Seahawks fans have the pleasure of watching other fanbases fight for their playoff lives this weekend while their team rests and recuperates. I have heard plenty of opinions about who the best and worst matchups would be for the Seahawks when they do get back on the field. I have disagreed with most of them, so I wanted to share a few thoughts on which NFC teams pose the toughest test for Seattle.

Criteria

The ingredients needed to win a game in Seattle during the playoffs are weighted slightly differently than against the rest of the NFL. An elite quarterback does not give you the edge it would in most places. It certainly helps, but it is not the top factor. Here are the criteria, in order of importance, to being a great challenger to Seattle:
  1. Experience playing (and ideally winning) in CenturyLink Field
  2. A dominant run defense
  3. A strong pass rush
  4. Powerful running game between the tackles
  5. A great quarterback
  6. A great coach
Now let’s take a look at each of the NFC playoff teams to see how they rank according to each of these criteria.

Experience in CenturyLink Field

Arizona and Dallas are the only playoff teams to have won a game in Seattle. 
  1. Arizona
  2. Dallas
  3. Green Bay
  4. Detroit
  5. Carolina
The Cardinals get the top ranking here because they have played here more than any of the other teams. The players all are fully aware of what to expect. Many would pick the Cowboys because they won here this year, while the Cardinals lost handily, but I don’t believe Dallas actually played this Seahawks offense or defense. Green Bay has played here a number of times, even though they lost, so they get the third spot. 
Detroit and Carolina would both be getting their first CenturyLink Field experience in an incredibly rowdy moment. The Panthers have more experience playing the Seahawks the last three years, but Cam Newton is probably the least-equipped quarterback to combat the issues he would face for the first time. 

Dominant run defense

The Seahawks offense is more reliant on the run game than they were a year ago. A team that can force Seattle to throw is a team that can make it very difficult for Seattle to score. Detroit wins this hands-down. 
  1. Detroit
  2. Dallas
  3. Arizona
  4. Green Bay
  5. Carolina
The Cardinals would rank higher here, but have had a terrible three-game stretch where they are allowing 180.7 rushing yards per game. They have the hogs up front to gum up inside runs. My gut is they should be number two on this list, but the evidence does not back it up. Dallas is not great against the run. They are 17th in opponent yards per carry, but they are the best of the rest.
Green Bay and Carolina have horrid run defenses. Any team with Luke Keuchly at middle linebacker should be higher, but they are allowing 4.5 yards per carry, good for 27th in the NFL. That is not the number you want to bring into Seattle.

Strong pass rush

It is interesting to see that the Seahawks are the top pass rush team in the NFC playoffs when judged by sack percentage, and the only rank 11th overall. 
  1. Green Bay
  2. Carolina
  3. Detroit
  4. Dallas
  5. Arizona
The Packers have the second-best sack percentage in the NFL (11.3%) over the last three games of the year behind only the Seahawks (12.2%). They have known quantities in Julius Peppers and Clay Mathews who are tough, but have not been large factors against the Seahawks in the past. Carolina has warmed it up lately with a 11.1% sack rate in their last three, and have a dominant end in Charles Johnson. 
Henry Melton is out this week due to an injury, and may miss the playoffs. He is one of the top two pass rushers on a relatively mediocre pass rush defense. The Lions have a lower sack rate than Dallas, but that is due in large part to their great run defense forcing more pass attempts. They are 8th in the NFL in sacks, and have terrific lineman to create pressure without bringing blitzes. The Cardinals got seven sacks against the Seahawks, but that was an aberration for a team ranked 24th in sacks and 26th in sack rate.

Powerful interior rush offense

The only teams to ever have success against this Seahawks defense are the ones that can establish a running game. It is nearly impossible to beat them if that does not happen. 
  1. Dallas
  2. Green Bay
  3. Detroit
  4. Arizona
  5. Carolina
The Cowboys have already come into Seattle and ran the ball effectively. The Packers have the most powerful runner in Eddie Lacy, but still rank only 12th in the NFL in interior runs, according to FootballOutsiders.com. Detroit has Joique Bell and are close to the Packers ranking on interior runs (14th).
Arizona and Carolina are horrible run teams that pose little threat to Seattle’s interior line.

Great quarterback

The right quarterback to play in Seattle is not only a great passer, but is a solid leader and strategist. Managing adjustments at the line and dealing with moments where it is too loud to make an adjustment is key. A team that makes fewer checks at the line is often better off. 
  1. Dallas
  2. Green Bay
  3. Detroit
  4. Carolina
  5. Arizona
Rodgers is a better quarterback than Romo, but his ego is his achilles heel. He wants to outsmart the defense and make throws down the field. Romo has proven he can make the big play at the big moment in Seattle, and his creativity under adverse situations gives him the edge over Rodgers here. Stafford is a significant step behind these two and a bigger step ahead of the last two. Neither Cam Newton or Ryan Lindley/Drew Stanton are well equipped to handle the pressure and noise of a playoff game in Seattle.

Great coach

A coach who can surprise Seattle with a scheme or play could be the difference in a close game. Pete Carroll, as great as he is, has not always been strong at managing the game. His choices about when to kick a field goal, go for it on fourth down, or manage the clock and his timeouts have been the weakest part of his resume. Jeff Fisher is the poster child for the type of coach who can catch Seattle off-guard. Jim Harbaugh was outstanding in this regard as well. Neither will factor into the playoffs this year.
  1. Green Bay
  2. Arizona
  3. Detroit
  4. Dallas
  5. Carolina
Mike McCarthy is smart and creative. He also manages the game splendidly. That said, he has had a few cracks at Seattle without much luck. Bruce Arians instills confidence in his team regardless of the situation, and has proven he can ugly-up a game enough in Seattle to win. Jim Caldwell is new to the Seahawks and that gives him an edge. I have very little respect for Jason Garrett as a head coach, and think he is ill-equipped to handle the adversity his team would face in a return to CenturyLink Field. It is a wonder that Ron Rivera is still a head coach.

The verdict 

The most desirable match-up for the Seahawks would be the Carolina Panthers. Even as that team has played well in recent weeks, they finish last or second-to-last in five of the six criteria. It is hard to imagine Newton and Rivera coming here and leaving with anything but a humiliating loss. 
On the flip side, the Cowboys finish in the top two spots in four of the six criteria and have already won here this year. They have ended the season playing their best football as well. Most would pick the second-seeded Packers and Rodgers over Romo and the Cowboys, but Green Bay has struggled mightily against teams with great defenses and great running games. Seattle has also proven they can frustrate Rodgers. That’s not to say it would be a walk in the park, but Dallas poses a bigger threat.
My assessment of toughest teams for Seattle to face in the NFC:
  1. Dallas
  2. Green Bay
  3. Detroit
  4. Arizona
  5. Carolina

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