The Minnesota Vikings will be hosting a playoff game for the first time in six years, though their matchup doesn't exactly feel like a reward for winning the NFC North.
Minnesota may have received the worst draw possible in the two-time defending conference champion Seattle Seahawks, who handed the Vikings their worst loss of the season just five weeks ago in the Twin Cities.
Though seeded last in the six-team NFC field, Seattle (10-6) enters Sunday's wild-card round among the conference's prime contenders based on accomplishments both past and recent. Saddled by a 2-4 start in mid-October, the Seahawks rebounded to win eight of their last 10 to earn a fourth straight playoff berth.
Despite playing solely at home during its last two conference title runs, Seattle may not be impacted from having to be on the road this year. It's won five straight outside CenutryLink Field, outscoring opponents 109-19 in the last three.
''These guys are confident that we can go wherever we got to go,'' coach Pete Carroll said.
That dominant stretch began with a 38-7 trouncing of Minnesota (11-5) at TCF Bank Stadium on Dec. 6, a result every bit as lopsided as the score indicated. The Seahawks finished with a 433-125 advantage in total yards and outgained the Vikings 173-31 on the ground, holding NFL rushing champion Adrian Peterson to a season-low 18 on eight carries.
"We got up on them because the defense was really keeping us in position to do that," Carroll said. "The defense allowed us to kind of regain our stride and play some good football and it took off a little bit."
That defense, the foundation of Seattle's back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, hasn't let up since that win. The Seahawks yielded 11.0 points and 218.8 total yards per game over their final five contests and forced 11 turnovers in their last six, including three interceptions of Arizona quarterbacks during last Sunday's 36-6 rout of the NFC West champion Cardinals on the road.
''Absolutely, this was a statement,'' said running back Christine Michael, who rushed for a career-high 102 yards to support three more Russell Wilson touchdown passes.
Wilson's MVP-level play over the season's second half has made the Seahawks even more dangerous. The Pro Bowl quarterback produced a league-best 132.8 passer rating in leading Seattle to a 6-1 finish, throwing for 24 touchdowns and just one interception with a 72.0 percent completion rate over that sensational stretch.
Doug Baldwin has benefited the most from Wilson's success, having recorded 11 of his 14 TD catches over the last six weeks. The wide receiver had two scores among his five receptions for 94 yards in the victory over Minnesota.
The Vikings have been considerably better defensively since that loss, having permitted just 89.5 rushing yards per game and 3.8 per carry over their last four. They've amassed 14 sacks and seven takeaways in winning three straight, the last a 20-13 victory at Green Bay that secured Minnesota's first NFC North title since 2009.
"I hope this is just a step, honestly," said coach Mike Zimmer, who went 7-9 in his first season in 2014. "I don't want this to be the defining moment of my career, for sure. I hope that there's a lot more on the horizon.''
Whether the Vikings can indeed extend their season likely hinges on them solving Seattle's top-ranked run defense. Minnesota is 10-0 when rushing for over 113 yards and 1-5 when under that number, while the Seahawks haven't allowed more than 102 during their 6-1 run.
"They beat us pretty badly last time we played them," Zimmer said. "It wasn't close, they got after us in every phase, so we have to perform extremely well for us to play good in this game. "We can't worry about the playoff experience until we do the things right in order for us to win."
The Vikings also will have to deal with an apparently healthy Marshawn Lynch, who on Wednesday participated in his first full practice since undergoing sports hernia surgery in late November. The proven playoff performer missed seven games with the injury.
''He's been fantastic,'' offensive line coach Tom Cable said. ''He's adapted very well. I think he's done a great job of recognizing where this team is at and their vibe, and he's come right in and went to work and it's been really good.''
Lynch has rushed for over 100 yards in six of 10 career postseason games, and Seattle is 5-0 when he's had 109 or more.
While the Seahawks are loaded with playoff experience, Minnesota hopes Teddy Bridgewater can come of age in the second year quarterback's first postseason start.
Bridgewater was sacked four times and intercepted once while managing just 118 passing yards in last month's meeting with Seattle. The 23-year-old completed 70.4 percent of his throws with six TD passes and zero interceptions over the next three games, but was held to 99 yards in last week's win.
Bridgewater has been sacked 24 times over the last eight games and on 9.3 percent of his dropbacks this season, the third-highest mark in the league.