Seattle Seahawks @ Dallas Cowboys
Start-time: Sunday, 01:15
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action
Home advantage the telling factor in this battle of mirror-image teams
In recent times, America's Team have been playing like yesterday's men. Specifically, that means tipping a flashback nod to Dallas Cowboys legends like Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. But more generally, stalwart owner Jerry Jones just can't believe how his popular franchise has failed to lift a Vince Lombardi Trophy since 1996. In this, perhaps the most open season in recent memory, though, perhaps his Boys are due some belated postseason reciprocity.
They will certainly fancy their chances in the opening Wildcard Round of the play-offs, where they have been drawn at home to the distinctly average Seattle Seahawks. Which isn't to say that the Hawks look at all regressive on paper. Indeed, their respective rosters match up very similarly. Both teams went 10-6 in the regular season, both operate doughty defenses, progressive ground games and two talented quarterbacks who can prove difference-makers on any given night in the primetime spotlight. Hell, Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson even share leading records for 100-plus passer rating games in the league.
However, something's got to give tonight. And it's tempting to make the simplistic case that homefield advantage for Dallas will prove the key variable here. So tempting, in fact, that I'm going to make that precise case! The Boys are 7-1 at AT&T Stadium this term, and have also prevailed in both their Wildcard encounters at home since the 2008 campaign.
Obviously, Prescott is the one man who lets the form down somewhat in the postseason, but he will seldom get a better chance to make amends in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Happily, this 25-year-old has not built up enough big-game scar-tissue yet for us to be genuinely concerned about his play-off poise. Prescott has thrown for five touchdowns and no picks in the past fortnight, so he's certainly coming to the boil, having rediscovered his elusive tight ends in Cole Beasley and Blake Jarwin.
Wilson, on the other hand, has showcased his timely credentials in spades, both on the road to Super Bowl glory and in the clutch of regular season rebounds. His twin-threat versatility allows him to throw on the run, and land it on a dime, while Tyler Lockett has been his most grateful recipient over the second half of the season. Wilson's O-line is not what is was, though, which is why head coach Pete Carroll has been quick to place a heavy importance on establishing the run this year. Indeed, Seattle now operate the NFL's best chain gang for ground assaults with an average 160 yards per game.
Elliott can lay the foundations to Dallas dominance
Unsurprisingly, and symptomatic of this late course to the regular season, the Cowboys are nursing a few wounded warriors. But it's the Hawks who appear in a real flap with the squad's treatment table nursing knocks to at least eight automatic names on the teamsheet. Which is bad news for a Seattle O-line that have laboured to consistently protect Wilson at the campaign's outset. Those old frailties could return here against Dallas' dominant D, whose star-studded LB core should shut down the running options and checkdowns that gave Wilson space to thrive - just witness that New Orleans Saints game.
Back on the other side of the ball, Prescott must view discretion as the better part of valour in handing the pigskin off to running man Ezekiel Elliott, a real load-bearer for the Cowboys who should return refreshed after taking a nap against the New York Giants. It was the right decision by Jason Garrett, even if it allowed rookie Giant Saquon Barkley to pip Elliott for scrimmage yards rushing by a paltry 27 yards.
Elliott still leads the league for 100-yard-plus-rushing performances, and he can again give his quarterback the platform here. Prescott to star wideout Amari Cooper can do the rest. Cooper's expensive acquisition from an imploding Oakland was certainly their defining trade of the year, and worth every penny.
So it's Dallas for me, particularly as I feel that there's been a distinct whiff of luck rather than judgement when it comes to Seattle's key stats this term. Just take the fact that the Hawks head the NFL with a plus-15 turnover margin, in which only 11 giveaways puts them in a tie for third fewest in league history. Is that indicative of fine coaching from Carroll, or mere good fortune? Either way, I say Seattle's luck runs out in Wildcard Weekend.