NFC Championship Game: San Francisco @ Seattle — 49ers Hot, Seahawks Homey

There is no team hotter right now than the San Francisco 49ers.  This seems like bad news for the ‘Hawks.  Until you consider that hotness (a.k.a. momentum, a.k.a. “peaking at the right time”) isn’t an actual thing that helps you win playoff games.  And then it seems like irrelevant news for the ‘Hawks.  Until you further consider that in the case of the 49ers specifically, their hotness coincides with the return of key players on both sides of the ball, namely Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith, and although general hotness isn’t a “real” thing, being better is, and with those two back on the field, it stands to reason the Niners are better now than they were throughout most of the regular season, and they were already very good then.  Again we are back to bad news for the ‘Hawks.

On the macro level, the discussion pretty much ends there.  The 49ers are currently at their best, and their eight game win streak reflects this.  However, if you want to really comb the data, you can find a few micro-level morsels of good news for Seahawks fans.  Here they are.

  • In five of the Niners’ eight consecutive wins, they were at some point given less than a 45% chance of winning, by Pro Football Reference’s win probability measure.
  • In four of the games, this point occurred as late as the 4th quarter.
  • In three of the games, the 49ers won by three points or less.
  • Their expected win total over the streak is 6-2, which is excellent, but not perfect excellent.

I know, I know, it ain’t much, but it’s something.  The Niners have been superb in recent weeks; they’ve also been slightly lucky.

Part of the reason some teams (e.g., the Falcons and Cardinals) have been able to hang tough with the Niners is that the San Francisco defense, although very good, isn’t quite what it’s cracked upped to be.  I think there is a perception among many NFL fans that the Seahawks and 49ers are 1A and 1B when it comes to defense this season, and that’s simply not the case.  The ‘Hawks have been, and still are, much better than the Niners defensively.  This is particularly true in the passing game.  The 49ers can be had on D, especially through the air.

But are the Seahawks a team that can have it?  If you’ve been watching the ‘Hawks the past few weeks, and you trust your own eyes, you would have to conclude not.  They’ve looked brutal recently.  And it’s not just last week’s game in a wind storm.  It goes back a while.  Whether it’s Russell Wilson or his receivers or the line or the play calling or something else entirely (the ghost of Stan Gelbaugh?), the passing game has delivered excruciating performance after excruciating performance since the regular season beatdown of New Orleans in Week 13.  The last time the Seahawks put on an impressive aerial displaying, Jon Stewart was making Black Friday jokes.

It’s not just appearances.  The numbers haven’t borne out any better.  In the five games since Wilson went for 300 yards and three scores against the Saints, he hasn’t topped 200 yards, he hasn’t thrown multiple touchdowns, and his QBR hasn’t cracked 50 (55 is about average for a starter).  Then there is 29.2% — Seattle’s third down conversion percentage over this time frame.*  (Third down percentage is highly correlated with passing effectiveness.)  By comparison, the worst team in the league this year at converting third downs, the Jacksonville Jaguars, had a 31.1% success rate on the season.  Unless you think almost hitting .300 on third down is the mark of a good offense, or you find the quarterback stylings of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne aesthetically pleasing, you have little choice but to conclude that the Seahawks passing offense has miserably failed both the numbers test and the eyeball test in recent weeks.

So should we all be preparing ourselves for a night of cringing and cussing on Sunday every time DangeRuss drops back to pass?  Preparing, perhaps; expecting, perhaps not.  There are two things Seattle fans can hang their hat on with the passing game: circumstance and history.

In my last post I wrote, “It’s really difficult to gauge how effective the Seahawks offense can be when they are up against a decent defense and the game situation dictates they play really conservatively.”  And this is not just true of the Saints game, but also of two other recent games.  Against the Giants, the Seahawks winning percentage never dropped below 69%, and it was in the 90s the entire second half.  The same is true against the Rams the last game of the season.  The Seahawks aren’t the ’91 Oilers.  They don’t run and shoot all game.  They are content to have an ostensibly lousy game passing, if it means they will avoid turnovers and bleed the clock.  They probably would have been better passing the ball in those games if they needed to be, but they didn’t.  Circumstances, see.

As for history, the Seahawks actually had a very good (top-10 by DVOA) passing offense throughout the year.  This is still the same team that passed for over 300 yards against the Panthers and Saints, that threw the ball against the Bucs when they had to come back from a big deficit, that hit 38 passes of 25 yards or more on the season (fifth most in the league); this is still the same team that did all that, even if it doesn’t seem like it now.  If the Seahawks have to try to throw on the Niners — and they probably will — the past five weeks don’t necessarily portend a shitshow.  It just feels that way.

Oh, also the Seahawks might have Percy Harvin “back”.  It’s quite bizarre and disconcerting that a guy who has played roughly 20 snaps in a Seahawks uniform could be boon for the Blue and Highlighter Green in the NFC Championship Game.  But here we are.

Overall, I’m not buying the 49ers are the new best team hype that’s started to buzz recently.  With that said, I’m not necessarily not buying it either.  They’re excellent.  The ‘Hawks are excellent.  It’s will be a deluge of excellence come Sunday evening.  The ‘Hawks are definitively better defensively, but probably worse offensively. The Niners are hot (which isn’t a real thing).  The Seahawks are homey (which is).

When I put everything into my crystal snow globe and shake it, I foresee a game that comes down to the final drive — a last stop or score is going to determine it one way or the other.  But it should be be noted that that’s also what I foresaw the last two times these teams played in Seattle, and I was very wrong both times.  Very wrong indeed.

-DJG

*Third down conversion, might be a bit overvalued as an offensive metric, but you get my point.