Looking to turn the page on a turbulent offseason and open the 2018 campaign in the win column, Doug Baldwin and the Seattle Seahawks will travel to the Mile High City to battle Chris Harris and the Denver Broncos in an intriguing Week 1 tilt.
Formerly AFC West rivals, the Seahawks and Broncos last met in 2014, as Seattle edged Denver 26-20 in overtime on a rushing touchdown by Marshawn Lynch. Though the two franchises only play each other every four seasons now, they've managed to maintain a semblance of a rivalry out of conference thanks to a recent Super Bowl matchup and regularly playing in the preseason.
Which team holds the edge heading into Sunday's game? Here's a look at the series history, matchups to watch, and a game plan for Seahawks victory.
--54th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 34-19. As former AFC West rivals before the NFL realignment after the 2001 season, the Seahawks and Broncos have faced off 55 times (including playoffs) since their first matchup in 1977, with the Broncos leading the overall series 34-21. Since Seattle moved to the NFC West in 2002, they've won three of the past five contests. Most notably, the Seahawks have won both postseason matchups between the franchises, including a 43-8 romp in Super Bowl XLVIII and a stunning 31-7 win in the 1983 AFC playoffs. The Broncos dominated the series in the 1990s, winning all six divisional matchups during the 1996, 1997, and 1998 campaigns. Since 2000, however, the series has remained relatively even, with the Broncos holding a slight 5-4 edge in nine games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Broncos LB Von Miller, who has posted double-digit sacks in six of his seven NFL seasons, vs. beleaguered Seahawks RT Germain Ifedi. Miller has tortured some of the best tackles in football since entering the NFL, using his signature dip-and-bend move to quickly turn the corner and devour opposing quarterbacks. Ifedi, on the other hand, led the league in penalties last year and has continued to struggle avoiding yellow flags during the preseason. Unable to right the ship, Seattle moved George Fant to right tackle briefly to apply pressure on the former first rounder and he responded with his best effort against a talented Vikings front four. Still, if there's a matchup in this game worthy of giving Seahawk fans nightmares, Miller feasting on Ifedi and living in the backfield sacking Wilson will certainly do the trick.
--Seahawks CBs Shaquill Griffin and Dontae Johnson, the two expected starters, vs. Broncos WRs Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Courtland Sutton. Griffin had an outstanding rookie season, starting 11 games while recording 68 tackles and an interception. As for Johnson, he started 16 games for the 49ers, but he's only been back from a broken foot for a few weeks and Keenum will likely test him early. Keenum will have a plethora of options at his disposal while challenging Seattle's new-look secondary, but in particular, Thomas, Sanders, and Sutton all have big-play potential on the outside. Even if Earl Thomas suits up, expect Denver to dial up some vertical shots downfield early to try and take advantage of the unit's inexperience and lack of continuity.
--Seahawks interior OL (G D.J. Fluker, C Justin Britt G Ethan Pocic vs. Broncos DT Domata Peko and DEs Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis. As mentioned earlier, Seattle will have to worry about Miller and Chubb pinning their ears back and chasing Wilson all afternoon. To try to slow down this lethal pass rushing duo, the Seahawks will be counting on an improved interior line to open up running lanes for Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny. Fluker's status remains up in the air as he deals with a hamstring injury, but even if he can't play, Seattle believes in J.R. Sweezy as his replacement. Regardless, the trio of Fluker/Sweezy, Britt and Pocic will need to play physical football in the trenches and allow the Seahawks to play a balanced game offensively to win on the road in Denver.
Under head coach Pete Carroll's watch, the Seahawks have been notoriously slow starters, especially on the road. Squaring off against a Broncos team that has historically dominated at home during the month of September, this away contest doesn't fall on the ideal part of the calendar.
During his eight seasons at the helm, Seattle has only came out victorious in one of its five season openers away from CenturyLink Field, including a 17-9 loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last September. While several factors have contributed to these sluggish starts, Wilson and the offense deserve the most blame by being unable to put points on the board. Aside from putting up 31 points in a losing effort to the then-St. Louis Rams to kick off the 2015 season, the Seahawks have scored 17 or less points in every other road opener since Carroll arrived in 2010, including scoring only 12 points in a victory over the Panthers in 2013.
Last season, the Seahawks offense proved to be putrid during the first three quarters of games, only for Wilson to become Superman during the fourth quarter. Among other reasons, Seattle moved on from former offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell to eliminate these lackluster beginnings, and at least in the preseason, Brian Schottenheimer's offense has been able to generate points during the early stages of games. Carroll hasn't been satisfied with his team settling for field goals, but it's progress heading into games that count.
Against the Broncos in a hostile road environment, the Seahawks will need to replicate these early successes from August in a meaningful regular-season game, especially with the defense breaking in so many new starters at critical positions. Schottenheimer will have to lean a bit on Seattle's ground game using Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny to help protect Wilson from a vaunted Denver pass rush featuring Miller and Chubb, an athletic edge rusher Carroll believes fits the Broncos defense to perfection. If the Seahawks can win the line of scrimmage battle in the trenches and orchestrate a couple early scoring drives punctuated with touchdowns, some of the burden will be taken off the defense and they will have a much better shot at snagging a Week 1 win.
Defensively, Seattle has to find a way to generate a pass rush and force Case Keenum into making bad throws. Though Keenum enjoyed a breakthrough season with the Vikings and threw only seven interceptions in comparison to 22 touchdowns, he still has a bit of a gunslinger mentality at times and can be coaxed into forcing the football into tight windows when he would be advised not to. The Seahawks should be able to hold up against the run thanks to a deep stable of defensive tackles, but the key will be protecting new starters in the secondary by pressuring Keenum into quick throws while under duress and creating turnovers.
How will they generate this pass rush? That's the million-dollar question that could determine how many games Seattle wins in 2018.
With so many new faces at defensive end and Dion Jordan's status still uncertain despite being activated from the PUP list last weekend, the Seahawks may need to blitz a bit more, at least in the opener, with new defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. calling plays than they did previously under the leadership of Kris Richard.
Norton turned up the heat bringing extra defenders on several occasions in Seattle's preseason game against Minnesota, and with linebacker K.J. Wright officially out with a knee injury, speedy rookie Shaquem Griffin may be more effective as his replacement if Norton unleashes him as a blitzer in hot pursuit of Keenum. With Denver's talented receiving corps, Seattle will have to be careful how often they play with fire by blitzing, but they should be aggressive from the outset, especially if the ball-hawking Thomas starts after returning from his holdout this week.