Week Before Midseason Report — Seahawks Control Own Destiny, But So Do 49ers (Almost)

Here it is.  The official JZL Week Before Midseason Report.  It comes out a week before midseason, because I prefer to get a jump on things.  I’m like the guy at the game who gets up to use the bathroom with 56 seconds left in the half, instead of waiting until the break.  Sure, every now and then he misses a big play and feels like a schmuck listening to the roar of the crowd, while reading a taped-above-the-urinal sports section, with his dick in his hand.  But most the team all he misses is a few five-yard draw plays, before he’s back in his seat watching an Asian woman on a unicycle flip stacks of plates from her foot onto her head, while the rest of the suckers are stuck in line at the restroom.

Anyway…

The first half (minus one week) of the season has been a good one for the ‘Hawks.  They’re 6-1, and it’s a legit 6-1.  On average, they’ve outscored their opponents by more than 10 points a game, and they’re the second best team in the league by DVOA.  They’re good to very good in each phase of the game.  They rank 8th in pass offense, 6th in rush offense, 2nd in pass defense, and 6th in rush defense.  Overall, they have the 12th best offense, the best defense, and the 10th best special teams. What’s more, they have the third softest remaining schedule, and at some point soon they’re going to get Percy Harvin and Russell Okung back.  Now it’s likely other starters will be injured by the time they return — 100% health in the NFL is not a realistic ideal — but as long as those people aren’t named Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, it’s hard to see how the offense doesn’t improve on the whole.  It’s rosy times for football fans in the Puget Sound region.  (And for football fans who grew up in the Puget Sound region, but moved away for career/family reasons and harbor hopes of one day returning.)

But there is one little, pesky fly buzzing around out there.  One small contaminant in the otherwise pristine laboratory known as the Seattle Seahawks’ season.  His name is Jim Harbaugh.

The 49ers are really good too.  They haven’t quite been at the ‘Hawks’ level so far, but they’re currently playing their best football of the season, and it seems likely to me that by the end of the season the gap between the two NFC West juggernauts will be almost nil, just like last year.  This leaves the Seahawks little margin for error when it comes to winning the division and getting home field advantage and a first-round bye in the playoffs.  And this is colossally important.  Think about how much the odds of the Seahawks making the Super Bowl go up having to win two home games rather than three road games.  I repeat, colossally important.

The Niners also have a very easy remaining schedule, so the division could ultimately be decided by the head-to-head Week 14 matchup in San Francisco.  On a lark, I decided to investigate what would happen if the 49ers won that game and every other game for the rest of the season, and the Seahawks won all their remaining games, except that one.  Both teams would be 14-2, with a head-to-head split.  Who would win the division?  As it turns out, it would almost certainly be the 49ers.  It would go to the 5th tiebreaker – strength of victory — and the Niners would likely get it by dint of beating the Packers and Redskins instead of the Vikings and Giants (the only non-common opponents for the Seahawks and 49ers).  So barring an epic turn of events in which the Packers (4-2) and Redskins (2-4) finish with a worse combine record than the Vikings (1-5) and Giants (1-6), the 49ers control their own destiny.

Two teams in the same division finishing 14-2 would be quite remarkable.  I’m pretty sure it’s never happened before*.  So my next question is, “What is the probability it will happen with the ‘Hawks and Niners this season?”  Incredibly low, actually.  17 games would have to break a certain way (each team has 8 games remaining, plus their one against each other).  And even if each individual game has a relatively high probability of breaking that way — which isn’t quite the case, both the 49ers and Seahawks still have to play the Saints, for example — but even if it was, the probability of all games breaking perfectly is going to be low.  That’s just how the math works.  I estimate the probability of dual 14-2 records as not more than 2%.**

So it’s probably not going to happen, which is good.  Can you image losing two games and getting the fifth seed?  It would be the biggest travesty in NFL playoff history.  Even worse than that one time the 11-5 Saints had to play on the road against some chump, 7-9 team.

-DJG

*In 1999, the Tennessee Titans went 13-3, but finished second in the division to the Jacksonville Jaguars who went 14-2.  Tennessee actually beat Jacksonville twice during the regular season and again in the AFC Championship Game, handing the Jags their only three losses of the season.  That was the same year the Seahawks won the AFC West under Jon Kitna before losing to the Dolphins in the playoffs, who in turn lost to Jacksonville 62-7, in Dan Marino‘s final game.

**To get this probability, I used football’s Pythagorean Theorem to estimate a team’s “true ability” and then I used the log-5 method to estimate the probability of a given game being won by a certain team.  For the sake of not spending all my free time entering data into a spreadsheet, I didn’t go through and do this for all the Seahawks’ and Niners’ opponents.  I just did it for their game against each other and their games against the Saints.  Then I used the “true ability” of the team with the largest negative point differential either team will play (the New York Giants) to get an upper bound on the probability of the ‘Hawks and Niners winning all their remaining non-Saints, non-head-to-head games — 13 games in total (I also gave the 49ers the Jags game for nothing).  So my 2% estimate is conservative.  It’s probably between 0.5%-1%.