both teams at 4-7, and well out of the playoff race.
What's at Stake: Neither team knows where they would go if they win – but, considering the odds that the Packers will beat the Vikings in the other NFC game, the winner likely will head down to Atlanta to take on the Falcons. Should Adrian Peterson run wild over the Packers, though, they would instead head to San Francisco.
This Time: It's hard to understate the enormity of the turnarounds both these teams have had. The Redskins were 3-6 and written off – even by their own head coach (despite how Shanahan tries to spin it now). The Seahawks never were that low, but the Seahawks of the early part of the season – losing to the Cardinals, struggling against Carolina – are miles away from the powerhouse dominant Seahawks of the past month. Two months into the season, the idea that either team would reach the playoffs was laughable – and yet, here they are. An amazing development for both teams.
A lot of ink has been spread talking about the two rookie quarterbacks – and, with some reason. The two of them, along with Andrew Luck, have been phenomenal, and while comparisons to the legendary QB class of '83 (Elway, Marino, and Kelly) are premature, it's hard to remember a year with QBs quite so good. Football Outsiders' advanced stats actually has Wilson as the best of the bunch, having developed and improved by leaps and bounds as the season has progressed. Griffin, on the other hand, has cooled off a bit due to injuries and whatnot, but has played at a high level for the entire season, and ESPN's QBR places him as the best of the three. I think it's safe to say that both teams are happy with their quarterback situation for the future, and whichever one you prefer comes down to personal taste.
The fact that this game is in Washington (and not Seattle, Washington) is perhaps the biggest struggle the Seahawks have. Every team has a home field advantage of course, but no team in the NFL has a bigger gap between their home and road performances then the Seahawks do. At home, they were undefeated. They scored more than 30 points a game, and allowed just over ten. Their defense was especially impressive, allowing only 288 yards of offense a game. Some of that is the distance – there are no short road trips up to Seattle – but some of it is also the noise and passion of the fans. Retiring the #12 for the ‘twelfth man' may seem like a gimmick, but there's certainly a large effect those home fans give the ‘Hawks. On the road, however, that advantage disappears. They were 3-5 on the road, scoring 21 points a game while allowing 18.5. The defensive numbers ballooned to allowing nearly 350 yards of offense every game. You can argue that some of this is due to their back-loaded home schedule – perhaps some of the home games just coincided with the team really taking off – but there's certainly a trend here. At home, the Seahawks would be my favorite in every single game they play. On the road, things get iffier.
They're better than the Redskins are, I feel, home OR road, so the question becomes what can the Redskins do to stop them? For all the talk about the quarterbacks, it's Marshawn Lynch that keeps the Seattle O ticking. Wilson's great, yes, but the playcalling has been smart to not put everything on him so early, and when you have a workhorse like Lynch, there's no reason to. The Seahawks use an interesting zone-running game, a one-cut and go system, as well as using Russell to do a read-option style system. Unlike the Wildcat, this is an offensive innovation that seems poised to stay, at least for a little while. It can make the top pass rushers in the game obsolete, taking them right out of the play without even being blocked. There's really only one team that runs it better than the Seahawks – and that's the Redskins. Their exact systems are a bit different, due to the difference in what their respective personnel do better, but the principle is the same – and that's one of the reason these two rookie QBs have done so well this season.
It's been the historical trend for rookie QBs to sit while they adjust to a pro-style offense, but that's not been Griffen or Wilson's experience. Instead, both teams have brought college-style playcalling into the offense to make them comfortable right off the bat, and it's paid off in spades for both teams. People said that it couldn't work in the NFL; that it would prove too dangerous to high-paid quarterbacks; that the level of athleticism in the NFL would bottle up the plays before they began. But both these teams, by going against the common wisdom, have created environments for their rookie quarterbacks to succeed. Sunday's game could well be a preview of the status quo in four or five years.
Prediction: As an NFC West champion, I'd have Seattle as my Super Bowl favorite right now. On the road, I'm more iffy – the splits scare me, as does the inexperience of Seattle's squad. The inexperience won't matter against Washington, though – they're even in that regard. This should be a thrilling game, down to the wire, but in the end, I'm going to go: Seattle 21, Washington 17.
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