Week 17: St. Louis @ Seattle — ‘Hawks Look to Avoid Quasi-Epic Collapse against Rambunctious Rams

If by chance the Seahawks lose to the Rams on Sunday and the 49ers beat the Cardinals, thus ousting the ‘Hawks from the top spot in the NFC, it wouldn’t be a full-on epic collapse, because the ‘Hawks would still be in the playoffs.  They’d still have a chance to win the Super Bowl.  In fact, they’d be in the same position they were in last year, and last year they gave it a decent ride. But it wouldn’t feel the same as last year.  Expectations, see.  Whereas last year our hopes for the ‘Hawks were relatively modest given their 4-4 start, this year they couldn’t have been higher.  (I was, somewhere in the most optimistic recesses of my mind, actually thinking 16-0 prior to the Colts loss.)  Although making the postseason is pretty good, no matter how you slice it, at this point a wild card would be bitter consolation.  It wouldn’t be a full-on epic collapse, but it would be something; let’s call it a quasi-epic collapse.

Will it happen?  Probably not.  Although over the past three weeks we’ve seen four would-be bye-clinchers go against the ‘Hawks (Sea. vs. SF, SF vs. TB, Sea. vs. Ari., SF vs. Atl), three in heart-breaking fashion*, there are still two more to go.  And the odds are almost always against two NFL games going a certain way, regardless of who’s playing.  Even if we make absurd assumptions like the Rams have a 60% chance of beating the Seahawks in Seattle, and the 49ers have an 80% chance of beating the Cardinals in Arizona — even under these out-of-whack conditions — the odds would still be slightly in favor of the ‘Hawks getting the top spot.  Under more realistic assumptions, FO puts Seattle’s chances of the #1 seed at 90%, using their own secret sauce (probably some variant of log-5), and Bill Barwell gets 89%, using Vegas money lines.  Things are still probably going the ‘Hawks way even if it doesn’t feel that way right now as a fan.

However, one argument in favor of the Seahawks’ chances you should pay little mind to is the “Seahawks won’t lose twice in a row at home” argument.  This is an example of a very common mistake concerning conditional probability (with a dash of gambler’s fallacy tossed in).  It is true that the 2013 Seahawks losing twice in a row at home is a very unlikely event.  However, if we condition on the fact that they already lost once at home last week, then it’s not nearly as improbable as it would be otherwise.  Poker analogy: if the king, queen, jack, and ten of clubs are all on the table, and somebody goes all in, and you’re holding a pair kings, do you call since three-of-a-kind is a hand that rarely gets beaten?**

Anyway, on to the actual game …

We have an idea of how this one is likely to play out, because we saw it before on Monday Night Football, and we saw versions of it the past two weeks.  The Rams are probably going to be a lot like the Giants and Cardinals — good defense, bad offense.  It’s just a matter of degree.  If the Rams’ D is pretty good and their O is atrocious (like the Giants), then the ‘Hawks will win handily; if the Rams’ D is tremendous and their O is a step up from atrocious (like the Cardinals), then it’s going to be close.

Last game, the Rams’ D was tremendous; the Seahawks essentially won with just two big plays on offense.  That’s probably not going to cut it again.  The ‘Hawks’ o-line was utterly outmatched by the Rams’ defensive front, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Quinn.  Russell Wilson was sacked seven times, leading to, at one point, a sequence of four straight three-and-outs, netting zero total yards.

The ‘Hawks have to do something to neutralize not just Quinn, but also Chris Long and the underrated interior linemen, Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford.  I don’t know what that something is (Rollouts? Screens?  Deep balls?  Feed the Beast?  Hire Jeff Gillooly?), but hopefully Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell do.  Having an offensive line with a Pro Bowl left tackle (Russell Okung) instead of a mediocre guard masquerading as a left tackle (Paul McQuistan) will certainly help.  But Okung is still a bit hobbled by his bum toe, and the o-line taking the field this Sunday is the same one that got steamrolled last Sunday, so being healthy (healthier) up front isn’t a panacea.  Scheme-wise something needs to be done.  Maybe Pete and Russell came up with it at their impromptu morning film session.

If you’re of the mind that a team should be “battled-tested” heading into the playoffs, then you probably don’t mind this home stretch for the ‘Hawks.  Because they’ve certainly been tested in some battles.  One thing that’s being somewhat overlooked in the narrative of the Seahawks’ offensive slump is the quality of defense they’ve been facing.  Starting with the Rams this Sunday and going backward, here are the defensive DVOA rankings of their five opponents since the bye week: 12, 2, 7, 10, 11.  If the Seahawks want to win the Super Bowl, they’re probably going to need to be able to move the ball more consistently against good defenses, but this last stretch of games would be a tough row to hoe for just about any NFL offense.

Thankfully, things are much rosier for ‘Hawks fans on the other side of the ball.  The Rams haven’t been an abject disaster on offense this season, but they certainly haven’t been good.  Zac Stacy can pound the ball pretty well (hopefully not 134 well again) and Kellen Clemens has been better than I thought he’d be.  This isn’t saying much, as I thought he’d be terrible — I wasn’t convinced he’d even finish the season as the Rams QB — but still, it’s something.  The Rams will probably be without speedster Tavon Austin and more importantly big left tackle Jake Long.  Now it’s the Seahawks’ turn to lineup against a hobbled and cobbled o-line.  Hopefully Chris Clemons & Co. can make the most of it.  And hopefully the ‘Hawks can continue to force those turnovers; nine interceptions every two games is a tough rate to maintain, but two or three on Sunday would probably do the trick.  I mean, Richard Sherman should get that many just by himself, right?

Overall, the Rams have been the NFL’s most bipolar team this season.  They’ve flattened good teams like the Colts, Bears, and Saints, and they’ve been flattened by mediocre teams like the Cowboys and Titans.  They’re a Jekyll-and-Hyde team; hopefully the Hyde squad will show up on Sunday.  Wait, maybe we should want the Jekyll team.  A team of doctors would be easier to play than a team of monsters, right?  Yeah, let’s pull for the Jekyll team.

Either way, my doppelganger game is this one, the last time the Rams came to Seattle for the final game of the season with playoff implications at stake.  Prediction: 16-6.  I think the ‘Hawks win.  But I’ll have my eye on that Cardinals-49ers game, just in case.

-DJG

*The Monday night game was surprisingly gut-wrenching.  Why couldn’t the Niners have just steamrolled the Falcons like everybody thought?  Instead Matt Ryan (who, by the way, is having an under-the-radar terrific season) and Roddy White keep it close only to have F—ing Navorro Bowman go all James Harrison on everybody.

**Here’s where a mathophobe would argue that football is a game played by people, not an inanimate deck of cards dealt out randomly.  To which my response would be, well, probably nothing because there isn’t much use in arguing with people like that.  If instead, somebody has a well-reasoned argument (with supporting evidence, preferably numerically based) as to why the Seahawks losing at home last week makes them any more or less likely to lose this week, I’d love to hear it.