To borrow the oft-used question from the Bill Simmons podcast.
I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer this year; indeed, I’m usually much more chipper during the holiday season. But, I guess that’s why it’s my favorite time of year: you’re surrounded by countless reasons to be happy – the lights, the music, the buying of presents, the receiving of presents – and yet there’s an undercurrent of overwhelming misery. Thinking back on the year that was, thinking about our own mortality, getting dumped on with rain, being forced to spend time with one’s extended family. The older you get, and the more loved ones you lose, the more you reflect back on how great things used to be decades ago, when you were a child and your only care in the world was making it to Christmas Break and going crazy for a week of no-school/new-presents mania.
Such is life as a Seahawks fan right now. There are SO MANY reasons to be happy – we’re playing better than we have since around this time last year, we just clinched our fourth consecutive playoff berth (and fifth in the 6-year run of Pete Carroll), we’re in a great position to possibly lock down the 5th seed and maybe even get a chance to rest some players in Week 17 – but it’s not too hard to take a step back and reflect upon what’s not so great. Last week, I was moaning about the loss of Thomas Rawls, which was a brutal blow to this team’s depth and my fantasy team’s chances of going anywhere in the playoffs; this week, we’re coming off of another blowout victory of a terrible team – a 30-13 rout of the Browns in front of the hometown 12’s – and I can’t help coming away somewhat underwhelmed.
I know it feels like I’m grasping at straws, looking for any and every reason to be down, or worried, or whatever. But, I think there’s a real red flag about this team that’s getting glossed over as we beat up on the dregs of NFL society. I’m sure happier, more secure individuals would dismiss me as a hopeless neurotic. On the one hand, you can look at the last three games – dominant victories over the injury-riddled Vikings, Ravens, and Browns – and see three bumbling saps; or, you can look at those games as the superior Seahawks doing what they’re supposed to do to inferior competition. I get that. I’m sure I’ve even said it before: I’ve seen these very same Seahawks do worse against worse teams. A win is still a win, and it’s still difficult to win in the NFL, even if you’re facing teams who are playing for relatively little. I know it’s hard to lump the Vikings in there with the Ravens and Browns, considering the Vikings are as close to locked into the playoffs as they get, but let’s be realistic here: the Vikings are not going to do a damn thing in the playoffs. From this point forward, with the playoffs a formality, I’m looking at our chances to win the Super Bowl. And, from that standpoint, you might as well lump the Vikings in with everyone else on the outside looking in, because they just don’t have what it takes this year.
The 2015 Seahawks have played exactly six teams that are legitimate playoff contenders: the Packers, Bengals, Panthers, Cardinals, Steelers, and Vikings. The 2015 Seahawks are 2-4 in those games. Aside from the Vikings, I wouldn’t rule out any of those teams as true championship contenders (unless Andy Dalton’s thumb never heals, then you can probably rule out the Bengals). For as crappy as the Packers have looked in recent weeks, they still have Aaron Rodgers. For as wimpy as their schedule has been, the Panthers are still undefeated and have beaten both championship contenders they’ve played (including that game in Seattle we won’t discuss further). And I don’t know anyone who’d be happy to face the offenses of the Cards, Steelers, or Bengals with a healthy Dalton in the playoffs.
The point is, when we get to the playoffs, there really won’t be any more easy games, and the shit can hit the fan at any time. The one ray of hope you can point to is at least the Seahawks have been competitive in all their games, and have still held a lead at some point in the fourth quarter in all their games. Indeed, one shouldn’t go into any of these do-or-die affairs expecting the Seahawks to lose. But, there’s enough reasons to worry that the Seahawks might struggle, and get snakebitten in the end.
The Seahawks are 2-4 in one-score games this year. And, even if you factor in the loss to the Packers by 10 points, you can point to a certain amount of bad luck that’s (hopefully) bound to turn around going forward. Injuries should always be a concern this time of year, but even if you project these Seahawks to be there for us come January (with a possible return of Marshawn Lynch), there’s reason for doubt.
The secondary just isn’t as dominant as it once was. In years past, these Browns and Ravens teams wouldn’t have been able to move the ball nearly as effectively through the air. When you look at teams like the Packers, Panthers, and Cardinals, these are teams that can sling it with the best of ’em (and that’s not even factoring in whoever comes out of the AFC, which is riddled with quality quarterback play).
I would also argue that the Seahawks have yet to find that steady third pass rushing option behind Avril & Bennett. In 2013, we were blessed with the reasonable contract of Chris Clemons coming from that LEO position. This year, I dunno. I’m probably way off base and the in-depth stats show Bruce Irvin is that guy and then some, but to my untrained eye he still strikes me as a guy who’s a force to be reckoned with one week, and then disappears for games at a time. Maybe his hurries and QB hits and whatnot are up to snuff, but it’s not really something that’s standing out. To be a championship team, and cover for a weakened secondary, we’re going to need that third guy to stand out. Maybe it’ll be Irvin, maybe it’ll be some combination of him, Clark, and/or a blitzing linebacker. But, we’ve got to make life miserable for the likes of A-Rod, Palmer, and Newton if we expect to go on the road and beat those guys.
Offensively, there’s a lot to like right now. Russell Wilson is continuing to play out of his mind, Doug Baldwin has made it his mission to take ALL the touchdowns, and Tyler Lockett is that big play threat we haven’t had since Golden Tate signed with Detroit (and when you factor in his superior speed, I’d argue that Lockett might be even better than Tate). The running game chugged on apace with the return of Christine Michael taking the lion’s share of the committee’s carries yesterday (84 yards on a 5.3 yard per carry average). Still, when you look at the playoff teams, you’re going to see a vast improvement in the quality of defensive play. Their pass rushes will be more fierce, their pass coverage will be more stingy, and their run defense should tighten up. The number to watch is third down conversions. The Seahawks have been converting third downs at an impossible pace the last five weeks (something like 60+% I think). If the defense does indeed struggle with the improved quality of opponents, we’re going to need our offense to keep rocking and rolling. That means Russell Wilson needs to keep being Russell Wilson, and our offensive line needs to continue its improved play.
In the end, you never relish having to go on the road in the playoffs. But, if you’re stuck, the way we are, then it’s nice being that Team No One Wants To Play. I mean, in Carolina they have to be on cloud nine right now with the way their team has banded together and laid waste to their opposition. But, how much of a kick in the dick is it going to be when their first-ever season as the #1 seed in the NFC sees them playing the Seahawks in the divisional round? The top two seeds right now are those Panthers and Cardinals, but if you’re looking at quality of opponent, it’s almost like playing the Seahawks in the divisional round is akin to playing another top 2 team; whereas the Cardinals will get to host a very-flawed Packers team that I would put firmly in that second tier of opponents, to borrow a thought from Mike Pettine.