Super Bowl: New England vs. Seattle — Plus the JZL Awards

I’ve read an embarrassingly large number of articles about this Super Bowl.  I mean this literally.  I’ve easily read over 50 Super Bowl articles in the last two weeks, and if asked about it by somebody in real life, I would cut it down by at least a factor of 5.  I’ve read articles about Deflategate, about Marshawn Lynch and the media, about Marshawn Lynch growing up in Oakland, about Doug Baldwin and Deion Sanders, about Russell Wilson‘s scrambling tendencies, about how the Seahawks will try to cover Rob Gronkowski, about prop bets, about Kam Chancellor, about the two teams’ weaknesses, about the two teams’ DVOA, about how Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick will match wits, about Bryan Stork‘s knee, about Earl Thomas and random drug testing, about Richard Sherman and his pregnant girlfriend, and many other subtopics I can’t think of right now off the top of my head.  I’ve also listened to roughly 20 hours of podcast coverage on this Super Bowl.  I am as informed about this Sunday’s big game as any fan could be about any football game ever.  And here’s what I think is going to happen: I have no fucking clue.  These teams are way too close to make a meaningful prediction of victory for either side.  Instead of playing the game, the NFL might as well flip a coin, and hand out the Lombardi Trophy that way.  It would be just as fair.  Although, admittedly, it might upset some of the sponsors.

Anyway … in lieu of yet more Super Bowl analysis (most of which I’d just steal from Bill Barnwell and Football Outsiders, anyway), I’m going to hand out the second annual JZL Awards.  Here’s how I describe the JZLs in last year’s entry.

The title Jim Zorn’s Lemma is a “before and after” of Jim Zorn and Zorn’s Lemma.  It’s a simultaneous homage to two of my loves, Seahawks history and mathematics.  The former is referenced frequently in posts; the latter I’ve been neglecting.  For this reason, I’m giving this year’s JZLs a math theme … What?  It’s creative.

Indeed.  Now let’s get to it.

Blaise Pascal Spiked Belt Award: Earl Thomas
The 17th-century Frenchman Blaise Pascal was an exceptional mathematician and philosopher.  His brainchild Pascal’s Triangle is one of the most amazing and elegant mathematical constructions ever.  In addition to being brilliant, Pascal was also deeply religious — so much so that he would wear a belt laced on the inside with spikes, and each time he thought an impure thought, he would tighten the belt in repentance.  Today we would consider this insane, but undoubtedly this type of intense focus was part of the reason Pascal was such an amazing thinker.

Similarly, reading stories about Earl Thomas and listening to interviews by him and about him and his legendary intensity makes me wonder if he is also insane and perhaps also punishes himself for thinking non-football related thoughts.  But, like Pascal, the dude is great.

Graduate Assistant Award: Ricardo Lockette
Math graduate assistants do a lot of work and don’t receive a lot of credit — much like Ricardo Lockette.  A maven on special teams, Lockette also contributed two big touchdowns in the regular season (versus Green Bay and Denver), despite being target just 15 total times.  He also converted two third downs with receptions in the NFC Championship Game.  Lockette is my deep sleeper for Super Bowl hero.

The only problem with Lockette is that he sometimes lacks self-control and gets a stupid penalty (like in the Super Bowl last year or in the Carolina playoff game this year) or gets ejected (like in the Kansas City game).  So maybe he’s like a graduate assistant who is constantly in trouble with the department for making out with his students.

Last Author Award: Byron Maxwell
In many academic papers, the authors are listed in order of their contribution to the paper.  Often the last author is one who deserves credit, but isn’t quite up to par with the others — like maybe he or she did a lot of formatting and writing and editing for the paper, but didn’t contribute much of the intellectual content behind it.  This is like Byron Maxwell, a fine cornerback to be sure, but obviously the “fourth author” of the Legion of Boom.  Justin Britt was another contender for this award, which could also be called the “Backhand Compliment Award”.

The Greatest Lower Bound Award: Bryan Walters
In mathematics, the greatest lower bound of a set of numbers is the number which is less than (or equal to) every number in the set, but larger than every other lower bound of the set.  This is like Bryan Walters’ punt returning ability.  He’s not a good punt returner, but he’s unlikely to make that killer mistake, like, say, Earl Thomas is.  (Remember when he was doing punts?)  Of all the Seahawks’ returners, he doesn’t have a high ceiling (upper bound), but he has the greatest lower bound.

Archimedes, Newton, Gauss Award: Marshawn LynchMichael BennettRichard Sherman
Most math historians cite the Big Three — ArchimedesIsaac Newton, and Carl Friedrich Gauss — when the question of “Who’s the greatest mathematician ever?” is asked.  So in their collective honor, this is the highest of the JZLs.  It’s a tri-MVP award.

Lynch is the only obvious choice.  He’s been the best player on the Seahawks offense by far this year.  In the era of modern analytics and the salary cap, smart football people are beginning to realize the folly in paying premium prices for a running back.  However, there are exceptions.  With his play this year, Beast Mode convinced me he is just such an exception, and I hope he returns somehow next year.  The Seahawks cannot just replace him with guys like Robert Turbin and Christine Michael.

I’m going with Bennett because without him the Seahawks pass rush would be much, much worse and thus the defense overall would be much, much worse.  His ability to rush the quarterback and stuff the run is a huge reason the ‘Hawks ranked in the top five in DVOA in both run D and pass D.

As for Sherman, well, he’s Richard Sherman.  It comes down to him or Earl Thomas, and I’m going with him because I feel like he had a slightly better year than Thomas.  This is based on nothing other than my own general gut feeling (informed by watching hours and hours of Seahawks this year), but when two players are this close, gut feeling is a fine tie breaker.

Now on to Super Bowl XLIX…

Bye Week Olio: The Bledsoe Bowl, 1992

If, back in 1992, you told somebody that the New England Patriots would be playing the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl 23 years later, they would have laughed in your face…  Actually, they probably wouldn’t have.  Everybody knows NFL teams can completely change in two years, let alone two decades, so it’s completely believable that any two teams could play in a Super Bowl 23 years in the future.  Rather than laugh in your face, this hypothetical person probably would have looked at you quizzically and wondered what the hell you were talking about.  Why the Patriots and Seahawks?  Aren’t they in the same conference?  How are you seeing the future, anyway?  Do hoverboards actually get invented by 2015?

All this is a very convoluted way to set-up my main point: The Patriots and Seahawks were both bad in 1992 — really bad.  Each team was 2-14 with an average game being a double-digit loss.  They had the two worst point differentials in the league, and they both finished among the bottom three teams in DVOA.  The Pats were normal boring bad.  The ‘Hawks at least were interesting bad.  They had one of best defenses in the league, and arguably the worst offense in the league — not just of the ’92 season, but of the entire Super Bowl Era.

Led by Defensive Player of the Year, Cortez Kennedy (14 sacks as a D-tackle!), the Seattle defense did a fine job of keeping offenses at bay.  In 10 of their 16 games, they held their opponent to no more than 20 points.  In addition to Tez, the ‘Hawks had some brutes among the front seven: Veteran Joe Nash was still masterful at clogging up the middle, and Rufus Porter was a good speed rusher on the outsider.  The secondary, for its part, was anchored adeptly by Pro Bowler (and future Super Bowl Eve john) Eugene Robinson.  It was the best defense in Seahawks history B.C. (Before Carroll).

And it was completely wasted because the offense was a cataclysm in cleats.  Holding your opponent to 20 or few points in 60% of your games is nice, but it doesn’t do a whole lot of good if you score 20 or fewer points in 100% of your games.  That’s right, the ’92 Seahawks didn’t reach 20 points in any game; their season-high was 17.  They were held to single digits eight times and shutout twice.  In a game against the Cowboys, they scored no points and were held to 62 total yards — 62 yards!  The only good players the ‘Hawks had on offense were their backs Chris Warren and John L. Williams.  Together they accounted for 2,046 total yards and six touchdowns, which is not too shabby considering the entire offense had fewer than 4,000 yards and just 13 touchdowns.  Seattle’s best wide out, Brian Blades, missed 10 games, making the top wide receiver on the team a fellow named Tommy Kane, who caught all of — wait for it — 27 passes!  For 369 yards!  Over a full 16-game season, the Seahawks’ top wide out did what a good receiver does in two or three games.  The ’92 ‘Hawks were worse than the Cardinals this year with Ryan Lindley.  They were sub-Lindleyan.

On September 20, 1992, the Seattle Seahawks traveled to Foxboro Stadium to play the New England Patriots in a game that would prove to have huge implications for both franchises just a few months later.  The game itself, as you might imagine, was a mega-dud.  The ‘Hawks, riding a six-sack performance from their D (three by Tez), beat the Pats in an ugly 10-6 affair.  In total, the game featured less than 500 yards of offense, six fumbles, over 100 yards in penalties, a botched extra point, and — my “favorite” stat — 17 punts.  The Seahawks punted nine times, and the Patriots eight, as the two teams combine to go 8-29 on third down.  Did you ever play Tecmo Super Bowl back in the day and put in your back-up tight end at running back and call the same sweep play to him over and over, just because you thought it was funny how much slower he ran than everybody else on the field?  Well, that’s how I imagine this game was for both offenses.

In the game, only two quarterbacks played — Kelly Stouffer for Seattle and (Seattle native) Hugh Millen for New England.  But on the season, the two teams had seven total QBs make at least one start for them, and you will be hard-pressed to find a worse set of signal callers on any two teams ever.  The best of the bunch was Millen because he was just normal lousy, not apocalyptically bad.  The other quarterbacks — in no particular order, because ranking these players would be like ranking the least uncomfortable moments in a Todd Solondz movie — were Stan Gelbaugh and Dan McGwire for the Sehawks, and Scott Zolak, Tom Hodson, and Jeff Carlson for the Patriots.  It’s difficult to overstate how bad these quarterbacks were collectively.  But let’s just say, not only did none of them deserve to an NFL starter, none of them deserved to be an NFL backup.  These are a septet of practice squad level QBs if there ever was one.  (To see for yourself, you can browse their individual Pro Football Reference pages, or you can check out their Football Outsiders stats for the year; Hodson leads the bunch as the 32nd “best” QB in the league; Gelbaugh and Stouffer bring up the rear.)

Not surprisingly, both the Patriots and the Seahawks used their first-round picks in the 1993 draft on quarterbacks.  And you know the story here: The Pats took WSU product Drew Bledsoe with the first overall pick; the ‘Hawks selected Rick Mirer from Notre Dame with the next pick.  Bledsoe went on to be a multi-time Pro Bowler and one of the better quarterbacks of the day; Mirer didn’t.  Because Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf came along just five years later, I think many people forget just how big the drop off in career achievement was from Bledsoe to Mirer.  But Seattle and New England fans remember.

There are many “what ifs” to consider from the 1992 season and subsequent draft.  The most obvious, of course, is what if the Patriots had beaten the Seahawks during the regular season?  In that situation, the ‘Hawks get the number one overall pick and almost certainly take Bledsoe.  With a decent signal caller at the helm and a stout defense, they probably contend for the playoffs throughout the ’90s.

It’s an interesting thought for Seattle fans (if nothing else, it would have spared us the malaise of the Dennis Erickson years), and here’s another one: What if instead of drafting Mirer, the Seahawks take future Hall of Fame tackle Willie Roaf with the second overall pick (he went seventh in reality), and then grab UW star Mark Brunell to be their quarterback in a middle round?  (For some reason Brunell fell all the way to the fifth round. Fellow Husky QB Billy Joe Hobert went in the third round.  NFL GMs should have consulted 15-year-old me.  I knew from watching almost every Huskies game that Brunell was better than Hobert.)  This is a great hypothetical.  I contend that if the ‘Hawks had selected Roaf and Brunell in the 1993 draft, they would have won a Super Bowl before the turn on the millennium.  What?  You can’t prove me wrong.  It’s a vacuously true statement.

In reality, it’s been interesting to see how the Patriots and Seahawks franchises have followed similar arcs.  But the Pats, by virtue of losing the Bledsoe Bowl (and thus “winning” Bledsoe), jumped ahead in 1993, and the ‘Hawks have been trying to catch up ever since.  Think about it.  Each franchise had some good years in the mid-’80s before bottoming out in the early ’90s.  Then each franchise was on the verge of relocating before it was sold to a new owner who helped get a new long-term stadium built.  The Patriots then hired a Super Bowl winning coach, Bill Parcells, who made another appearance in the big game with his new team.  The Seahawks later did the same thing with Mike Holmgren.  After Parcells left, the Patriots brought in a coach who didn’t stick (Pete Carroll, ironically), before Bill Belichick, who failed in his first NFL head coaching gig, entered the picture and built a dynasty around an unheralded quarterback who won a Super Bowl in his second season.  Replace Parcells with Holmgren, Carroll with Jim Mora, and Belichick with Carroll in the previous sentence, and you’ve pretty much described the Seattle Seahawks of the past decade and a half.

Well, almost, anyway.  One Super Bowl doesn’t make a dynasty.  To really match the Patriots, the Seahawks have to win at least one more.  And then they have to play the next upstart in the Super Bowl 13 years from now.  I guess we will see what happens Sunday and in 2028.

NFC Championship Game: Seattle 28, Green Bay 22 — Still Unbelievable

Twenty-four hours after the Seahawks pulled off the greatest comeback victory in the history of the franchise, the whole thing is still as unbelievable now as it was then.  Living in the age we do, this game has already been beaten to death by the media — big and small, professional and amateur, old-school and new-school — the nation over.  And then it has been resurrected and beaten dead again.  There is little anybody can say about it that hasn’t been said elsewhere.  But, as somebody who’s been watching the game’s key plays over and over, finding something new with each view, like I’m a Sopranos obsessive watching the final diner scene looking for clues of Tony’s fate, I feel the need to share my thoughts.

Here are five.

  • I thought the “Mike McCarthy: too conservative” narrative was going to be an underappreciated aspect of the Seahawks’ comeback.  I was very wrong.  The talking heads on the radio this morning were relentless in their excoriation of McCarthy, as was pretty much every other member of the media.  And Bill Barnwell laid out a very levelheaded and analytic criticism of McCarthy, as is his way.  I agree with all of it, but not quite so emphatically.  If McCarthy is smarter, I think the Packers put it away, but they nearly put it away anyway.  It’s not like his team got smoked because of his dumb calls.  If I may use a sports-on-sports analogy, McCarthy’s passive coaching kept the Seahawks for tapping out.  But the plays that allowed the ‘Hawks to reverse position, throw a few elbows, take the Packers’ back, and choke the life out them, those plays — the 30-yard punt by Tim Masthay, the Marshawn Lynch catch, the onside kick, the Marshawn Lynch touchdown run, the two-point conversion, the two big plays in overtime — those are mostly on the players.  And McCarthy isn’t a player.
  • On the topic of getting outplayed, take a look at the box score.  Considering many people (including Aaron Rodgers) think the Packers played the better game and lost by fluke, the numbers sure look funny — don’t they?  The Seahawks dominated up and down the board, with the (admittedly important) exception of turnovers.  The way I look at it is this: Both teams got a huge break/opponent gaffe on special teams with the Doug Baldwin fumble and the Brandon Bostick boneheaded bobble.  Those canceled each other out.  And then for the rest of the plays, over the course of all 60 minutes and overtime, the Seahawks legitimately outplayed the Packers.  It seems weird to say this, since the Packers held a good lead for so much of the game, but it’s really what happened.  If the scoring drives are distributed differently, people’s perception of the teams’ overall performances would also be different, even if everything else stayed the same.  When teams trade points, we don’t think anything of it.  When one teams scores all their points at the beginning, and the other all theirs at the end, we try to attribute meaning to it, even though, overall, it’s really no different than the first case.
  • With everything in the above bullet said, if the Seahawks had lost like that instead of the Packers it would have been devastating.  For a team that has been no stranger to the body blow over the past few decades, this one might be the biggest gut punch of them all.
  • It’s pretty cool that the two unlikeliest heroes from this game, Garry Gilliam and Chris Matthews, were probably only on the active roster because of the injuries to Justin Britt and Paul Richardson, respectively.  I guess that’s what is meant by next man up.
  • Playing the Patriots in the Super Bowl is good news/bad news.  The good news is that Russell Wilson almost certainly won’t throw four interceptions in a game again.  The bad news is that Bill Belichick is not Mike McCarthy.  Of course, there is also the other good news that the Seahawks are playing in the Super Bowl again.  Let’s not let that get lost in the hype.
  • Bonus thought: Watching Steven Hauschka celebrate after the onside kick conversion might have been my favorite part of this game.  He claps his hands and raises his arms as Matthews is bringing it in, then he awkwardly jump-hugs Kam Chancellor, and then he tops it off with a sweet chest bump with Mike Morgan.  It’s just a great celebration, by a great kicker, who made a great kick.

NFC Championship Game: Green Bay @ Seattle — Teams Actually Mostly The Same As Week 1

The 2013 NFL season, you might recall, opened the Thursday after Labor Day with a game in Seattle between the Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers.  The Seahawks beat the Packers soundly, 36-16.  Because these two teams are playing again this Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, again in Seattle, the season opener has garnered renewed attention.  Many articles in the current football news cycle talk about how different the two teams are now from what they were at the start of the season.  They use phrases like “changed“, “gone through a transformation“, and “come a long way“.  NFL.com published an entire article on an Aaron Rodgers quote about how the teams are different.*  The quote: “Both teams are playing the way they want to play. It’s two different teams than when we met (in September).”

But it’s not.  The two teams are actually quite similar to what they were at the beginning of the year.  I’m sure they feel different, and they’ve both gone through whatever typical progression NFL teams go through during a season.  But in comparison to each other and to the rest of the league, they are basically the same teams they were in Week 1.

For one thing, the teams’ lineups are quite similar now and then. There are some differences around the edges — no more Percy Harvin, no more Brandon Mebane, Bryan Bulaga and Eddie Lacy both left the first game with injury, Luke Willson and Davante Adams have emerged, etc. — but the cores of the teams are the same.  Look back at the players who most contributed in the opener; it’s basically a list of players we expect to contribute on Sunday.  Personnel is more or less the same.

What’s more is that the two teams are playing at basically the same level they were at the beginning of the season.  If we look at their DVOAs (the entire season) and their weighted DVOAs (recent weeks), we don’t see huge variations.  Seattle is ranked first by both measures; Green Bay is ranked third by DVOA and fourth by weighted DVOA — no big diff.  (Contrast this with, say, the Carolina Panthers who made significant defensive changes the latter half of the season and finished 25th by DVOA and 12th by weighted DVOA.)

Much has been made of the Packers’ new found ability to stop the run since moving Clay Mathews to inside linebacker halfway through the season, resulting in a decrease in average rushing-yards-per-game from 154 to 86.  However, in the first half of the season, Green Bay played teams who averaged 121 yards-per-game, including games against three teams in the top-10 in rushing DVOA (Seattle, Miami, and New Orleans); in the second half, their opponents average only 100 yards-per-game, and three of them were in bottom-10 in rushing DVOA (Atlanta, Buffalo, and Tampa Bay).  (Detroit, whom Green Bay played in both halves, also finished in the bottom-10.)  Given these numbers, and given that Dallas had little trouble moving the ball on the ground last week in Green Bay (28-145, 5.2 Y/A), my informed hunch is that the Packers are the same basic defense against the run now as they were at the beginning of the season.

So the two teams are basically the same as they were when they played in Week 1.  The Seahawks won by 20 points in Week 1.  Ergo the Seahawks win comfortably on Sunday, right?  Maybe.  Hopefully.  But, of course, not necessarily.  The Packers could still beat the Seahawks.  They could beat them the same way a golfer could triple-bogey a difficult hole in one round and then birdie it the next.  Same golfer, same hole, different outcome.  That’s sports.

If the Packers are to pull off the upset, I think, offensively, it will follow the template set by the Chargers in their win over the ‘Hawks in Week 2: incredible efficiency from the quarterback, a bit of a running game to keep the D off balance, consistent third-down conversions, and no turnovers.  I know many pundits think the key to victory for Green Bay is running Eddie Lacy over and over, but I have a hard time seeing the Packers churning out first downs and putting up points without Aaron Rodgers slinging it.  Even with a bum calf, he’s terrifying to the fans of opposing teams.  He was virtually unstoppable in the second half against Dallas last week.  And his regular season statistics were absurd (yet again), especially his TD-to-INT ratio: 38-to-5.  I’d call those “video game numbers”, but that would actually be underselling it.  Playing Tecmo Bowl back in the day, I’d still throw more than five interceptions in a season — even if I was the Oilers, using Warren Moon.  Every time I played Cincinnati, David Fulcher would jump up and snag two or three picks himself.

What might be even more impressive than Rodgers’ numbers are those of his top two wide outs (which obviously has something to do with Rodgers).  I knew Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb were having good seasons, but I didn’t realize just how good until I looked at their numbers today: Nelson, 98 receptions, 1519 yards, 13 TDs; Cobb 91 receptions, 1287 yards, 12 TDs; and they rank second and fourth, respectively, in DYAR.  Nelson and Cobb might be the best biracial sports duo since Boris Becker and Barbara Feltus (now there’s a timely joke!).  Michael Bennett recently made the claim that the Seahawks defense is the best of its era; keeping the Packers passing attack at bay on Sunday would go a long way in validating his contention.

On the other side of the ball is where I think the Seahawks have a big advantage.  Green Bay’s defense has ostensibly improved since their bye in Week 9, but as stated above, they played worse offenses, particularly worse running offenses, the second half of the season.  They also played only three of their final eight games on the road (where they are markedly worse); here are Green Bay’s three second-half away opponents with their offensive ranking by DVOA:  Minnesota (22), Buffalo (26), Tampa Bay (32).  It’s safe to say, Seattle presents the biggest road challenge for the Packers D since at least New Orleans in Week 8.

Over the course of the season, Green Bay finished in the middle of the pack (get it? pack — Green Bay?) defensively, and I think this is an accurately reflection of their current state.  I (along with every other football fan) expect the ‘Hawks to pound the Packers with Marshawn Lynch, and if they sell-out to stop the run, then we should see Russell Wilson go to work again — just like last week.  Although many people think of the Seahawks as a D-only team, their offense has been remarkably efficient and consistent throughout the season.  We have seen them struggle against mediocre defenses (Panthers in the regular season, Cowboys), but more often we’ve seen them steamroll them (Packers, Giants, Chiefs, Eagles).  It wouldn’t be a total stunner if Julius Peppers and Co. shutdown Beast Mode and DangeRuss, but it would definitely raise an eyebrow.

Overall, the Seahawks are better than the Packers, they have been better than the Packers since Week 1, they are at home, and their quarterback is not the one who looks like he’s playing hopscotch when he has to flee the pocket.  The ‘Hawks should win this game.  And if they don’t, well, you can’t win the Super Bowl in historically dominating fashion every year.  All we, as fans, can do if Seattle loses is tip our collective hat to Green Bay and remember the good times.  Oh, and also we can make creepy conspiracy videos claiming the NFL rigged the game in favor of the Packers and then put them up on YouTube.  That is always an option.

Prediction: Seahawks 26, Packers 17.

*When I say it that way, it makes the article sound incredibly flimsy — which it is.  But NFL.com puts out new content like every half hour, so you shouldn’t go there expecting Ring Lardner.

Divisional Rounds: Seattle 31, Carolina 17 — Seahawks Just Better Than Panthers

If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, after watching this game, I couldn’t help but torture myself with “what ifs”.  There were myriad moments when it felt as if the Panthers were on the precipice of taking command.  But it never happened.  What if Jerricho Cotchery holds on to the ball on the first third down of the game?  What if Jermaine Kearse is called for offensive pass interference on his touchdown reception?  What if Carolina picks up one of the three fumbles recovered by the Seahawks?  What if they get two — or all three?  What if Kelvin Benjamin gets both feet in the end zone on that long incompletion before the half?  What if Mike Tolbert catches that crucial 3rd-and-11 pass in the fourth quarter?  The Panthers fought hard, and despite the final two-score difference, given a few more breaks, they very well could have pulled off the ultimate shocker.

But that’s just it.  You are rarely “given a few more breaks”.  Breaks, by definition, tend to even out in the long run.  It’s just as likely they will happen against you as for you.  So if you are in the position where you need the vast majority of the breaks to go your way to win, it means the other team is better than you and will probably beat you.  And that’s precisely the case with Carolina against Seattle.  Some things went their way — they fumbled out of bounds twice; they benefited from two stupid Seahawks personal fouls; Richard Sherman dropped a dead-to-rights interception; Earl Thomas lost one going to the ground; Kam Chancellor somehow didn’t the touch the ball on his running into the kicker penalty; Bryon Maxwell didn’t play; etc. — and some things didn’t go their way.  The result is that the better team eventually pulled away and won in convincing fashion.

To the parting shots:

  • Cam Newton really is a very good quarterback.  The Carolina offense overall played admirably.  The line kept the ‘Hawks pass rush mostly in check, and Jonathan Stewart is terrific at churning out five-yard gains that look like they are going to be one-yard losses.  But the real bright spot for the Panthers was Newton to Kelvin Benjamin.  Going forward, that’s a legitimately scary connection for other teams in the NFC.
  • Russell Wilson is even better than Newton.  And last night he was damn near at his best.  It was a typical DangeRuss masterpiece: at least one successful deep ball, one big run, one big scramble-completion, one big blitz-burner, and zero turnovers.  The craziest thing about Russell Wilson’s performance last night was his play on third down: 8-8 for 199 yards, 3 TD, and 0 INT. (!!!)  The craziest thing about Russell Wilson’s career performance in the playoffs: 5-1 W-L, 9 TD, 1 INT (and the interception was by Julio Jones on a Hail Mary, so it doesn’t even really count).  Wilson isn’t the best QB in the NFL (yet?), but he’s reportedly about to be paid like he is.
  • I’ll get into the details of what the soon-to-be Wilson contract means another time.  But one obvious upshot is that the ‘Hawks will have to find value in other areas.  They’ve been successful at this so far, particularly at receiver.  Seattle’s three best targets last night caught 10 passes on 11 targets for 235 yards and three touchdowns — and they consist of two undrafted free agents wide outs (Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse) and a fifth-round tight end (Luke Willson).
  • Speaking of Jermaine Kearse, in my admittedly biased opinion, I think not throwing a flag for OPI on his touchdown was the correct call.  He definitely kept Bene Benwikere at bay with his outstretched left arm, but it was in response to Benwikere grabbing said arm in the first place.  I suppose the ref could have called offsetting interference penalties, but unless the receiver and defender start fighting MMA-style while the ball is in the air, what’s the point?  If both players are hand fighting equally, just let it play out.  Plus, a flag would have ruined an absolutely gorgeous rainbow special from Russell Wilson and a sweet one-handed snag by Kearse.
  • It was weird to see the Seahawks be so inept at running the ball.  But Marshawn Lynch did break one big run, and it’s possible that the Panthers were specifically guarding against the run, which helped the passing game.  I don’t know enough about the X’s and O’s to say one way or the other.
  • Although I don’t know X’s and O’s, I could tell the ‘Hawks missed Byron Maxwell.  He’s not a spectacular DB, but I don’t think he gets picked on the same way as does Tharold Simon. Hopefully Maxwell is OK (it sounds like a really bad chest cold) and can contribute full-time next week.
  • Today, everybody is raving about Bam Bam Kam — for good reason.  He had a monster game last night.  We will all remember him jumping over the line to nearly block a field goal (twice!) and him scoring the game-clinching touchdown on a pick-six.  But he also had some subtler great plays: At the 0:33 mark of this clip, Chancellor impressively sheds a block and snuffs out a screen to DeAngelo Williams, and at the 1:50 mark he keeps hold of Jonathan Stewart’s jersey to prevent him from churning out a sneaky, looked-down-initially-but-wasn’t long run.  Chancellor’s ability to play like a run stuffing linebacker on some plays and a nickel cornerback on others (and play both roles well) is what makes him such a great player — well, that and the bone-crushing hits.  He’s a second team All-Pro for the second time in his career, and he should be on the first team.  (If you ask all the coaches in the NFL if they would rather have Chancellor or Eric Weddle, I bet everybody but Mike McCoy says Chancellor; and even McCoy says it if it’s off-the-record.)  I think the voters just didn’t want the first team All-Pro secondary to be 75% Seahawks.  But it should be.
  • As I write this, it’s half-time of the Green Bay-Dallas game.  I can honestly say, I don’t care who wins.  Either way it’s going to be a tough, nerve-wracking game.  And it’s going to be fun.  The Seattle Seahawks are again hosting the NFC Championship Game — how could it not be fun?

Divisional Round: Carolina @ Seattle — Seahawks Are Who Panthers Wish They Were

In watching the Lions and Cowboys play a very entertaining game Sunday evening (by the way, offsetting penalties — defensive holding, offensive face-masking — was clearly the correct call on the controversial play, in my opinion), I found my self sightly but undoubtedly rooting for the Lions.  Maybe it’s that I have friends who are big Detroit sports fans; maybe it’s that I just like seeing Dallas lose; maybe it’s Golden Tate; maybe it’s that three decades of disappointment doesn’t completely vanish with one Super Bowl victory, so somewhere in the recesses of my brain I still root for the least worst scenario (a Seattle loss to 12-5 Detroit would be much easier to stomach than one to 8-8-1 Carolina); maybe it’s all of these.  I’m not sure.  Whatever the case, I wanted the Lions to win.

But, spoiler alert, the Lions didn’t win.  So instead of seeing the no. 1 rushing offense take on the no. 1 rushing defense, we get to see a matchup of the the two “hottest” teams in the NFL.  And we get to see two teams that are constructed in very similar molds.  On The Dave Dameshek Football Program, analyst Bucky Brooks said that when the Panthers look at the Seahawks, they are looking in a mirror.  (Michael Bennett said the same thing — kinda.)  This is almost correct.  The Panthers are indeed the mirror image of the Seahawks, but it’s not a normal mirror; it’s one of those funhouse mirrors that distorts your image and makes you look goofy.  Carolina is a flawed reflection of Seattle.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty details, let’s take a broad overview of these two teams.  Both started the season relatively slowly and finished it on a big win-streak.  For the Seahawks, their “slow” start was a 6-4 record, with wins over two Super Bowl contenders; their six-game win-streak to cap the regular season consisted of victories over teams who finished the season with a combined record of 54-44.  For the Panthers, their slow “start” was a 3-8-1 record, with just one win over a playoff team (and one tie); their five-game win-streak to end the season (plus last week) consisted of victories over teams who finished the season with a combined record of 33-48.  Similar, but not equal.

Turning to the specific components that comprise the two teams, let’s start with the strength of each offense: the run game.  The Seahawks’ ground game has been ridiculously good all year — much better than that of any other team in the league, not just in 2014, but over the past few seasons.  Marshawn Lynch, in particular, has been terrific — arguably the most effective back in the league on a play-by-play basis.  Despite all the contract drama earlier in the season, Beast Mode once again has been, well, beastly.

The Panthers, by contrast, were mediocre running the ball throughout the season.  During their current five-game win-streak, with Jonathan Stewart healthy, however, they have averaged nearly 200 yards-per-game.  That sounds great, but it comes with a big caveat: Three of Carolina’s last four games came against, literally, the three worst run defenses in the league (Atlanta, Cleveland, and New Orleans).  The Panthers also racked up 4.6 yards-per-carry against the Cardinals last Sunday, which is not too shabby, but it’s worth mentioning that in the four games prior to Carolina, Arizona surrendered an average of 6.4 yards-per-carry (104-668).  In the only other game in the streak against a team with a decent run D (the Buccaneers, surprisingly), Carolina went for less than four yards-per-carry.  So have the Panthers legitimately strengthened their ground game?  Or have they just been running over really bad defenses?  Probably both, but probably more the latter.

Of course, two reasons the ‘Hawks and, to a lesser extent, the ‘Thers have been effective on the ground are Russell Wilson and Cam Newton.  They are the two best running QBs in the league, and, in my opinion, they’re in the top tier completely by themselves.  (Colin Kaepernick isn’t quite consistent enough to join them.)  Of the two, Wilson has had the better running season by far.  (He’s been historical great, as I’ve said many times.)  But Newton has a huge (literally) physical advantage, making him much more effective at picking up those crucial first downs on 3rd- and 4th-and-inches.  This is one reason why the Panthers started having more success once Ron Rivera turned into “Riverboat Ron”; they have the ultimate short-yardage quarterback.  The Seahawks, on the other hand, despite having an excellent running game, do not have a great short game.  Wilson struggles with the quarterback dive (he’s been stopped the few times I’ve seen him try it), and this really limits the ‘Hawks in short-yardage situations.  If the only play each team could run was a QB sneak, I’d really like the Panthers in this one.

Throwing the football, Wilson has been undeniably better than Newton throughout their careers — not way better, but better.  Newton averages more passing yards-per-game (233 to 207), but Wilson averages more yards-per-attempt (7.9 to 7.5) and more touchdowns-per-game (1.5 to 1.3).  And perhaps most importantly, Newton is more turnover-prone, with a 2.8% interception rate to Wilson’s 2.1% (which works out to something like three more picks a season).  The admittedly highly flawed passer rating stat likes Wilson much better than Newton (98.6 to 85.4).  And so do the less flawed nerd stats: Since Wilson came into the league, he’s been better than Newton in adjusted yards per attempt, QBR, and DVOA each season.  Both quarterbacks are good, but Wilson is definitively better.

(By the way, I recognize that passing stats aren’t entirely a function of the quarterback.  If you want to make the case that Newton is actually better than Wilson, but he’s been hamstrung by a weaker supporting cast, or a worse offensive line, or something else of that nature, I’ll listen.  I won’t necessarily agree, but I’ll listen.)

On the defensive side of the ball, the two teams are closer in ability, but Seattle is still clearly superior.  The ‘Hawks, once again, are the best defensive team in the league by pretty much any measure.  The Panthers, for their part, finished in the middle of the pack by both yards-per-play and DVOA.  However, these are full-year stats, and I feel comfortable saying the Panthers D is not the same now that it was for most the season.  I don’t believe in momentum, but I do believe in getting better.  And the evidence suggests the Panthers got better defensively towards the end of the season.  Not only did they just set a single-game Super Bowl-era playoff record for fewest yards allowed (with a Ryan Lindley-sized asterisk, of course), but they also clinched the division, in large part, by going into the domes of New Orleans and Atlanta and holding the Saints and Falcons — both pretty good offenses — to 13 total points.  Also, the Carolina defense is currently rated the third best in the league by weighted DVOA (which weighs recent games more heavily than ones earlier in the season).  They seem legit.

And that legitness starts with the front seven.  Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are one of the best linebacker combos in the league; Charles Johnson is a pretty good edge pass rusher; and Kawann Short is a formidable obstructor in the middle.  This is the one area (Carolina’s front seven vs. Seattle’s O-line) where I think Carolina has a match-up advantage.  (Maybe Greg Olsen versus the Seattle linebackers is also an advantage, seeing as how Antonio Gates had a big game against the ‘Hawks in Week 2, but Cam Newton doesn’t have Philip Rivers‘ weird shot put touch to take full advantage of this.)  Carolina’s front seven is also the unit that is the closest to what the ‘Hawks have.  (But I’ll still take Seattle’s now that Bobby Wagner is back.)  Panthers fans received some bad D-line news earlier this week, when it was announced that starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei won’t be able to go this weekend.  But it’s only fair since Brandon Mebane has been on IR since week 10.  On second thought, it’s not fair; Jordan Hill is also done for the season, so Carolina is still up one.  On third thought, it’s more than fair — Greg Hardy.

The Panthers secondary obviously can’t hold a candle to the Legion of Boom, but they’ve weirdly been holding their own lately.  (Apparently a candle is harder to hold than “your own”.)  I say “weirdly”, because you probably haven’t heard of any of them.  Carolina has gone through several different starting defensive backfield permutations throughout the year before finding one that clicked.  They are now running out a rookie fifth-rounder, with the great name of Bene Benwikere (who is probably their best cover man) and Josh Norman (the guy who had the interception off Lynch’s hand in the Seattle-Carolina regular season game) at cornerback — and somebody named Tre Boston (not to be confused with Green Day drummer Tré Cool) and the gray-haired veteran Roman Harper at safety.  Actually, I spoke too hastily above, most Seahawks fans have heard of Roman Harper.  In fact, we have a special spot in our hearts for him.

Overall, I think the Panthers are significantly better than they were earlier in the season, but I still don’t think they are anything special.  By my estimation, they are, at best, on par with a team like the 49ers — middle-of-the pack to slightly above middle-of-the-pack.  They aren’t nearly the elite group they were last season.

Many pundits are predicting this to be a close game citing the previous Seattle-Carolina games as evidence.  But I don’t think a few previous games between two teams (only one of which was played this year) really tells us anything meaningful about the next matchup.  It makes much more sense to look at all the games the two teams have played.  And when you do that, and when you consider the game is in Seattle, it’s difficult to forecast anything other than a comfortable Seahawks victory.  There is a reason the people whose livelihoods depend on predicting football spreads have the ‘Hawks as a double-digit favorite.  (For what it’s worth, my prediction: Seattle 23, Carolina 9.)

This game could be close, of course.  The Panthers could even beat the Seahawks — “Any given Sunday” (or Saturday in this case) is a cliché for a reason — but it’s just unlikely.  I’m not a wonderful bowler, but I hit a few strikes every time I shoe it up.  The Panthers are like me at a bowling alley (sans the beer drinking and nonstop Big Lebowski quotes).  As Seahawks fans, we don’t need Saturday night’s game to be a Carolina gutter ball, we just need it to not be a strike.  And if it is — well — then we had better hope Pete Carroll can roll us all a turkey.

Bye Week Olio: Playoff Opponents Ranked and the 16 Most Impactful Plays of the Seahawks Season

There is, in my view, a very clear tiered pecking order for potential Seahawks playoff opponents.  In order from best (easiest) matchup to worst (hardest) matchup, it looks like this:

Tier 1: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals, to use a technical term, just aren’t good — regardless of who’s playing quarterback.  The defense is solid, but, as the ‘Hawks showed twice already this year, if the offense is unable to move the ball that doesn’t matter too much.

Tier 2: Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers
Of the two, the Lions are the better team and, given the choice, the one I’d rather not see in the divisional round.  They have the NFL’s best run D by a significant margin, and they have Megatron and a will-want-to-stick-it-to-his-old-team badass named Golden Tate.  But the Panthers, because of the way they finished the season and because they always play Seattle close (including this year) are not that much more desirable an opponent.

Tier 3: Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers
On a neutral field, all things equal, I’d rather the ‘Hawks play the Cowboys than the Packers because the Packers have a superior defense and Aaron Rodgers is better than Tony Romo.  However, in Seattle with a slightly gimpy Rodgers, I’d rather see the Packers than the Cowboys and that bruising O-line.  Fortunately, the ‘Hawks will see neither team until possibly the NFC Championship Game.

And now that we’ve discussed the near future, let’s take a look at the recent past with the 16 most impactful plays of the Seahawks season.  I did this last year and nobody complained, so I figured I’d do it again.  To explain exactly what I mean by “most impactful”, I’ll quote from the linked article:

So for fun I decided to look back through each game and single out the biggest play.  Here “biggest play” is defined as the play that most increased the Seahawks win probability in wins or most decreased their win probability in losses.  In a sense, these are the Seahawks most impactful plays of the season.

Without further ado.

1.  Russell Wilson hits Percy Harvin for 33-yards against the Packers: +9.5%.
This play immediately proceeded a touchdown pass to Ricardo Lockette, but it actually increased the Seahawks winning percentage by a bit more.

2.  Percy Harvin fumbles kickoff against Chargers: -13%.
Percy giveth, Percy taketh away.  And now, while his Week 2 teammates are gearing up for another Super Bowl run, Percy is alone in a McMansion in Florida pondering his NFL future (or so I assume, anyway).  After Nick Novak kicked a field goal in the second quarter to put the Chargers up 13-7, Harvin fumbled away the subsequent kickoff (0:50 mark of this clip), dropping Seattle’s chances at pulling off the road victory from around 40% to 27%.  To be fair to Percy, he wasn’t on the field when the D really put the team behind the 8-ball by allowing the Chargers to score a touchdown on the drive after the fumble, despite at one point being at 2nd-and-goal from the Seahawks 23.

3.  Kam Chancellor makes late game INT of Peyton Manning : +18.3%.
When Kam Chancellor intercepted Peyton Manning with less than three minutes in the game at the Seattle 13 and returned it to the Denver 35, it looked like the Seahawks’ five point lead would hold.  It didn’t, but all’s well the ends well.

4.  Russell Wilson runs for 29 yards: +5.6%.
Washington’s best chance to win this game was at the opening kickoff (30%).  It dropped from 25% to 19.5% on the opening drive when Wilson kept the rock on a 29-yard gallop to the Washington 15 (second play of this clip).

5.  Tony Romo hits Terrance Williams for 23 on 3rd-and-20: -25.8%.
The toe drag play.  Of course.  Worst play of the season.

6.  Johnny Hekker dumps it to Benny Cunningham on an 18-yard fake punt: -41.7%.
Make that the second worst play of the season.

7.  Wilson-to-Willson, touchdown: +25.2%
Given how things turned out, this game-winning, Luke Willson touchdown is my pick for the single most important play of the Seahawks’ regular season.  A third consecutive loss to the lowly (at the time) Carolina Panthers would have been pretty devastating for the ‘Hawks.  They wouldn’t still be the no. 1 seed in the NFC, that’s for sure.

8.  Bruce Irvin nabs pick-six off David Carr: +8.3%
A highly probably victory over the winless Raider turned into a virtual no-doubter after Irvin’s sweet touchdown.

9.  DangeRuss finds Jermain Kearse deep for 60 yards: +25.5%.
This was the first of two plays that increased the Seahawks’ odds of beating the Giants by more than 25%; the other was Earl Thomas‘s endzone interception (and huge return).  In a game in which the Seahawks set a franchise rushing record, it’s strange neither of the two biggest plays were runs.

10.  Jamaal Charles slices through ‘Hawks D for 47 yards: -25.4%.
In the final loss of the season, the Seahawks took a three-point lead late in the third quarter on a one-yard touchdown reception by Tony Moeaki (vengeance!).  The Chiefs immediately responded with a touchdown of their own.  The key play was a Charles 47-yard run that, after a personal foul on Bruce Irvin was assessed, took the ball to the Seattle 4.

11.  Bryon Maxwell intercepts Drew Stanton: 7.7%
I think because Ryan Lindley is so bad people elevate the ability of Drew Stanton in their minds.  Remember, he’s not that good either, even when healthy; the Seahawks had little trouble with him back in November.

12.  Wilson pirouettes, escapes, and floats it to Moeaki for 63 yards: +16.4%.
I think this play (1:10 mark) was actually a touchdown, but it was called down on the 1.  The Seahawks, being the Seahawks — the no. 1 rushing team in the league that oddly has trouble converting short-yardage situations — eventually had to settle for field goal.  The lackluster 49ers offense made sure the Seahawks didn’t need the four extra points, anyway.

13.  K.J. Wright forces LeSean McCoy to fumble, Earl Thomas recovers: +17.1%.
Things were not going well for the Eagles heading into the second half down three; they got even worse when Shady McCoy turned the ball over on the first play from scrimmage.  A 41% chance of a Philly victory dropped to a 24% chance.  It would be at 0% by the end of the game.

14.  Wilson hooks up with Doug Baldwin for 35 yards: +15.2%.
This was a big play in name only as it didn’t lead to any points.  The ‘Hawks were down 7-3 to the Niners late in the first half, but they put themselves in excellent position to score when Wilson connected deep with Baldwin on 2nd-and-24.  (I can’t find a clip of the play.)  However, a bizarre interception (bizarre in that the Seahawks were even trying to run another play with eight seconds in the half and no timeouts) made the drive for naught.  Don’t worry, the Seahawks still won.

15.  Wilson-to-Willson II: +20.4%.
It was somewhat surprising the Seahawks trucked the Cardinals by 32 points and set a franchise yardage record in the process. It is not at all surprising an 80-yard touchdown reception turned out to be the biggest play of the game.

16.  Jordan Hill intercepts Shaun Hill: +22.1%.
Heading into the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s game tied 6-6, the Seahawks had a 54% chance of beating the Rams and clinching the no. 1 seed in the NFC.  On the first play of the quarter, the Rams QB Shaun Hill tried to ground the ball on a failed screen, but instead threw it into the arms of a diving 300-pound D-lineman.  It upped the Seahawks’ chances to 76%, and 15 minutes later it was 100%.

And those were the 16 most impactful plays of the Seahawks 2014 regular season.

Game 16: Seahawks 20, Rams 6 — ‘Hawks Beat Rams in Very ‘Hawks-Rams Fashion

The ESPN recap article for Sunday afternoon’s Seahawks-Rams game has the headline “Seahawks breeze by Rams to wrap up No. 1 seed in NFC”.  I’m assuming whoever wrote this didn’t actually watch the game, as, despite the two-touchdown margin of victory, it was hardly a breeze.  The ‘Hawks outplayed the Rams and deserved to win, but the 14-point difference was more the result of some fortunate bounces than it was sheer Seattle dominance.

The Rams are good at making Russell Wilson look bad, and this game was no exception.  Wilson put up an ostensibly good yards-per-attempt average of 9.6 (25-239).  But 38 of those yards came on an absolutely meaningless Doug Baldwin reception to end the first half (Throw the Hail Mary!) and 31 more came on an easy busted-coverage pitch to Kevin Norwood.  The Rams front seven got after Wilson, and he didn’t handle the pressure spectacularly.  (And Luke Willson certainly didn’t help his QB out much like he did last week.  He failed to pick up the final foot on a fourth-down stop (stretch that ball out!), and he dropped two catchable would-be third-down conversions.)  Wilson’s running was completely ineffective (seven rushing yards), and he wasn’t as good throwing on the run as usual either.  He had Paul Richardson open on his interception and just airmailed it.  As much as I love DangeRuss, there is no denying that he simply hasn’t been as good this season throwing the ball as he has been the past two years.  He’s made up for it with his running (an all-time great season for a QB) and general “play making”, but when he’s been kept in check as a pocket passer, he’s been very mediocre.  It’s just really hard to keep him in check.

The running game, sans the typical big runs from Wilson, was actually much better than I expected.  The one-two punch of Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin went for 113 yards on 25 carries, which is pretty good against the Rams front seven.  (Every time I see Aaron Donald make a good play and remember that he fell in the draft to St. Louis at 13, I want to punch some NFL GMs in the balls — Justin Gilbert, Eric Ebron, Taylor Lewan, really?)  The ‘Hawks O-line isn’t great in pass protection, but they do a damn fine job in the run game.  The rookie Justin Britt, for example, has been beaten for sacks or QB hurries plenty this year, but watch how he (with help from J.R. Sweezy) lays down the red carpet for Lynch on his touchdown run.  Pretty sweet.

What else is sweet is the Seahawks defense.  Sure, the Rams aren’t a great offense, and sure, Bruce Irvin‘s INT and Earl Thomas‘s forced fumble both took fortuitous bounces, but Seattle held St. Louis to 4.1 yards-per-play; the worst offense in the league (Oakland) averaged 4.5 yards-per-play this season.  The ‘Hawks almost completely stymied the run (19 carries for 42 yards) and forced Shaun Hill to dink-and-dunk the entire game.  One problem with a dink-and-dunk offense is that it gives the defense more of a chance to force turnovers.  Seattle took full advantage of these opportunities on Sunday.

So it’s the no. 1 seed in the NFC for the ‘Hawks for the second season in a row.  This seemed almost unthinkable back when Seattle was 6-4 and an underdog just to make the playoffs.  But here we are.  Apparently a six-game win-streak changes things quite a bit — go figure.

Securing the top seed is a three-fold advantage for Seattle.

  1. It’s home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.  The ‘Hawks record at home the past three seasons is 24-2; on the road it’s 15-11.  It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in applied mathematics (though I have one just in case) to recognize the former is better than the latter.  Plus, all the teams the ‘Hawks might face in the playoffs are much worse on the road, with the exception of the Cowboys who are weirdly undefeated away from Dallas this year.
  2. It’s one less game to get to the Super Bowl.  It is quite obvious that winning two games is easier than three, but I feel like this doesn’t get its due as a good reason to get a bye.  There is much more talk about the importance of home field advantage, but not so much about the (more important) fact that you remove a chance to lose.  For example, if a team has a 70% to win a given game, then it has a roughly 50% chance to make the Super Bowl with a first-round bye and only about a 35% chance without it.  It’s Barry Bonds coming to the plate in one case and Melvin Mora in the other.  Melvin Mora was a fine hitter, but he was no Barry Bonds.
  3. It gives the Seattle two weeks to nurse their injuries.  The ‘Hawks have avoided any devastating injuries this year for the second season in row (Brandon Mebane‘s hamstring is the closest thing to one).  But they have a few guys — Max Unger, K.J. Wright, Jordan Hill, Jermaine Kearse, etc. — who missed part or all of Sunday’s game.  If they can get these guys back for the divisional round, it will be a big boon.

Actually, there is another reason why securing the no. 1 seed is so important.  It gives us Seattle fans a week to kick back and enjoy a weekend of NFL football without the possibility of a Seahawks loss looming over our collective head.  I plan to take full advantage of this.

Game 16: St. Louis @ Seattle — Those Pesky Rams Again

For the fourth time in five years, the Seahawks will end the season with a playoff-important home game against the Rams after losing to them in St. Louis earlier in the season.

  • In 2010, the Seahawks were smoked by the Rams 3-20 in Week 4, before getting revenge the final week, in what is quite possibly the most pathetic division-deciding game in NFL history. Atlanta vs. Carolina this week is bad, but at least it features Matt Ryan and Cam Newton.  That 2010 ‘Hawks-Rams game was a battle between Charlie Whitehurst and Sam Bradford.  If you like hair and check-downs, that’s a fine matchup; if you like good quarterback play, not so much.
  • In 2012, the Seahawks had a chance to steal the division from the 49ers by holding on against the Rams in the final week of the season, 20-13.  (The Niners, however, also won their final game, relegating the ‘Hawks to wild-card status.)  In Week 4, the Seahawks lost to the Rams in St. Louis by almost that exact score (19-13).  It was the worst game of Russell Wilson‘s career (three INTs), and it actually had many Seattle fans calling for Matt Flynn.  Thankfully, Pete Carroll didn’t listen.  As it turns out, he’s smarter about football than the average joe.
  • And last year in the final week, the ‘Hawks clinched the division and the no. 1 seed in the NFC with a relatively easy win over the Rams.  This after they lost to the Rams in St. Louis in Week 8 on Monday Night Football.  OK, technically it was a win, but emotionally it felt like a loss.  Anytime you need a reminder that the NFL just doesn’t make sense sometimes, keep in mind that last year the Seahawks, with their all-time great defense, had a game in which they gave up 134 rushing yards to Zac Stacy and let a Kellen Clemens-led offense rack up 96 yards on the game’s final drive to come within one yard of winning the game.

And so here we are again.  The Seahawks are 3-0 in these situations over the last four years, and I (along with the rest of the football world) fully expect them to get to 4-0 Sunday afternoon.  The Rams can (and have) given good teams trouble with their defense, but they are pretty lousy on offense.  Tre Mason is looking like he might be a pretty good back down the road, but he’s only rookie — a normal promising rookie, not an Eric Dickerson super-rookie or anything like that.  And Shaun Hill is what he has been his entire career: something between the 25th and 35th best quarterback in the NFL.  If the ‘Hawks D plays as it has the past five weeks, I don’t see Hill putting up many points, or even gaining many first downs.

Also, although the Rams defense has been pretty good on average, they are very inconsistent.  (They have the second highest defensive variance in the league.)  That fearsome D-line has games like the one against the 49ers in Week 8, where they sack the quarterback eight times (Robert Quinn is still really good and Aaron Donald was the steal of the draft), and then they have games like the one last week against the Giants, where they only get a single sack against a shaky O-line.  In general, the Rams have been much better against the run than they have been against the pass.  They gave up nearly 400 yards to Eli Manning last week, and Russell Wilson annihilated them in the second half of the first game.  If DangeRuss is on again, this one could turn into a blowout pretty quickly.

That is, assuming the Seahawks can avoid being duped on special teams again.  Almost every time these two teams play, Jeff Fisher tries something sneaky in the kicking game, and it usually works.  If I’m Brian Schneider, I’m instructing my players to look for a fake on every punt and field goal attempt and an onside kick on every kickoff.  Also, I’m telling them to watch the ball on punts this time.

And if I’m Pete Carroll, I’m very wary about playing my starters if I get anything resembling a decent lead.  The Rams under Jeff Fisher have a reputation for being chippy (i.e., dirty), and a significant injury to a ‘Hakws starter right before the playoffs would be majorly deflating.  The Rams just got into a big brawl with the Giants last week, and in this game last year, they committed something like five personal fouls and had a player ejected.  If this game starts getting lopsided, it could turn into a Jeff Fisher-special cheap-shot-o-rama.  And if it does, I’d much rather see guys like Tarvaris Jackson, Robert Turbin, DeShawn Shead, and Brock Coyle out there (no offense to these fine men) than Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman, and Bobby Wagner.

So that’s it in a nutshell: Don’t get tricked on special teams; don’t get any of the starters hurt.  If the ‘Hawks do these two things, I think the path to the Super Bowl goes through The Clink once again.  And that’s a wonderful thought for Seattle fans.