I had the pleasure of writing a Washington Redskins playoff preview in the very early days of the Redskins Hog Heaven blog. That preview was written five years ago in the shadow of the Sean Taylor murder, in the wake of an unlikely playoff run led by Todd Collins, and was about the trip to Seattle that the Redskins earned by finishing the season with four straight wins.
This Redskins team is better than that 2007 team, although not quite as strong as Joe Gibbs' best team of this past decade, the 2005 wild card team. The common link between those three seasons is that, no matter how many games in a row the Redskins needed to win in order to make the playoffs (4, 5, and 7 respectively), the Seattle Seahawks always sat waiting in the playoffs.
The biggest difference this time isn't with the Redskins, but with the Seahawks. According to one comprehensive measure, Seattle has been the best team in football this year. But despite the fact that the 2012 Seahawks figure to be the best Seahawks team in franchise history, the overall competitiveness of the NFC West means that Seattle lost the division to San Francisco by a half game, just two years after they won the division at 7-9. That solved the single biggest problem the Redskins have had to deal with during their prior two playoffs: trips across the country to the Pacific Northwest.
This isn't just something that works out in favor of the Redskins; the Seahawks have had a similar end to their last four playoffs. They all ended during trips to the Midwest (2005 - Detroit [SB XL], 2006 - Chicago, 2007 - Green Bay, 2010 - Chicago).
As someone who lives in the Midwest, I am uniquely qualified to point out that Washington is actually significantly farther from Seattle than the Midwest is. Based on geography alone, Seattle's 2012 playoff run doesn't set up very well.
The Redskins' run sets up a little bit better, as there is a very good chance they can follow up a home playoff win with an easy jaunt to Atlanta before being forced to pack the wagon train for San Francisco or Green Bay for the NFC Championship.
This is getting ahead of ourselves, given that Seattle is favored on the road over the Redskins by about three points. And while this isn't going to be the only time the Redskins are underdogs in this playoff field, it is very clear that the Redskins have no harder competitor than the team they drew first.
The Seahawks have remained remarkably healthy all season. What's more, it's hard to imagine a matchup between two teams with more similarities than the Redskins and the Seahawks.
On the same day that the Redskins dropped the home game to Cam Newton's Panthers (a loss that doesn't look as bad as it once did), the Seahawks dropped a game to the Detroit Lions. Detroit wouldn't win another game all year. From that point on, the Redskins and Seahawks combined to go 14-1.
New school football
However, it's not about the record with these teams; it's about the way that both have relentlessly torn down established pro football orthodoxies over the course of the season.
A passing league? Sure it is, but these two teams have been better at running the football than any other in pro football this year (Seattle's 16.7% Rushing DVOA narrowly edged Washington's 16.3% for tops in the NFL).
Can't mortgage your future for a single player? Washington cashed in its chips for perhaps the NFL's Rookie of the Year.
Can't find quality quarterback talent down in the draft? Seattle has a player who might steal the Offensive Rookie of the Year from Robert Griffin, and they found him in the third round.
Can't win games with rookies? The Redskins are winning games led by both a rookie QB and a rookie RB in Alfred Morris. The teardown of established football truisms by these two organizations has been rather systematic.
This makes this playoff matchup a treat for football fanatics not only because the strategy employed on the field will be so intriguing, but also because the winner of the game is instantly a super bowl front-runner.
The Redskins will only be able to compete with the Seahawks if Robert Griffin makes a remarkable recovery from his injured knee to become the player he was earlier in the year: fearless inside and outside the pocket.
Griffin ran effectively against the Dallas Cowboys last week because the scheme kept the Cowboys reacting to the action on the field instead of attacking Griffin. Griffin's athleticism was not as effective because he was not much quicker than the Cowboys players were. The Seahawks are both faster and more explosive than the Cowboys in the front seven.
Seattle is going to get into Griffin's face most of the day. If he can still execute the throws required by this offense by demonstrating good fundamentals and accuracy, Seattle won't be able to slow the Redskins' offense. This is a major question at this moment, given the lack of confidence Griffin demonstrated in his own knee, and the relative (to himself) inaccuracy of his passes.
Defensively, the Redskins are going to have a ton of trouble with Seattle's running game because they are not very good across the board at tackling, and no player breaks more tackles than Seattle running back, Marshawn Lynch. Combined with Russell Wilson's mobility, the Seattle rushing attack figures to put up both yards and points.
Through the air, the Seahawks have been fantastic in the second half of the season. However, the Redskins might enjoy a surprise advantage, based on the kind of looks they were able to create against Tony Romo last week. Russell Wilson is a lot more mobile than Romo and will be able to get outside contain if the Redskins were to use the exact same blitz packages.
But the Seahawks may prove susceptible to the same type of blitz preparation the Redskins put in last week against the Cowboys. The Redskins can easily take advantage of Russell Wilson's lack of height, by changing the look very late in the pre-snap process.
Wilson needs to identify the position of the safeties earlier in the process than a taller quarterback may (to be fair, this is likely true of Robert Griffin as well), and like Romo, will need to predetermine the location of his outlet receiver if the Redskins bring pressure.
Through thorough film study, the Redskins should have success limiting the passing game of the Seahawks and the pressure schemes should allow them to enjoy an extra advantage against the Seahawks rushing attack by creating penetration against Marshawn Lynch.
The Seahawks' receiving corps is incredibly similar to the Redskins', although Sidney Rice is the best receiver on either team, and he's having another great year. Golden Tate and Pierre Garcon are very much the same player at this point in their careers, and Doug Baldwin is a young version of Santana Moss. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is enjoying the same kind of career resurgence as Kyle Shanahan by taking a very young offense and getting elite production against NFL defenses.
Beyond the Seahawks...if
I like the Redskins in this game, so long as improved health is granted to Griffin. If Wilson outplays Griffin, the Seahawks have too many other advantages on the field (and are overall a better team) for the rest of the Redskins to overcome, regardless of home field advantage. But once the Redskins are able to overcome the Seahawks, it's hard not to look at the rest of the playoffs as somewhat anticlimactic.
The Falcons, Packers, and 49ers do not display the kind of creativity on both sides of the ball that Seattle does. Atlanta is not particularly far away and the Redskins have been playing better football than the Falcons over the last two months. The Packers -- whose spread attack would give the Redskins fits -- might not even make it to the NFC Championship game, having to go through San Francisco to get there.
Ultimately, how far the Redskins go depends less on the route they have to take than on the health of Robert Griffin III. If Griffin makes a huge improvement in mobility and accuracy between last Sunday and this Sunday, the Redskins have the tools and ability to extend this seven game winning streak to an eleven game winning streak. If Griffin makes no improvement, or suffers a setback, then the Wilson-led Seahawks are probably the NFC team of destiny.
In either case, Redskins fans won't have to wait long to get their answers.
September 12, 2012, Robert Griffin III, Getty Images via zimbio.com.
December 16, 2012, Russell Wilson, Getty Images via zimbio.com.
December 30, 2012, Marshawn Lynch, Getty Images via zimbio.com.
December 22, 2012, Robert Griffin III, Getty Images via zimbio.com.
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