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.”