ESPN.com NFC East blogger Dan Graziano and NFC West blogger Mike Sando discuss this Sunday's playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field, in Landover, Md.
Sando: Well, Dan, we meet again. It wasn't all that long ago that I was reduced to fly-on-the-wall status during a three-way discussion with our AFC South guy, Paul Kuharsky, over which quarterback -- Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson -- was looking like the offensive rookie of the year. That was before Week 11. Griffin and Luck were still seen as prohibitive favorites. Since then, all Wilson has done is go 5-1 as a starter with two road wins while leading the NFL in Total QBR and ranking second to his wild-card counterpart, Griffin, in NFL passer rating. This should be a showcase game for both.
Graziano: Yeah, this year's NFL playoffs mark the death of patience, I fear, as those three rookie quarterbacks have led their teams into the playoffs and now people will expect one-year turnarounds all over the league. It seems these are a couple of pretty special cases, though. I was arguing Wilson for rookie of the year on TV last week on the grounds that his team has performed the best of the three, but that was merely a random tiebreaker I picked -- the idea that while Griffin, Wilson and Luck have all elevated their teams, Wilson has elevated his to the highest level. What amazes me about Griffin is that he has been the same guy from Week 1. I know Wilson had to work his way into his current level of excellence, while Griffin had one of his best games in the opener against the Saints and hasn't looked back. Even the past couple of weeks, as he plays on a bad knee, you see a level of maturity and confidence that just leaves you unable to believe this is a 22-year-old rookie. He makes the right throw and the right decision regardless of pain or dire circumstances, and while the knee does appear to be affecting him when he runs, it doesn't appear to affect the other key aspects of his game -- most notably operating this complex Shanahan offense from play to play.
Sando: Yes, Griffin has been the same guy all the way through. I give the Redskins' coaches credit for having the flexibility to basically install the offense Griffin ran in college. That had to smooth the transition. How many Super Bowl-winning offensive coaches would do that for a rookie? Not many. Wilson had run one system at North Carolina State and another at Wisconsin before learning yet another in Seattle -- all while sharing practice reps with one or two veterans (we forget that incumbent starter Tarvaris Jackson (!) was on the roster for a while with Wilson and Matt Flynn). Once the season started, the Seahawks' coaches seemed to suddenly realize they had a rookie behind center. It was as though Pete Carroll's defensive background hit the override switch on all the preseason excitement. Seattle didn't really unleash Wilson for several weeks.
Graziano: I think the interesting part of this game will be what the defenses decide to do to try to slow down these rookie quarterbacks. Washington's defense ended up ranked 28th in the league, but they're winning lately by forcing turnovers and getting sacks at a higher rate than they did earlier in the season. And defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has excelled at changing schemes week to week and sometimes even within games to confuse offenses. The blitz-heavy package they used against Tony Romo and the Cowboys on Sunday night was unlike anything they'd put on film all year, and it clearly confused the Cowboys, who never adjusted to it. I doubt Wilson can expect to see the same kind of defense Romo saw Sunday. The numbers seem to indicate that they'd be wise to blitz him, but having watched the Redskins for the last couple of months there's no way to predict what Haslett will come up with.
Sando: The Seahawks led the NFL in fewest points allowed this season, but it didn't always feel that way. Their ability to generate a pass rush late in games has been a problem, particularly on the road. They aren't a heavy blitzing team. Sometimes I think they've been too conservative defensively late in games. They were leading late at Detroit and Miami, but broke down defensively in the end. The Seahawks also ranked only 24th in QBR against play-action passes, an area where Griffin averages an additional 5.0 yards per attempt (11.7). Seattle does have the defensive speed, however, to handle running quarterbacks. Cam Newton had his roughest outing of the season against Seattle. My thinking is that Griffin is going to have to beat this defense with his arm.
Graziano: Griffin has been pretty lethal against the blitz, so the Seahawks probably are better off in coverage against him anyway. And he has beaten plenty of teams with his arm. Dallas on Thanksgiving comes to mind. I am intrigued about the matchups in the secondary, as Pierre Garcon and the Redskins' receivers are big and physical but don't often see the kind of big, physical corners the Seahawks have in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. (Who does?) The Redskins were 9-1 this year in games in which Garcon played (he missed six games with a foot injury), and his ability to win his matchups deep as well as on slants over the middle has added a great deal to the Washington passing game in the second half of the season. How will the Seahawks play him?
Sando: I'm not anticipating any special plan for Garcon. Seattle played more zone than usual when holding Calvin Johnson to three catches for 46 yards, but the defense sprung leaks everywhere else. Seattle did not appear comfortable changing its style for that game. Matthew Stafford wound up having a career day on third down. Garcon is good, but I don't think the Seahawks will feel as though he's a scheme buster. They'll need to watch him on first down. Garcon has 66 percent of his receiving yards on first down. He has 13 catches for 337 yards -- that's 25-plus yards per catch -- from play-action throws on first down. Those types of plays haven't been pivotal against Seattle this season. The Seahawks have been more vulnerable, at times, against good slot receivers. Santana Moss might be of greater concern to Seattle.
Graziano: Interesting. And what about the run game? Alfred Morris finished second in the league in rushing yards, and I know Seattle has a reputation as a tough run defense, though I see the Seahawks finished in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed per attempt. Morris and the Redskins' play-action passing game go hand-in-hand (obviously), but is he going to be able to find anything like the running room he found against Dallas the other night? Teams have had to back off a bit because of the threat of RG III as a runner. You mention the way they handled Cam Newton as a running quarterback, but Morris seems to add something Carolina didn't offer as a threat from the running back position in Week 5.
Sando: The Seahawks ranked 30th in yards per carry allowed from Week 7 forward. They became vulnerable to trap runs against Frank Gore in Week 7. In my view, that game and perhaps another one at Miami were the only ones in which poor run defense played a meaningful role in a Seahawks defeat. Adrian Peterson had a monster game against the Seahawks, but that said more about Peterson than it said about Seattle. The Seahawks won that game by 10, anyway. I'd be surprised if Seattle's defense struggled against Morris the way Dallas' defense struggled against him. The Seahawks are so much healthier. I really liked the way Cincinnati defended the Redskins earlier in the year, cutting off the perimeter and delivering big hits. That is how Seattle will try to play.
Graziano: Yeah, the game I'm looking at is the Monday night game against the Giants in Week 13, when Washington trailed 13-10 at the half and won 17-16. They couldn't stop Eli Manning and the Giants from moving the ball in the first half, but they totally changed their defensive game plan at halftime, increasing the pressure on Manning and playing more man-to-man coverage in the secondary. New York was able to contain Griffin but for a 46-yard run in the third quarter, but the Redskins stayed patient and won a close game. That patience is going to be the key. Washington, for the past month or so, has displayed a patience and maturity befitting a team that has been here before, and if that continues Sunday I think they have a chance to slug it out with Seattle and be in position to win it in the end. It'll be the toughest game they've played in quite a while (heck, we haven't even talked about Marshawn Lynch!), and it's likely to be a lower-scoring game than they're used to playing, but as long as the playoff stage doesn't freak them out, I anticipate they'll have a chance.
Sando: Having covered the Seahawks for some time and knowing their playoff history, it’s odd seeing them favored to win a road playoff game (something the team has not done since the 1983 season, by the way). That’s how much of a game-changer Wilson has been. Seattle is a team without a glaring weakness. Not much about this team surprises me any longer. I feel as though the Seahawks have the healthier and hotter quarterback at this time. That could be the difference.