From Atop the West to the Super Bowl

This isn't 2005.

No, it's 2010.

This team will not come together and dominate like the 2005 Seahawks.

No, but a different kind of formula could lead them to their second Super Bowl berth.

Step One: Repair the Run Defense

It's not entirely clear why, but run defense is the single most important factor for a team winning a playoff game. Run defense is more important than passing offense, interception rate, even home field advantage. Brian Burke, who conducted the research, attributes the surge in the importance in run defense to the timidity of coaches. He thinks coaches may rely on the run too much in the playoffs because their innate desire to avoid losing -- that is, in a psychological sense, avoid disaster even at the cost of opportunity -- increases as the stakes increase. That's possible, but I think his other explanation might be more likely: weather.

Football is a different game in the elements and playoff football is played in the cold, the rain, the snow, the wind, the forces that weaken the passing attack and increase the relative importance of the run game.

Through the first five weeks of the season, Seattle had a top five run defense by about any measure. Seattle faced an assortment of scenarios: big leads that forced opponents to abandon the run; deficits that encouraged coaches to run out the clock; and pass wacky coaches that just couldn't help themselves. Through it all, Seattle turned opposing rushing attacks into double agents that sabotaged opponents from within.

That didn't happen yesterday. Should we pin that all on the shoulder's of Brandon Mebane? I know people get a little tired with the praise I heap atop Brandon. I do my best to make it clear why Mebane is not considered an elite talent by most, his limitations, his failures, but I also cannot deny a simple, obvious truth: Mebane makes the run defense better because he occupies two blockers, and that modest seeming ability is in truth very rare.

Over the next few weeks, we will learn whether Seattle is dependent on Mebane for its excellent run defense, and if it even has an excellent run defense or it's just good. But if it does, don't underestimate its significance. The NFC West is the Seahawks to win and once they earn themselves into the playoffs, that run defense transforms from lesser component of a good team to the absolute most vital ability to making a playoff run.

Step Two: Capture Home Field

While we were busy keeping our expectations in check and bemoaning a good team that looks nothing like a contender, we may have missed that Seattle is tied for the second best record in the NFC and has the second easiest schedule of remaining games in the NFC, behind only the 1-6 San Francisco 49ers.

The Seahawks are not blowing teams out. The Seahawks are not a great team and probably do not have the potential to become a great team, but the Seahawks are a good team in a year filled with mediocre to good teams. Now, maybe some team will improve over the rest of the season and become a standout contender. That's always possible, and though this post is dedicated to rational optimism, I do not think that team will be Seattle. But if Seattle remains only good, and the NFC remains a conference of good but no true great teams, then home field advantage can make a sizable difference in the Seahawks chances of making the Super Bowl.

Among evenly matched teams, home field advantage is most important. That means that as long as Seattle is good enough to make it, good enough to earn a record and capture home field advantage, that accomplishment could then allow Seattle to have a sizable competitive advantage against other equally good or even superior opponents. A couple weeks ago I said that it didn't matter if the Seahawks beat the Bears, because the Seahawks could probably win the West regardless. Well, the Seahawks did beat the Bears and that win seems very important now, because if Seattle can take advantage of its remaining weak schedule, it could very well finish with the best record in the NFC.

Step Three: Stay Healthy

One reason football is so very hard to predict is that a team never repeats itself. Ability changes as health changes and a regular season juggernaut can crumble as its players' health crumbles. The Seahawks have seemed very cautious with their player's health, and with a clear path to the playoffs before them, that might be just short of brilliant.

The Giants and Cardinals have proven in recent seasons, a team does not have to be a great regular season team to be a title contender. Rules change in the playoffs. Run defense surges in importance. Teams stop trading off home field advantage and that means a soft schedule and an impressive record can turn into a postseason advantage. Teams change in the playoffs. Some limp in, their best games behind them. Some protect their irreplaceable players and come alive during the postseason run.

A team doesn't have to be a great regular season team to be a successful postseason team, and with the way 2010 is unfolding, the construction of this team, its ability to crush opposing rushing attacks, and the overall mediocrity of the rest of the NFC, it's realistic that the Seattle Seahawks, without having the talent of a great team, can become the greatest team in franchise history.

Every single game for the rest of the season matters. This team needs to win and win. This team needs to prove its mettle as a run defense. This team needs to improve relative to its competition by staying healthy as its opponents crumble. Because Super Bowl runs are always improbable, that's what makes them special, but when one can begin to see the path from so far off, well, we can savage ourselves for flirting with hope and so soon thereafter facing failure, we can agonize because it's so improbable as to seem painful to consider, but we can't deny that for a second we knew hope. No one can deny that the wildest, most homer-leaning projection of the 2010 Seahawks potential is not only possible, it's founded in fact.

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