A 16 Game Season Is Very Short
The 2010 Seahawks have played 964 downs on offense and 1,074 downs on defense. By comparison, the 2010 Seattle Mariners had 5,989 plate appearances by their offense and 6,091 batters faced by their pitching staff. "Plays" and "At bats" measure the progress of a game, and statistical analysis in football and baseball evaluates the outcome of plays and at bats when determining the best teams in the NFL and MLB, respectively. That means analysis of the 2010 Seahawks is working from roughly 16.9% as much information as analysis of the 2010 Mariners. In terms of games, that's about 27.
27 games into the 2010 MLB season, the eventual AL Champion Texas Rangers were 14-14 with a +6 point differential. The eventual MLB Champion San Francisco Giants were behind the San Diego Padres in the NL West. 27 games are enough to get some idea of how teams are playing, but no one would project a champion from what has happened in little over a month.
Seattle has been a bad team in the 16 games it has played, but though it may be the best the NFL can offer, the 2,000 or so plays that make up a 16 game season is still a relatively small sample. Through 27 games, the 2009 Colorado Rockies were 11-16 and in last place in the NL West. The 2009 Rockies finished 92-70 and made the NL Division Round before losing to the Phillies. That example took seconds to find. There are literally hundreds of examples of teams that started slowly but finished strong.
Even though Seattle has played poorly in its first 16 games, we still do not have enough information to confidently predict how it will perform in its next game or its next four games. That is the fun and frustration of football.
A Team Is Constantly in Flux
This week Seattle's wildcard opponent, the New Orleans Saints, put starting running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas on injured reserve. How does that impact the Saints offense? The most accurate answer is nobody really knows. Nobody knows for sure who is essential to an offense working. Nobody knows for sure if a hobbled Ivory or Thomas is even better than a less talented but healthy replacement.
The already small pool of information we have to evaluate a team is adulterated by changes to both the personnel that comprise a team and also the health of those personnel. If we assume some kind of accuracy in talent evaluation by coaches, a healthy team--and the Seahawks are in tip-top shape for a playoff team--is likely to outperform its season average. And an unhealthy team--and the Saints are relatively unhealthy--is likely to underperform its season average.
How important are Ivory and Thomas to the Saints offense? We'll just have to see how many second and longs Julius Jones puts the Saints into; How many blitzes Joique Bell fails to pick up.
The Playoffs Are Decided by Different Abilities
Maybe it's the weather. Maybe NFL officials are instructed to call the game differently. Whatever the case, what determines winners and losers in the NFL regular season is not the same as what determines winners and losers in the NFL postseason. Run defense, a minor part of winning and losing in the regular season, is suddenly much more valuable in the postseason.
If it is the weather, the Seahawks are in luck. Meteorologists are anticipating cold, viscous rain to fall on Qwest Field. Water viscosity increases as temperatures fall, and cold rain can be some of the toughest conditions to mount a passing attack. The Saints more than any other team in the NFL depend on a high percentage passing attack. Drew Brees has led the NFL in completion percentage for two consecutive seasons. In 2010, his yards per catch plummeted. His 10.3 yards per completion is barely above Sam Bradford's 9.9 yards per completion. The Saints, because they play in a dome and because they play in the NFC South, have yet to play a game all season in cold, wet conditions. They will this Saturday, and don't be surprised if slips, tips and drops ground New Orleans' potent passing attack.