Game 15: Seahawks 35, Cardinals 6 — As Expected

There is no need to read or write a recap about this one, as everybody who reads and writes about the NFL pretty much nailed it in their heads before it began.  The specifics were unknown — nobody could have foreseen Luke Willson morphing into Shannon Sharpe circa 1996, Steven Hauschka weirdly getting a case of the yips,  Marshawn Lynch rumbling for a “Beast Quake Lite” touchdown, or Russell Wilson pulling off both the longest run and the longest pass of his career — but everybody said the Seahawks would completely shut down the Ryan Lindley-led Cardinals and win comfortably.  And so they did.  (Lindley’s parents — shown by NBC in attendance — might not have thought this going into the game, but I’m sure even they were ready to concede the point after he dropped the snap on that third down play.  And they were probably sneaking out of the stadium after he airmailed the interception to Richard Sherman.)

It’s late, so let’s get right to the parting shots:

  • Jordan Hill picked up another sack tonight, prompting Cris Collinsworth to make the Clinton McDonald comparison I made two entries ago.  Does Collinsworth read this blog?  Nah … it’s seems unlikely he’s the one page view I get each week.
  • The ‘Hawks set a franchise record for offensive yardage this game (596).  That’s particularly impressive given the defense they were up against.  Although, as I’ve been saying for a while, the Cardinals are way overrated this season.  (Their D is still pretty good though.)
  • Russell Wilson came within 12 rushing yards of his second 300-passing-yards-100-rushing-yards game of the season.  No other quarterback in NFL history has one such game.  Oh, and his touchdown run was one of the sweetest nail-in-the-nail-in-the-coffin plays I’ve ever seen.  (Lynch’s run was the initial nail-in-the-coffin play.)
  • As good as the ‘Hawks D has looked the past five weeks, be slightly wary.  The quarterbacks they’ve played are Drew Stanton, Colin Kaepernick, Mark Sanchez, Kaepernick again, and Ryan Lindley.  Next week they have Shaun Hill.  None of these guys is Aaron Rodgers or Tony Romo.  Heck, none of them is Matthew Stafford.
  • Next week the Seahawks have Shaun Hill … at home … for the no. 1 seed.  Football really is fun right now.

Game 15: Seattle @ Arizona — Odds and the Odd Cardinals

The odds, according to the smart people who calculate such things, now have the Seahawks as a virtually postseason shoo-in.  They are above 90% by the estimations of both FiveThirtyEight and Football Outsiders.  Basically, the ‘Hawks would need to lose both of their final two games to miss the playoffs, and even then it wouldn’t be a sure thing.  Here’s how it breaks down in each permutation of the final two games (assuming no Seahawks ties):

  • Win-Win.  The Seahawks win the division for sure.  They also clinch the no. 1 overall seed in the NFC, unless Dallas wins both their remaining games and neither Green Bay nor Detroit wins their final two games.  Since Green Bay and Detroit both have easy opponents this week (Tampa Bay and Chicago, respectively) and play each other next week.  It’s quite likely Seattle snags the no. 1 seed with two wins.
  • Win-Loss.  Since this scenario is assuming a win over Arizona, the ‘Hawks could still take the division (but probably not the no. 1 seed) even with a loss to the Rams in Week 17, provided the Cardinals lose to the 49ers.  If the Cards beat the Niners, the ‘Hawks would almost certainly get a wild-card.
  • Loss-Win.  Arizona clinches the no. 1 seed with a win, so the division is gone for Seattle under this scenario.  But a wild-card is all but assured.  I can only see one possible way the ‘Hawks win at least one more game this season and don’t make the playoffs.  They go 1-1;  Arizona goes 2-0 (or 1-1); Philly goes 2-0; Dallas goes 1-1; Green Bay and Detroit go 1-0-1.  Yes, that’s right, a Packers-Lions tie has to happen.  If all this somehow fell into place, the Packers would be the first wild-card with an 11-4-1 record, and the Cowboys would be the second wild-card at 11-5 with the head-to-head tie-breaker over the ‘Hawks who would also be 11-5.
  • Loss-Loss.  No ‘Hawks fan would feel good about it, but there is still a non-trivial chance Seattle would get in even losing both games.  It requires one of Green Bay, Detroit, or Philadelphia losing both their final games (not likely), or Philadelphia losing one game and Dallas winning at least one game (somewhat likely).  In of these cases, Seattle would either be the only 10-6 team, or they would win a tie-break over any other 10-6 team; they would be the second wild-card.  So if the Redskins beat the Eagles on Saturday, and the Cowboys beat the Colts Sunday afternoon, then the Seahawks will be guaranteed a playoff spot several hours before Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth even call a play.

But, of course, the division and the no. 1 seed are the real prizes and those start with a win against the Cardinals.  As you probably recall, these two teams played each other just a few weeks ago, with the Seahawks winning easily 19-3.  I don’t see any reason to expect this game to go much differently.  It could go very differently, obviously; the Cardinals could win a blowout (it is the NFL after all).  But I don’t see any reason to expect this game to go any differently.  It’s in Arizona, Larry Fitzgerald is back, and Russell Okung is out — those are points in the Cardinals favor.  But they are completely negated (and then some) by the fact that Arizona’s quarterback will either be a third-stringer with a 0-to-7 career TD-to-INT ratio, or a fourth-string rookie.  I’ve seen the question asked in the media: Should the Cardinals start Ryan Lindley or Logan Thomas?  But my question is: Does it matter?

Whomever Arizona runs out at QB, it’s safe to say, they probably ain’t lightin’ up the scoreboard.  For the Cards to win, they’re going to have to ugly it out with their D, which is not a far-fetched scenario.  They have a one of the top defenses in the league, and might get Tyrann Mathieu back for this game.  Last time these two teams played, the Cards bottled up Marshawn Lynch and really got after Russell Wilson (seven sacks), but they also gave up several big plays that led to ‘Hawks points.  In general, big plays seem to be the chink in Arizona’s defensive armor.  In their last loss to Atlanta, Matt Ryan gouged them with some deep throws, and even the washed-up Steven Jackson broke a long run.  If DangeRuss can perform his usual act of running around until somebody is open or there is clear field in front of him, Seattle should be able to score enough points to win.

As I (and many others) have pointed out many times, the Cardinals are a very odd team.  They are way outperforming their Expected W-L (they “should” be an 8-6 team, not an 11-3 team) and even further outperforming their DVOA.  I (and many others) keep waiting for their epic collapse, and it keeps not happening.  And it’s not going to happen, at least not this season, as Arizona has already, at a minimum, clinched a playoff spot.

However, I’m sticking by my story: the Cardinals aren’t that good.  I think they are riding a massive wave of positive variance (i.e., good luck) that will come crashing down before the season’s end.  Arizona is not a realistic Super Bowl contender.  If you want a recent comp, think of the 2012 Indianapolis Colts (no, the coaching coincidence is not lost on me).  They went 11-5, winning close game after close game, spurring NFL talking heads to heap effusive praise on rookie Andrew Luck for being a real “winner.”  And then the Colts promptly (and predictably) got smushed by the Ravens in the first round of the playoffs.

Perhaps an even better example is the 2000 Minnesota Vikings.  Like the Cardinals, they quickly amassed 11 wins — only losing two of their first 13 games — despite having mediocre peripheral numbers.  They then lost their final three regular season games and got destroyed 41-0 in the NFC Championship Game by a team quarterbacked by Kerry Collins.

This, I believe, is the approximate template the 2014 Arizona Cardinals will follow.  If they win Sunday night they could really make me look stupid.  But I don’t think they will.

Game 14: Seahawks 17, 49ers 7 — ‘Hawks Get Breaks, Win

Well, it took a few fortuitous roughing calls and half the 49ers roster going out with injury, but eventually the Seahawks built up an insurmountable lead and won fairly comfortably.

The play that most people will remember from this game is the roughing the passer penalty committed by Nick Moody — understandably so.  This play directly led to the ‘Hawks taking a two-score lead, and it was one of the biggest bullshit calls you will ever see.  I might be a die-hard Seattle fan, but I also have eyes, and those eyes are connected via optic nerves to a functioning brain.  I saw the play: Moody didn’t hit Russell Wilson late; he didn’t hit him in the head; and he didn’t lunge at his knees (Bernard Pollard/Tom Brady style).  It shouldn’t have been a penalty.  It should have been fourth down, in which case Steven Hauschka hits a chip shot and the ‘Hawks go up 13-7.  Instead it was a first down, and two plays later Paul Richardson‘s first career touchdown made it 17-7.  And that was pretty much check and mate.

The fact that Nick Moody was even in the game tells you that something went wrong for the Niners other than unjust referee adjudications: injuries.  Moody was replacing middle linebacker Chris Borland (arguably the 49ers MVP this year) after he left the game with an ankle injury.  It’s probably not coincidence that Marshawn Lynch had his best runs in the second half when Borland was on the bench.  In addition to Borland, at various points throughout the game, San Francisco lost backup tight end Garrett Celek, linebacker Ahmad Brooks, and most importantly both “starting” running backs Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde (the latter of whom averaged nearly 10 yards-per-carry before getting hurt).  Trying to overcome a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit against one of the best defenses in the league with a tailback who came into the game with exactly zero carries on the season usually doesn’t work.  And this case was no exception.

So the Seahawks got the breaks.  But that’s not the only reason they won.  Colin Kaepernick played admirably (much, much better than in the first meeting), but the ‘Hawks front seven harangued him all day.  They sacked him six times and forced him into several inaccurate throws.  The D dominated for the fourth week in a row.

On the other side of the ball, Beast Mode got it going in the second half (with an assist from Robert Turbin), and DangeRuss performed his usual act: running for his life (sacked five times), make a few beautiful passes (the bomb to Jermaine Kearse), making a few not-so-beautiful passes (the INT), and taking off for at least one killer run (the 19-yard read option).  Overall, this wasn’t a great game for the Seahawks offense, but it wasn’t a bad game either.  Given that the 49ers have a good defense, I’d say the correct adjective is adequate — this was an adequate game by the Seattle offense.

A few parting shots on this game:

  • The Seahawks first three points were set up by two Eric Reid penalties.  The first one was justified (no reason to drill a guy on his way out of bounds).  The second one was more questionable.  I actually think the reason Reid got flagged is because he emphatically threw his arms up after the hit.  It made it look much more menacing than it actually was.  If he plays it a bit cooler, he might not get called.
  • Ed Hochuli said something I’ve never before heard from a referee.  In explaining, the ruling on Michael Crabtree‘s reviewed reception, he said that he couldn’t tell if the ball hit the ground or not.  I’ve never before heard a ref use a phrase like “couldn’t tell”.  Often they imply this is the case, saying things like “the ruling on the field stands” instead of “the ruling on the field is confirmed,” but I’ve never heard a ref say explicitly that he couldn’t tell what happened.  By the way, I thought it was a reasonable challenge by Pete Carroll, even though it didn’t work.  It was third down, and Richard Sherman was lobbying for the challenge flag.
  • What was not reasonable, in fact, it’s almost incomprehensible, is running an offensive play with eight seconds in the first half, with no timeouts, from the Niners 29.  Hauschka can make a 46-yarder.  Kick the field goal!  I put the ensuing interception on Carroll much more so than Wilson.  Wilson was heavily pressured and knew he couldn’t take a sack, so he heaved up a duck.  In fact, he did a good job to get back and help prevent a James Harrison-esque touchdown return.
  • Speaking of coaching decisions: What would you do when the 49ers were penalized in the fourth quarter on a play in which they failed to convert on 3rd-and-1 near midfield?  Do you take 4th-and-1 or 3rd-and-6?  I think I take the latter because given the circumstances the opposing team will likely go for it and convert (which they did and did).  But Carroll went with the former, and it’s tough to say it’s the wrong decision.  It’s a close one.
  • Speaking of fourth downs: On the stop that effectively ended the game, O’Brien Schofield made a great play by holding Bruce Miller‘s arm so that he couldn’t extend the ball.  If he just goes for the tackle, Miller likely lunges for the first down.  Get technique and awareness by Schofield.
  • Speaking of D-linemen: After the loss to the Rams, way back when, I said the ‘Hawks season hinged on their ability to get pressure on the quarterback, particularly from the interior linemen.  Well, Jordan Hill had two sacks today and now has four in the past four weeks.  His emergence into the “Clinton McDonald role” is an understated reason the Seahawks have been so good on defense of late.
  • Speaking of the Rams game and turning it around: After that awful loss in Week 6, Seattle was 3-3 and three games out of first place in the NFC West.  Now, they are two victories away from a likely no. 1 seed in the playoffs.  Football is fun sometimes.

Game 14: San Francisco @ Seattle — Worry And a Quick Wilson-Kaepernick Comparison

Perhaps it’s the fact that the first football game I remember was a blowout loss for my team that I was certain they were going to win.  Or maybe it’s that I root for a baseball team who didn’t have a winning season until I was legally an adult, or that my basketball team (R.I.P.) was on the wrong end of the biggest playoff upset/collapse in recent NBA memory, or that my very favorite sports team as a kid had an epic meltdown with a championship mere minutes away.  Perhaps I’m just a worrywort when it comes to sports.  Perhaps we all are.

Whatever the case, I’m not ready to kiss the Seahawks into the playoffs just yet, despite the fact their odds are now approaching 90%.  And I’m not ready to hand them the game this Sunday against San Francisco, despite the facts: a) the 49ers appear to be in complete disarray at the moment, b) the Seahawks are playing quite well right now (“peaking at the right time” is the apt sports cliché), c) the Seahawks are better than the 49ers even when both teams are playing “normally”, d) the game is in Seattle where the ‘Hawks have lost only two games in the past three years.  Despite all this, the 49ers still worry me.  I can’t help it.

As Seahawks fans, we know the 49ers so well already that there isn’t much new to say in a “preview-y” sort of way about this game.  Instead I want to take a quick look at the two quarterbacks: Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.  Both are young, mobile QBs who started their first games in 2012 and have won a lot of games since, so the comparison is obvious, and it’s one that has been made many times in various media over the past two years.  But in recent weeks it has garnered increased attention because Wilson seems to be pulling away.  The perception is DangeRuss is getting better (or at least staying at the same high level) and Kaep is regressing.  Is this an accurate characterization?

In a recent Football Outsiders article, Andrew Healy thoroughly broke down the issues Kaepernick has had throwing the football this season.  Basically, he’s gone from Ben Roethlisberger‘s career path to Charlie Batch‘s.  That’s not very comforting thought for 49ers fans (although it is for fans of career backup QBs who can make spot starts against hated rivals and lead their teams to victories at age 63).  But as a commenter on the FO article pointed out, Kaepernick’s three-year arc as a passer is not all that dissimilar from Russell Wilson’s.  Here are their respective QB DVOAs:

Kaepernick: 25.8% (2012), 16.6% (2013), -6.8% (2014)
Wilson: 19.7% (2012), 15.6% (2012), -4.4% (2014)

Very similar indeed.  And yet Wilson is lauded as one of the best young quarterbacks in the game, while people are starting to question whether or not Kaepernick is a viable “franchise quarterback”.  Is Wilson actually better Kaepernick, or do people just think this because the Seahawks have a better record than the 49ers?  While it wouldn’t surprise me if Kaepernick has a “bounce-back” season next year (perhaps with a new coach), I think it’s primarily the former — Wilson is just better.  I submit five bits of evidence:

  1. Stats.  The 2014 DVOA totals quoted above are only through Week 14.  If we included Week 15, the gap between Wilson (-0.1%) and Kaepernick (-10.2%) increases substantially.  Also, Wilson is significantly better this season by other metrics including QBR (62.0 to 52.2), adjusted yards per attempt (7.6 to 6.8), and passer rating (95.2 to 85.1).
  2. Weapons.  Marshawn Lynch, obviously, is better than Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde, but you can make the case that Seattle has one of the worst receiving cores in the NFC.  I love Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, Ricardo Lockette is actually effective when he’s not committing personal fouls, and the revolving door of no-name tight ends making clutch plays is very cool, but c’mon, we’re not exactly talking about the mid-twenty-aughts Colts here.  The 49ers, on the other hand, have Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson, and Vernon Davis.  By all accounts, they should be significantly better than the ‘Hawks passing the ball, and yet they are not.  Some of this has to attributed to the respective quarterbacks.  (To be fair, Seattle has actually had a better O-line this year.)
  3. Eye test.  This is highly subjective, admittedly, but Kaepernick just hasn’t looked good this year.  Wilson has.  Other than the 4th-and-10 scramble-heave to salvage the New Orleans game, I can’t think of one great play Kaepernick has made this year.  With Wilson you can build an entire highlight reel, seemingly every week.
  4. Record.  I don’t put too much stock in QB record, because a) football is a team game, and b) we tend to retroactively ascribed a “winning” quality to quarterbacks who have already won a lot, which is pretty pointless, if you think about it.  But still, it’s something, I suppose, and Wilson has a better record than Kaepernick this year and for their careers.
  5. Running.  Now we get to the big one.  This is the key difference between Wilson and Kaepernick.  In a year in which neither QB has been that effective throwing the football, Wilson has mostly made up for it with legs; Kapernick hasn’t.  Given how fast he is, and how scary he was running the football in the playoffs the past two years, it’s amazing how bad Kaep has been on the ground this year (-1 DYAR, -12.3% DVOA).  Wilson, on the other hand, is having the best running year since prime Michael Vick.  Here’s my favorite stat: Wilson has three 100-yard games this season.  Only one quarterback (Vick) has more than that in his entire career.  Wilson’s passing/running production this year is like having Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback and Arian Foster at running back, but they’re the same person.  (And that’s not even really an exaggeration.)  People know that Wilson has been good carrying the ball this year.  But I don’t think they know how good.  It’s truly something to behold.

As I said above, regardless of their recent woeful play, the 49ers still worry me.  But they worry me a lot less than they would if Russell Wilson was a 49er and Colin Kaepernick was a Seahawk.  I can only hope that these two quarterbacks don’t pee in a fountain together during a lightning storm before Sunday’s game.

Game 13: Seattle 24, Philadelphia 14 — Seahawks Look Better Than Everybody Again

If instead of using the final score to determine the winner and loser of a football game there was a different system whereby an omnipotent football deity decides the winner by assigning each team a piece of a “game pie” based on their overall play — if this was the case — then the Seahawks would have won by a much convincing margin than the ten-point spread indicates.  The game pie would have been something like 85% Seattle, 15% Philadelphia.  The ‘Hawks whupped the Eagles by pretty much any measure you can name.  Perhaps the most telling stat is the difference in total yardage: Seattle, 440; Philly 139.  The Seahawks had nearly 50 more yards rushing than the Eagles had total, and they weren’t even particularly good at running the ball today.

Despite the lofty yardage total allowed, the Eagles D actually did a good job on the ‘Hawks ground game.  Marshawn Lynch had a 21-yard run (on 3rd-and-15); Russell Wilson burned them badly on a 26-yard touchdown scamper; and Christine Michael racked up some garbage-time yards.  But if you take all that away, then the ‘Hawks only averaged 3.1 yards-per-carry.  Of course, most defenses look pretty good if you don’t consider their opponents’ best plays, but you get what I’m saying.  The Eagles’ front seven consistently got a good push and met Lynch behind or at the line of scrimmage.  And Fletcher Cox (who had a great game) wised up after the Wilson TD and didn’t allow DangeRuss to do his thing at all in the second half.

The upshot was that Wilson was forced to morph into a pocket passer for much of this game — or at least something kinda sorta approximating a pocket passer.  And he was reasonably effective doing so.  He was 22 of 37 for 263 yards (7.1 Y/A) and two scores, plus a big 44-yard pass interference penalty.  At times, he put the offense behind the 8-ball by sailing a pass or taking a sack (or an intentional grounding call), but he then made up for it with the football equivalent of a masse shot (like the double-turn escape, 20-yard floater to Paul Richardson on 3rd-and-15) and kept the drive alive.  He found seven different receivers for a completion of 14 yards or more, which is pretty remarkable.  It was his best game throwing the ball in a long time.

And it was more than enough because the D was fantastic for the third game in a row.  They only surrendered 14 points, and that number actually overstates Philly’s ability to move the ball.  The Eagles really only had one good drive, and even that wasn’t so much of a drive as it was a play.  Other than the 35-yard touchdown reception by Zach Ertz, the ‘Hawks almost completely shut down Chip Kelly’s “high-powered” offense.  (Although as I covered in my preview, Philly’s dominant offense is more myth than reality.)  LeSean McCoy averaged under three yards-per-carry, and Mark Sanchez looked much more like the guy who once struggled to beat out Greg McElroy and Tim Tebow for a starting job than the guy who once outdueled Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive playoff games.  The Seahawks completely schooled The Sanchize, and boy was it fun to watch.

Some parting thoughts on this game:

  1. Did Chip Kelly just give up at the end?  Why did he punt with 4:15 left in the game?  Sure it was 4th-and-11 at their own 26, but they were down two scores.  Going for it is your best bet there, no?  Also, he didn’t start using his timeouts on the subsequent drive until after the ‘Hawks got a first down, which is strange.  Chip Kelly seems to be a smart coach (the fourth down call that proceeded their first score was quite savvy), but I think he erred on this one … not that it really mattered anyway.
  2. I think I saw Christine Michael try to wave off Marshawn Lynch and stay on the field after a run in the first quarter.  As you might expect, it didn’t work.
  3. Special teams lapses are still a bugaboo for the ‘Hawks.  A big difference between last year’s squad and this year’s is that the 2013 team didn’t give up a long kick return seemingly every week.  Also, Jon Ryan didn’t coat his hands with KY Jelly before games last season.
  4. Tharold Simon was badly out of position on a big third-down pass attempt that Zach Ertz just dropped.  (To be fair, the pass was a bit high.)  Then on the Eagles’ next offensive play, he was gift-wrapped an interception on a woefully underthrown pass by Sanchez.  It was a very fortuitous game for Simon.  Although, he did leave the game with a finger injury, so it wasn’t all eggnog and turtle cookies.
  5. I thought Byron Maxwell had a really good game.  He had a couple of nice passes-defended, and he also made a few big tackles on third down short of the sticks.
  6. The overturned call on the Travis Kelce “fumble” was bullshit.  Yes, I know that didn’t happen in this game, but I had to mention it anyway.
  7. And speaking of things that didn’t happen in this game: How ’bout dem Raiders?

Game 13: Seattle @ Philadelphia — Important, But Not Absolutely Vital Game in Philly

The Seattle Seahawks, with a little help from the inevitably returning-to-Earth Arizona Cardinals, are once again completely in control of their playoff situation.  If they win out, they clinch the division and a first-round bye.  If they win three of their final four games, they almost certainly clinch a wild-card spot and likely the division (provided the one loss isn’t to Arizona).  If they go 2-2, there are too many scenarios to consider, but Dallas’ win last night makes it less likely .500 gets it done.  And anything worse than .500 … well, anything worse and they didn’t deserve to go to the playoffs, anyway.

It is through this context that we can view this Sunday’s game in The City of Brotherly Love.  It’s an important game (obviously — every game is important now), but it’s not an absolutely vital game.  If you told me the ‘Hawks were going to lose exactly one of their remaining games, and I got to pick which one, this would be the clear choice.  It’s not a division game, and it’s likely Philly will win the NFC East and thus not be competing for a wild-card spot.  FiveThirtyEight currently has the Seahawks playoff odds at 74%; a loss would drop them to 64%.  Seattle will be better than even-money to make the playoffs on Monday, no matter what happens.  Well, that is, unless, say, Marshawn Lynch decides to retire from football after the game to devote his time to trying to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, but that probably is not going to happen.  (Although, would you put anything past Lynch at this point?  He’s a rare beast indeed.)

So about the Eagles.  Contrary to popular perception, the Eagles are not an offensive juggernaut.  They’ve scored a ton of points (31.25 per game, 4th in the NFL), but that’s an inflated total because: a) they run a lot plays, b) they’ve beaten up on some bad defenses (hello, AFC South and NFC East), and c) of their 42 touchdowns, a whopping 10 of them have come via defense and special teams.  Philadelphia certainly does some things right on offense, but they also do some things wrong — like committing a league-high 28 turnovers.  On net, the Eagles are the 15th best offense in the league by DVOA, and they rank 14th by Pro Football Reference’s expected points contributed.  The evidence suggests that Philadelphia has an average offense, not a top-5 or even a top-10 unit like many believe (or at least like I believe many believe).

Last year the Eagles really did have one of the best offenses in the league.  So what’s changed between this year and last?  Four big things: 1)  No DeSean Jackson; 2) LeSean McCoy is having an ostensibly good season (over 1,000 yards already), but he’s averaging an un-Shady-like 4.2 yards-per-carry, and the nerd stats don’t like him at all this year; 3) They had significant O-line injuries earlier in the season; 4) Nick Foles‘ 2013 season might go down as the flukiest in quarterback history (move over 1989 Don Majkowski). Last season Foles was the most effective QB in the NFC on a per-play basis; this season he was somewhere between average and a touch below average in his eight games before he was injured, which is much, much more in line with expectations.  And Foles’ replacement, Mark Sanchez, has been almost the exact same guy in his four starts.  Their looks and styles are different — Foles is goofy-looking and gangly; Sanchez is handsome and spry — but the results are remarkably similar.  Since taking over the starting job, Mark Sanchez has been neither a liability nor an asset for the Eagles.  He’s just been Mark Sanchez.

The bottom line: if the Seahawks D really is “back”, or at least at a point approaching backness, then they should be able to mostly handle the Eagles attack.  A hopeful template is Philly’s game against San Francisco in Week 4 when the Niners held them to only 213 yards and zero offensive touchdowns.

On the other side of the ball, the ‘Hawks are the anti-Eagles in that they are one of the better offensive teams in the league (7th by DVOA, 10th by expected points contributed), but nobody really thinks of them as such.  The passing attack has been legitimately lackluster all season; we’ve watched Russell Wilson struggle at times without anything close to a “number one” receiver at his disposal (sorry Doug Baldwin, but it’s true).  But the running game has been extremely good, like off-the-charts, better-than-any-team-in-the-NFL-in-several-years good.  And the ‘Hawks, unlike their opponent this week, don’t turn the ball over much at all (only nine turnovers on the year, second fewest in the league).  It’s not a glitzy offense, but it’s a relatively efficient one.

Unfortunately for Seahawks fans, however, Philadelphia has the type of defense that can shut down Seattle’s style of offense.  That’s because Philadelphia has the type of defense that can shut down most styles of offense.  They just have a good defense.  Their specialty is rushing the passer — they’ve sacked the quarterback 42 times, second most in the league — but they are pretty good against the run as well.  Connor Barwin has been playing out of his gourd this season (12.5 sacks) and would probably be getting some Defensive Player of the Year buzz, if Houston wasn’t allowed to play a cyborg at defensive end (a cyborg with spiky blond hair).  The Eagles have gotten got a few times on D this year, by quarterbacks good (Aaron Rodgers), bad (Austin Davis), and in between (Kirk Cousins), so it’s not inconceivable the ‘Hawks put up some points, but it’s much more likely this game is 17-14 than it is 37-34.

One possibly significant advantage the Eagles have over the Seahawks is on special teams.  Philly has the number one special teams in the league by DVOA; the Seahawks rank 18th.  Like in the Chiefs game, the scales could be tipped in this one by a big return.  Even though I know rationally Darren Sproles doesn’t have 108 touchdowns on the season, it feels like he’s going to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.  He’s terrifying when he gets those little legs churning.

This game reminds me very much of the Chiefs game, in general.  I think the Seahawks are slightly better than the Eagles, all things equal, but all things aren’t equal; this game is being played in Philadelphia where the Eagles have yet to lose.  So basically I see the two teams as being effectively equal.  I have no inclination about who is going to win, and I don’t trust anybody who says they do.  This is one where you just have to crack a beer, say “Go Hawks!”, and watch things unfold as they will.

Game 11: Seahawks 19, Cardinals 3 — A Game We’ve Been Waiting For

This is the 2014 Seahawks at their best.  And save for a spectacular fourth quarter against the Giants a few weeks ago, it’s the first time we’ve seen them since — when? — the Broncos game?  It’s been awhile.  The underlying peripherals had been suggesting that this Seahawks team was merely lying dormant and not completely dead, but we needed a game like yesterday’s to know for sure.

As you can tell by looking at the final score, defense was the big reason the ‘Hawks won handily.  They got a decent and consistent pass rush on Drew Stanton (it seemed like they blitzed a lot more than usual), forcing him to make inconsistent and short throws.  And then they almost completely shut down the run, which isn’t surprising given that the Cardinals are very bad at running the ball (maybe there is a reason Bruce Arians & Co. were so reluctant to make Andre Ellington the every down back).  Seattle got a little lucky in that the Cards’ rookie kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed a makeable field goal and their rookie wide out John Brown dropped a touchdown, but even if you give the Cardinals those points, they still lose by two scores.  Also, I thought the pass interference penalty on Byron Maxwell that set up the missed field goal was highly questionable, so, you know, karma.

On offense, the ‘Hawks had their problems — Wilson was sacked seven times, and like usual they settled for field goals in the red zone (when Ricardo Lockette was tackled inside the ten on his big reception, I turned to the person next to me and said, “well, here comes three points”, and so they came) — but overall they moved the ball decently against a really good defense.  The long-lost big play returned this game, and Russell Wilson did his usual Russell Wilson things: 10 rushes for 71 yards, 211 passing yards on just 22 attempts, one passing touchdown, one should-have-been running touchdown (the holding call was ticky-tack), and one sweet pirouette on a 23-yard swing pass to Marshawn Lynch.  Great game by DangeRuss, especially given how good the Cardinals pass rush was.

And the special teams were actually a plus this game.  Steven Hauschka had a field goal blocked, but he made his other four attempts, including a 52-yarder.  He also was good on kickoffs, which, along with staid kick coverage, long punts, and a solid punt return by Bryan Walters, kept the ‘Hawks in great field position pretty much the entire game.  Of course, the biggest play was the blocked punt by DeShawn Shead (whose name I’m never sure how to pronounce: Does it rhyme with heed or head?), a great individual effort made even better by the Cooper Helfet body-slam tackle at the end.

So it was a good all-around game and a fun one to watch.  At the very least, it makes the season interesting for a few more weeks.  And things will get really interesting if the Seahawks can win on Thanksgiving in San Francisco.  Because I’ll be on vacation and away from my laptop, I won’t be writing anything about that 49ers game.  I’m sure somehow, some way you will be able to enjoy it all the same.

Game 11: Arizona @ Seattle — This Game … This is the Game

As expected, the Seahawks playoff odds dropped precipitously after last Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs.  Football Outsiders has them at 43% (down nearly 25% from a week ago), and theirs is not the only model that gives less than 50-50 odds.  FiveThirtyEight pegs them at 47%, and this site (which I just found through a Google search) has them at 46%.  The way the rack of pool balls that is the NFL season has broken, things are not as rosy as they could be (or perhaps should be) for the Seahawks right now.  Part of this is, of course, that the Seahawks are not a great team this year (they are still decent though, and no team in the NFL has been consistently great this year).  And part of it is just the stochastic nature of professional football.  The teams with which the ‘Hawks are competing for a playoff spot have been fortunate up to this point, which in turn means the ‘Hawks have been unfortunate.  It’s all relative.  And Seattle has been relatively unlucky thus far.

As a quick and dirty illustration of what I’m talking about, we can use Pro Football Reference’s Expected W-L stat.  Of the seven teams vying for the five NFC playoffs positions (excluding the putrid NFC South’s automatic bid), the Packers and Seahawks have been right on their expected win totals, while the Cowboys, Eagles, Lions, Cardinals, and 49ers have all significantly outperformed their expected win totals (by between 0.8 wins (Dallas) and 2.3 wins (Arizona); you can click on a team’s home page at PFR for more details).  In fact, these five teams combine are six games over what they probably “should” be.  Take away six wins randomly from this group, and Seattle’s playoff picture is drastically improved.  Other nerd stats tell a similar story, as the ‘Hawks ranked second in the NFC by both Weighted DVOA and by ELO (link above), and yet they only have the seventh best record.

And you don’t even need numbers to tell you this if you’ve watched enough football this season.  If you saw the Chargers blow a two-score, fourth-quarter lead to the Cards in Week 1, or Philly squeak by Indy and Washington by field goals in consecutive weeks, or the Falcons Noonan it against the Lions in London, or the Saints forget to cover a 49ers receiver 50 yards downfield on 4th-and-10 — if you saw any of these games (among others) — you already know, without looking at a single advanced stat, that 2014 is not shaping up to be the year of the Seahawk.

Of course, if the ‘Hawks were a transcendent team like they were last year, they could make it their year, other teams be damned — but they aren’t.  This year, they are just your typical fighting-for-a-postseason-berth NFL team, and these types of teams need some cosmic football love; they can’t get by on talent alone.  The ‘Hawks aren’t getting much love, and it’s unlikely to get better, as they have an extremely tough schedule the rest of the way, by far the hardest among the playoff hopefuls — Arizona, @San Francisco, @Philadelphia, San Francisco, @Arizona, St. Louis — not a gimme in the bunch.

But one thing the ‘Hawks do have in their favor is that it’s the right kind of hard schedule.  Five of the six games are against their direct competition, which means they still very much control their own destiny.  If they run the table, they will likely take the division; if they go 5-1, they will almost certainly make the playoffs; if they go 4-2, and it’s the right 4-2 (including wins over Philly and SF twice), they will probably make the playoffs; and if they go 3-3 or worse, well … there’s always next year … and YouTube.

So basically, the ‘Hawks just need to win (crack analysis), and their first opportunity to do so will be this Sunday against Arizona at The Clink.  The Cardinals are having a season that makes old-school types scoff at advanced metrics.  They have the best record in football by two games, and yet they are in the bottom half of the league by overall DVOA.  I won’t try to reconcile these things (Aaron Schotz delves into it briefly in the above link).  I will point out, however, that everybody (including the numbers) agrees on one thing: The Cardinals have an awesome defense.

Despite losing important pieces from last year’s excellent unit (namely Daryl Washington, Karlos Dansby, John Abraham, and Darnell Dockett), the Cardinals have picked up defensively where they left off in 2013.  The results are the same, but they are doing it differently this year … at least I think they are doing it differently this year; to be honest I can’t really figure out the Arizona D.  They regularly play six defensive backs, yet their specialty is stopping the run.  And although they have big names like Patrick Peterson and Calais Campbell, it’s the lesser known guys like Rashad Johnson, Jerraud Powers, and Alex Okafor (not to mention the terrific week-in-week-out scheming of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles) who are making this squad tick.  It’s definitely a “whole is bigger than the sum of its parts” defense, and they are good enough to give even the best offenses trouble.  The Seahawks running game has been ridiculously good over the past few weeks (and really the entire season), but the Cardinals haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in like two years (and Max Unger is out), so it might be tough sledding for Marshawn Lynch.  The talking heads have been dogging Russell Wilson and the Seahawks receivers this year (mainly the latter), so they might have to hush some critics for the ‘Hawks to score points on Sunday.

On the offense, the Cardinals seem to score with smoke and mirrors, but it’s actually more like smoke and bombs.  They wing it downfield and hope for the best.  John Brown, Malcolm Floyd, and (a slightly over-the-hill) Larry Fitzgerald aren’t the greatest trio of receivers in the league, but they are all dangerous on the deep ball.  And if there is one thing Drew Stanton can do, it’s deliver it long, which is why Cardinals fans weren’t too distraught when Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending knee injury.  The Seahawks D hasn’t been great against the pass this year, but for some reason I’m cautiously optimistic that L.O.B. II (the sequel is never as good as the original, is it?) can keep the Arizona passing game at bay.  I don’t know, call it a hunch.  The Cards have been really bad at running the ball this year (Andre Ellington is only going for 3.4 yards-per-carry), so, at the very least, we shouldn’t see a repeat of last week’s run-defense-optional debacle.

Last year, as you might recall, this game was an ugly, rugged, closely-contested affair.  I don’t expect this Sunday’s game to be much different — but hopefully this time the result goes the other way.  If it doesn’t, the Seahawks’ season could effectively be over before Black Friday.  Nobody would have imagined such a scenario on opening night, but, as Marshawn Lynch put it — tritely, but accurately — “Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way.”

Game 10: Seahawks 20, Chiefs 24 — Almost Good Enough

If you want a decent recap of this game, just go back and read my preview.  I pretty much nailed it.  (Right down to the part about special teams being the “X-factor”.)  I said that the two teams were closely matched and that this was basically a “pick ‘em” game.  And so it was.  Or at least so it was, approximately.  I do think the Chiefs played a bit better.  If I was scoring this game as a boxing round, I would have given it to KC 10-9, but if somebody had it the other way, I wouldn’t have insisted the gaming commission carry out a corruption investigation.  From a football karma standpoint, the “right” team won.  From the vantage of a middle-aged football fan who lived the first 27 years of his life on the shores of the Puget Sound, every was wrong.

And the biggest thing that was wrong was the Seahawks run defense.  I knew they would struggle, but I didn’t think they would 6.3 yards-per-rush struggle.  I didn’t think they would Jamaal Charles for 159 and two touchdowns struggle.  That was unexpected  And it was brutal to watch.  Brandon Mebane‘s absence was obviously a factor, but I think missing Bobby Wagner was even more negatively impactful for the ‘Hawks.  The Chiefs, with Charles and De’Anthony Thomas, are so good at running counters and sweeps and misdirections that a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine would have been more valuable this game than a nugget in the middle.  Without Wagner, Seattle was particularly susceptible to any sort of stretch play, and the Chiefs, to their credit, took full advantage.

In general, the Chiefs executed a very Chiefs game plan.  They ran the ball extremely well; they threw nothing but short, high-percentage throws (11-16, for 108 yards); and they committed almost no penalties (just three for six yards).  With the notably exception of the two fumbles (both recovered by the ‘Hawks), it was an Alex Smith and Andy Reid KC masterpiece.

And yet the Seahawks were right there with a decent chance to win at the end and just couldn’t quite do it.  They almost out-Chiefed the Chiefs.  They ran exceptionally well (Marshawn Lynch went for 124 and Russell Wilson added 71 more), made a few big completions, and put together some impressive, long drives.  The offense played pretty well, and if they could have converted on one of their two 4th-and-shorts, they could have stolen this one.  Alas.

About those fourth-down plays: it was absolutely the correct call in each case to go for it, but I didn’t like the play call for either one.  I wish they would have swapped them.  I wanted to see Marshawn Lynch up the gut on the first one — being 4th-and-2, the Chiefs were anticipating pass.  And I wanted to see a pass on the second one.  Actually, I wanted to see anything but Lynch up the gut.  The Seahawks offense is weirdly bad at playing smashmouth football in short-yardage situations.  They have been for years.  (Not to mention Max Unger was out with injury.)  The play I would have called there is for Wilson to fake the run to Lynch, pull it back, and then have the option of running or throwing to a receiver in the flat.  This isn’t hindsight either — I was saying this to my TV at the time.  Unfortunately, however, the only person around to hear it was my two-year son, and he is not Darrell Bevel.

So this was a rough one, and it probably will drop the ‘Hawks back to playoff-underdog status, considering the Cardinals, 49ers, and Packers all won.  (This is the only time I wish Seattle was a southern city.)  But if you want some optimism, here’s my Mr. Brightside pitch: The Seahawks this year remind me much more of the 2012 team than last year’s team, and the 2012 team came within a half-minute defensive lapse of making the NFC Championship Game.  What’s more, two years ago, the ‘Hawks were a mediocre 6-5 after losing a heartbreaker to an AFC team 21-24 (sound familiar?).  And then they ran the regular-season table.  The ‘Hawks still have four games left against the 49ers and the Cardinals and two more against the Eagles and the Rams.  Each of those games will be loaded with playoff implications.  The Seahawks are still very much in it.  It just might not feel that way right now.

Game 10: Seattle @ Kansas City — No Nugget In Pick ‘Em Game

Some years ago I heard and NFL talking head — I can’t remember whom, Mark Schlereth maybe — describe ‘Hawks defensive linemen Brandon Mebane as a “nugget”.  It was meant as a compliment — a valuable hunk of dense matter positioned in the middle of the field to disrupt the opposing team’s run game.  I still remember this today because it struck me as the perfect way to describe Mebane.  He was just there, taking up space, clogging holes.  He was a big reason why the ‘Hawks have been so good against the run this season.  And I say “was” not “is” because, as you probably heard, Mebane tore his hamstring last Sunday and will miss the entire rest of the season.  Bummer — no more belly rolls in 2014.

There is never a good time to lose a good player to injury, but Mebane would have been particularly useful for this Sunday’s game against Kansas City.  Although the Chiefs beat the Bills last game 17-13, by all accounts they were outplayed by Buffalo (I only watched the highlights) and the win was somewhat fluky.  In particular, the Bills D-line apparently dominated the KC O-line, exposing a potential Chiefs weakness.  Unfortunately for 12s, however, the Seahawks are ill-suited to exploit this weakness, even with Mebane in the lineup; without him, it will be extremely, extremely difficult.  Seattle just doesn’t have the players Buffalo has up front.  Buffalo has in-their-primes Kyle Williams and Mario Williams; Seattle has an over-the-hill Kevin Williams.  Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus has 10 sacks; Seattle has 12 sacks total.  You get the idea.  This is when I really miss Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald — well, this and the entire season up to this point.

One thing interesting about Kansas City is that they have yet to throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver.  In fact, their wide outs account for just 40% of their receptions, a remarkably low number, and it drops to an even more remarkably low 18%, if you remove leading receiver Dwayne Bowe from the mix.  The ‘Hawks should be expecting a slew of screen passes (running back Jamaal Charles is really good, if you didn’t know) and short-to-medium range throws to tight ends, particularly Travis Kelce.  The ‘Hawks haven’t been great this year at defending these types of plays, but they haven’t been terrible either.  Getting Malcolm Smith and Kam Chancellor back and healthy would obviously be a huge boon to the intermediate passing D (as would Bobby Wagner‘s return, but I suspect that’s still a few weeks away).  Because the ‘Hawks don’t force a ton of turnovers, a dink-and-dunk game plan can work against them.  Andy Reid is a very good offensive coach, and Alex Smith is particularly effective at keep drives alive.  I could see KC putting together a few eight-minute, 15-play drives, on which they convert 3rd-and-manageable over and over again.  It could be a frustrating one for Seahawks fans to watch when the Chiefs have the ball, is what I’m saying.

Another interesting thing about Kansas City is that they haven’t given up a rushing touchdown all season.  This is also a very misleading thing about Kansas City.  Despite their knack for keeping opponents out of the end zone on the ground, they have not been particularly good at stopping the run.  They are giving up 4.7 yards-per-carry, second most in the league, and they rank solidly in the bottom half of the league in run defense DVOA.  Given what we saw last week, expect the ‘Hawks to try to pound it some more.  I doubt the Chiefs will repeatedly give up containment on Russell Wilson the way the Giants did.  But even if they spy him, he can sometimes beat the spy one-on-one (like he did on a key third down in the Giants game), and committing a man on the edge to the Wilson will surely soften up the middle for Marshawn Lynch.  If it was easy to stop the Seahawks’ ground game, they wouldn’t rank at the top of the list using both old school and new school stats.  Now, if only the passing game didn’t suck …

On paper, the Chiefs have a big special teams advantage, and, to use an awful sports cliché, it could be the X-factor in this game.  (One of the biggest plays in the Chiefs-Bills game was a KC recovery of a muffed punt.)  But, to use an even worse sports cliché, the game isn’t played on paper, and the ‘Hawks special teams might be significantly improved now that guys like Jeremy Lane are healthy again.

Overall, this is a really evenly matched game.  Both teams are pretty good, but have evident flaws.  My feeling is the ‘Hawks are a touch better, but this is negated by the fact the game is being played at Arrowhead.  I’m predicting it will be a 26-23 overtime victory for … hold on, let me get a coin … [flip] … the ‘Hawks!  Sweet!  I was hoping they would win.