Nobody should put much stock in NFL power rankings at mainstream media sites. They are rarely an accurate representation of the current state of the league. They should be consumed for entertainment purposes only — and even that’s pushing it. They are entertaining the same way Archie comics are entertaining. They are light and easy and fill your brain with some vapid banter for a few minutes, but never do you think to yourself, “Man, that was funny! Big Moose is so dumb! I’m going to tell all my friends about this!” So too, never have I felt the need to ponder too deeply Peter King’s two-sentence analysis of the San Diego Chargers defense or Elliot Harrison’s witticism about the New York Jets quarterbacking situation. You read them, forget them, wonder briefly what the point of it all is, and then do it all again next week.
With that said, I was surprised to see Mr. Harrison rank the Seahawks #6 in his rankings this week. This is the most bullish I’ve seen anybody in the mainstream media be on the ‘Hawks right now. King has them at 13 (with a feature on their sluggish offense); ESPN has them at 10; SB Nation 12; CBS Sports 8; Yahoo! 9; etc., etc. The consensus is right around the 10 range. Watching the ‘Hawks all season, this seems perfectly reasonable to me. It’s probably about where I would put them if I was making such a list. So it’s even more surprising to see how much the nerd numbers and Vegas still believe in Seattle: The ‘Hawks are currently the third best team in the league by both Football Outsider’s DVOA and FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ranker (which is based on Vegas betting odds).
So why the discrepancy? And who’s right?
On the latter question, I generally trust the numbers and the people whose financial livelihoods directly depend on being right much more so than I do the people who’s gut-feeling opinions are usually forgotten five minutes after you read them. The Seahawks, very likely, are closer to the top of the league than they are to the middle. (But, as a Seattle sports fan, I would say that, wouldn’t I?)
On the former question, there are a few reasons why talking heads (maybe writing heads — writing hands? — is a more apt epithet) might be overstating the Seahawks’ woes this season. The most obvious is that people often favor results over process in their evaluation process. The Seahawks have a mediocre record (results), but in each of their losses they have had the ball with a chance to take the lead and tie in the fourth quarter (process). They haven’t had a double-digit loss in, literally, three years. Also, the ‘Hawks have faced a brutal schedule, which people acknowledge, but probably don’t weigh as heavily as they should. Mainstream media power rankings almost always line-up very closely with the standings; DVOA and Elo often don’t.
Another reason is recency bias. The Seahawks losing to the Cowboys (at home) and the not-very-good Rams and barely beating the also not-very-good Panthers is fresh in everybody’s head; them beating the good Packers and great Broncos is not. But should a team’s most recent three or four games count more than the three or four before that? Probably not. There really is no such thing as momentum.
Also, I think the Seahawks are being graded on a slightly harsher scale than other teams because they won the Super Bowl last year. You can call this the “Peyton Manning Curve”. Manning is, in some ways, a victim of his own success. Because he’s so good in the regular season, his postseason failures are drastically overblown. There has been a lot of talk about how lackluster the Seahawks offense has been this year (including by the analytically-minded Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays on their Grantland NFL Podcast), and yet they rank 10th in the league in DVOA and tied for eighth in yards-per-play. Marshawn Lynch has actually been just as Beast Mode-y as ever. If he’s unhappy this year, he’s really not showing it on the field.
And, of course, now that I have written all this, Marshawn Lynch is going to put up a 10-carry, 15-yard day, and the Seahawks are going to lose to the Raiders 28-3… Okay, probably not. The Raiders are not good. They probably aren’t the very worst team in the league (sorry, Bucs fans), but they aren’t far from it. They’ve had a few decent showings — they gave the Patriots all they could handle in New England and nearly beat the Chargers in a shootout — but overall, Charles Woodson said it best.
If you were going to make a case for the Raiders, you could point out that they are not much worse than the Rams (if they’re worse at all), and that their relative strengths match up with the relative weaknesses of the Seahawks. But it’s still not a particularly convincing argument. For example, Oakland is not terrible throwing the ball, and the ‘Hawks have only been mediocre in stopping the pass this year (and they’ve been pummeled by secondary injuries — Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, and Tharold Simon are all questionable for Sunday). But I don’t think the rookie Derek Carr is going to come into The Clink and play like veterans Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, and Cam Newton (five-sevenths of Seattle’s opposing QBs this season). And as for the Raiders other “weapons”, well, let’s just say I’m keeping James Jones on my fantasy bench this week.
On defense, Oakland is actually above-average against the run, and they might have the makings of decent linebacker core in Khalil Mack, Miles Burris, and Sio Moore, but they can be had through the air. Of course, the ‘Hawks would much rather pound Lynch (and Robert Turbin and now even Christine Michael) all day, but remember, Russell Wilson destroyed the Rams D in the second half two weeks ago when he had to drop back to pass. So, let’s just say I am putting DangeRuss in my fantasy lineup this week.
Overall, I don’t see the Raiders coming into The Clink and winning this one. I’m going Seahawks and Seahawks big: 30-14, with the Raiders scoring two touchdowns in garbage time. Even if my prediction is accurate, it probably won’t do much to sway people’s opinions of the ‘Hawks, and it will hardly move the needle on their playoff odds (a loss, on the other hand, would be devastating). But it will be nice to finally get revenge for the 1983 AFC Championship Game.