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It Looks Like The Favorite's Time of Year

By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, January 14, 2006

SEATTLE

The indicators aren't all that favorable for the Redskins if we're dealing in reality. The Seahawks, not the Redskins, have home-field advantage. The Seahawks, not the Redskins, have the Pro Bowl quarterback. The Seahawks, not the Redskins, have the NFL's most valuable player and league-leading rusher. The Seahawks, not the Redskins, earned a week off to rest and plot for Saturday's NFC playoff game.

The notion that the Redskins are going to win here in the Pacific Northwest, where the Seahawks are 8-0 this year, isn't shared by much of anybody outside metropolitan Washington and wherever Redskins fans are concentrated. Everything and everybody seems to favor Seattle, from the oddsmakers who have installed the Seahawks as a 9 1/2 -point favorite, to the conditions, which call for the 27th consecutive day of rain, something Seattleites handle a lot better than most.

It seems that pretty much two things are working in the Redskins' favor, though: the fact that they've won six straight games to turn around their season and the fact that Seattle hasn't won a playoff game since 1984. And the former is somewhat negated because the last 11 times the Seahawks actually tried to win a football game, they won. They've lost only once since dropping that game to the Redskins at FedEx Field in Week 4, and that was in the meaningless regular season finale in Green Bay, where Seattle was mostly concerned with pulling the starters from the game before they could get hurt.

It's easy to overstate the notion that the Seahawks know nothing about winning in the playoffs: Their coach, Mike Holmgren, has been to the Super Bowl twice, and won once, since Joe Gibbs's last trip. And what is likely overlooked is that Seattle hasn't won in the playoffs because Seattle hasn't had teams as good as this one. Still, the Redskins certainly believe, even if they're not saying so, that they are the more battle-tested team. While the Seahawks beat up on the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals within their division, the Redskins were fighting off the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles. And beyond that, the Redskins played road games against the Buccaneers, Broncos and Chiefs, plus games at home against the Seahawks, Bears and Chargers. Seattle had one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. The Redskins had, statistically, the hardest.

On the other hand, teams with the first-round bye have won their opening home playoff game 82 percent of the time since this 12-team playoff format was instituted in 1990. While Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle's Pro Bowl quarterback, and Shaun Alexander, the league's MVP and leading rusher, feel healthier than they have since training camp, the Redskins ought to be legitimately concerned about Mark Brunell's knee and Clinton Portis's shoulder, among other things.

All week long the question around Washington has been, "How could the Redskins' offense be so inept in Tampa Bay?" A big part of the answer is that the Buccaneers' defense made the Redskins look so feeble. And while the Seahawks' defense isn't as good as Tampa Bay's, Seattle did lead the league in sacks with 50. Seattle does have two capable cornerbacks in Marcus Trufant and Andre Dyson. Except for run-stuffer Marcus Tubbs, who weighs in at about 320 and plays right defensive tackle, Seattle will throw at the Redskins a rather small but especially athletic defense with the likes of 229-pound linebacker Leroy Hill, 238-pound rookie middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and 241-pound linebacker D.D. Lewis. Grant Wistrom, the eight-year vet from Nebraska, is the only old guy; everybody else on the Seattle defense has been in the league five years or less.

The point to be made is that, while the Redskins have worked all week on improving every element of the offense, Seattle's defense might just be fast and versatile enough to force Washington's offense to struggle for a second straight week. Where that defense has been vulnerable is on third down. Seattle is only 16th in that department, and the Redskins burned the Seahawks in the regular season by converting on 13 of 18 third downs.

Where the Redskins need to win the game, as was the case last week in Tampa, is on defense. Even if the offense is able to score, say, 24 points, it might be asking too much of the defense to limit Seattle to 21 points or thereabouts. Gregg Williams's defense doesn't get to toss around a wide-eyed playoff rookie this week. Hasselbeck threw 24 touchdown passes this season and only nine interceptions. More than any playoff team in the NFC, Seattle can win games passing or running.

The Seahawks would love to get the Redskins' defense preoccupied with either one, only to counter with a heavy dose of the other. While there have been some weeks recently when Gibbs and Williams might have been the smarter coaches, it is Holmgren, freed of his executive duties, who is as on his game now as he was in the mid-1990s when he coached the Packers to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. One wonders how much quicker the Seahawks might have made it to this point had the club hired Holmgren simply to coach and not try to run the football operation, too.

It shouldn't surprise anyone if the Redskins come out looking for Santana Moss and trying everything to spring Portis early. An injured offense and a big-game defense can always use an early lead. The Redskins' best chance rests with having a lead long enough to eliminate Alexander's running as the primary option, and force Hasselbeck to have to try to win coming from behind. And only a fool would discount a defense that not only can stop an opponent, but score -- as the Redskins' defense has against Philly and Tampa Bay. Regardless of what Las Vegas says, a Redskins victory simply would not be an upset.

But a Seattle victory is more likely, because the Seahawks are playing at home after the week off, because they're clearly better on offense, because they've got -- even if only narrowly -- a little better team.

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