Seahawks fans surely feel hopeful. They beat the Champs. They are manning the biggest bandwagon since Breesus ferried New Orleans to the Super Bowl. They beat the Bears in Chicago, and convincingly. The final score was 23-20, Seahawks, but Devin Hester's touchdown return came with 2:14 left in the fourth quarter. Seattle had surpassed 75% win probability late in the third quarter and never relinquished that lead. Following the return, Seattle's win probability was still 90%. The touchdown return wasn't quite in "garbage time" but it's impact on the scoreboard was greater than its impact on the outcome of the game.
It's hard not to feel confident when your team has already beaten the team it will face. Yet the Seahawks are still decided underdogs. When you consider what kind of juggernauts typically secure a first round bye in the playoffs, the Bears are underwhelming. Their regular season point differential ranked tenth in the NFL. The Bears rank 16th by DVOA, and 14th by ER. That means they're mediocre, but mediocre teams like the Chiefs and Bucs have torn the Seahawks to shreds.
So why should Seahawks fans feel hopeful? Apart from blind faith and homer loyalty. Here is the first of three reasons I think the Seahawks will win.
The Russell Okung Factor
Chicago won the Julius Peppers sweepstakes and have benefited enormously from the signing. Chicago's signature defense was a shadow of itself in 2009. Brian Urlacher missed much of the season. The ends were old, moldy and not nearly as disruptive as Lovie Smith's base defense requires. The secondary was young and patchwork. The 2010 Bears secondary is not sensational by any stretch, but replacing Al Afalava with Chris Harris and Zack Bowman with Tim Jennings are relatively big moves, because Afalava and Bowman were liabilities in coverage. Harris and Jennings are steady.
All those important changes accounted for, Peppers is still the talent that makes this defense click. A Tampa 2 relies on the ability of its front four to create pressure. Apart from Peppers, the Bears front four is pretty average. Tommie Harris lost his starting job. Anthony Adams, Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina comprise a quality defensive tackle rotation, but are not game changing talents. Israel Idonije is a quality bookend that's stout against the run and fairly disruptive as a pass rusher. He should present problems for Sean Locklear, but I doubt Idonije will dominate like the Panthers Charles Johnson did. And like we saw with the Rams in week 17, if the Seahawks can trust Russell Okung to match one-on-one against one end, Seattle can protect Sean Locklear with a tight end or back.
The teams that have had the best success against the Bears defense have been able to match stud left tackles against Peppers. It's not about sacks, or quarterback hits or tackles for a loss, but time in the pocket, uncontested passes and the personnel needed to protect the quarterback. Peppers had a relatively big game against Jason Peters, but the Eagles finished with 398 yards of total offense and only one turnover. When I write "big game" ultimately what I am referring to is stats. And even a "big game"--four tackles, a sack, a quarterback hit, a tackle for a loss and a pass defended--only gives a vague impression of Peppers impact on eight of 70 offensive plays the Eagles ran.
Peters, Matt Light, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Jake Long are the elite pass blocking left tackles Peppers and the Bears have faced. The Eagles, Patriots and Jets offenses averaged 422 yards and one turnover. The Dolphins, with a hobbled Long and starting Tyler Thigpen in his first and only start of the season, were shutout and crushed. In week six, the Seahawks, with Okung returning from injury, finished with 353 yards of total offense and no turnovers. That is a good bit better than Seattle's season average of 298 and 1.9, and good bit worse (for Chicago) than the Bears season average of 314 and 2.2.
Whether it's accepted now or in three years, Okung is a top-tier left tackle. He shut down Peppers in their first meeting. Football is rarely so simple as win one matchup, win the game, but against a simple system that relies on consistent pass rush, and against a front four that depends on one talent to disrupt, create matchup problems and free others, one matchup won can take the teeth from the Bears pass rush and allow the Seahawks to overachieve.
It's happened before.