No sequence summed up the dominance of the Seattle Seahawks offense over the shorthanded Vikings defense last month better than the third-quarter touchdown drive that made the score 35-0.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson ripped through the defense on a 53-yard read-option run, but the touchdown was called back because of a holding penalty downfield by a tight end. No matter. On the very next play, Wilson tossed a 53-yard touchdown pass over the Vikings’ heads to wide receiver Doug Baldwin.
Whatever the Seahawks tried that afternoon seemed to work in their 38-7 victory at TCF Bank Stadium. Wilson accounted for four scores and had a 146.0 passer rating. Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls, who is now on injured reserve because of a broken ankle, rushed for 101 yards and a score. Baldwin caught two touchdown passes.
The 38 points and 433 yards of offense were the most the Vikings allowed in 2015. Yet, for some reason, many of their defenders are excited to get another crack at the Seahawks, who have one of the NFL’s hottest offenses entering the playoffs.
“That’s part of being a competitor,” safety Harrison Smith said this week. “They handed it to us last time. You can’t say anything else besides that. So having another chance to prove that we can play better is something that we like.”
To be fair, though, it’s difficult to imagine the now-fifth-ranked Vikings defense playing any worse. They missed tackles. They couldn’t cover Baldwin. And they couldn’t catch Wilson. A handful of critical injuries certainly didn’t help.
The Vikings, who entered that game without nose tackle Linval Joseph, lost both Smith and outside linebacker Anthony Barr, their two most versatile defenders, in the first quarter. And safety Antone Exum, who started for sidelined Andrew Sendejo, had to play most of the game with a fractured rib and AC joint injury in his shoulder.
It was a perfect storm, but the Vikings were able to recover from that hurricane.
The defense performed admirably in a 23-20 loss to the high-powered Arizona Cardinals despite those injuries. The Vikings then held their final three regular-season opponents to 17 points or fewer while recording 14 sacks during their three-game winning streak. They also scored a defensive touchdown in each of their final two games, including their 20-13 win over the Green Bay Packers.
In that division-clinching win in Green Bay, they limited Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to three points through three quarters, then fended off a pair of potential game-tying drives despite being on the field for most of the fourth quarter.
Now the Vikings appear to have their mojo back heading into Sunday’s rematch.
“You get Harrison back at full speed and you get Anthony Barr back and then hopefully we get Linval back,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “So we just have to go out there and play our style of play — fast, physical and smart.”
But that is how the Seahawks offense has been playing, too, the past two months.
Wilson has seven consecutive games with multiple touchdown passes. He threw 24 of them with just one interception over that span. The three-time Pro Bowler is labeled by some as a scrambler, but he has a 145.1 passer rating when throwing from the pocket since Week 11, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
The biggest beneficiary has been Baldwin, who transformed from a reliable role player into a scoring machine in the second half of the season. Doing most of his damage out of the slot, where Munnerlyn will be the one who will try to slow him down Sunday, Baldwin caught 12 touchdown passes in his past eight games.
Wilson is still a major running threat, though, on both scrambles and designed runs. He escaped the pocket for 51 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings.
“He’s an unbelievable scrambler,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “There were times when we had him and two guys couldn’t get him. He’s like Houdini.”
Seattle will be without “Beast Mode.” Tackle-breaking running back Marshawn Lynch was expected to return Sunday after a seven-game absence because of hernia surgery, potentially bringing some more power to go with Wilson’s magic act, but Lynch was declared out on Friday night.
The Seahawks didn’t change their third-ranked rushing attack significantly while Lynch was out. They plugged in Rawls and then Bryce Brown and Christine Michael and were able to keep on rolling. Lynch would have added a different dynamic, but he felt he was not ready to return.
Despite the lopsided score in the first meeting, the Vikings are confident that their defense will be much improved this time around.
“We’re ready to give them our best shot,” defensive end Everson Griffen said.