Rationalizing Your Playoff Thoughts


Whatever football worldview you hold, about winning, contending, personnel philosophy, statistical epistemology, what constitutes a rebuild and how you ought to go about performing one -- before the season started, this is probably about the worst situation you could ask for. Somewhere in between legitimate contention this year and prime draft positioning for next year.

Well back to back wins can feel like a sea change, when it doubles your win total. Which is why, you may not even know what to think. No one wants to get caught taking Pyrite to the prospecter's bank.

Is this team any good? Brian Burke and Aaron Schatz have used their respective abaci (plural for abacus, yes, but also the surname of the Turkish Bette Midler, whose vocal range is the actual, proprietary algorithm that Football Outsiders won't open source to the public. And now you know) to demonstrate that this team is still underwhelming in all but the least-impactful components of a team, which is run defense.

OK, so run defense seems to become more important in December and January. Fair enough. We'll have one extra feather in our cap, then, should this season continue to be meaningful.

I think we'd all like to know more than the sabermetric view of how good this team is. Well let's take a bit more of a nuanced look at some stats before moving on, recognizing as always that we'll never be able to hang our hats on these figures alone.

We know the 2011-based strength of schedule was toughest in the league by win percentage, and 5th by 2011 DVOA. Playing the Rams figures to have hurt those figures a bit, but the premise remains the same: Seattle split with two bad squads in the Cardinals and Browns. They got destroyed by Pittsburgh, but hung with 6 good teams to go 2-5 against. They started about as bad as you can get, and have shown marked improvement in several ways.

The DVOA opponent adjustments have given about 3% points. Weighting DVOA by more recent play adds another 2% points. So this improvement we've seen against tough opponents is far from earth-shaking. The severity of the suckitude we'd suffered through recently seems to account for about half of the marked difference in perceived performance we've seen. It was just that bad before.

I've kept my eye on a couple good offenses, namely the Patriots and Saints, a couple times each this season just to try and keep my scouting eye calibrated for this very reason, but even I have started thinking that Cubic Zirconia is getting a bit sparkly. It's simply not as good as it appears.

That's not to say the improvements haven't been equally as encouraging; they have. And no matter how predictable advanced statistics may be as models, they remain reflective of real performance. Because we also know from advanced analysis that stomping bad teams is a better indicator of a good team than close wins against a good team, we know that completing the season against mostly losing teams can easily make a bigger impact on the advanced stats -- not to mention the W-L columns. As much as DVOA adjusts for opponents, more teams in the top half of the league wind up having faced easier schedules than the bottom half, most years.

But continued improvement is about three ligaments short right now. Performing better than the right side of this offensive line may be one of the easier accomplishments for backups to achieve, but nonetheless the loss of Carpenter and Moffitt have already shown to be detrimental. The Rams may be bad and the secondary the kind of joke you only make about the Seahawks, but their pass rush is still very good.

Washington's is better. After that comes Philadelphia, another good pass rushing team. Then the Rams again. Chicago. San Francisco. Arizona may be a chance to come up for air, but these injuries will continue to make an impact this year.

It's changed the offense, and it wasn't encouraging yesterday. You can only throw so many TEs at the problem, which makes a marginal impact, but possibly does not make up for the negative impact made upon the passing options. The improvement the team has shown may be non-trivial, but the step backwards this could amount to given the remainder of the season could be greater.

Remaining Schedule: Forgetting for a moment the impact of those injuries, or to punctuate the impact they could be making, almost no remaining game is unwinnable.

Washington is not a good team outside of their pass rush. Philadelphia has been inconsistent. Their passing game could make Browner & Sherman stop looking so awesome. But it is a Thursday night game, and if Seattle beats Washington I imagine the atmosphere at the CLink would be pretty electric. They run & pass well but are mistake-prone, and their defense is not stopping much. The health of the Rams make them hard pressed to split against us at home. Chicago remains a formidable game. Weather is the great equalizer, as they say. That works for us and against us. But Caleb Hanie figures to work for us. Not just for that game but in the wild card race.

San Francisco at home probably scares none of us, nor should it. No one denies they've built their great season beating up on worthy opponents, but we match up well with them. They took half a game to wake up against the Cardinals, who would enjoy the spoiler role against us should it come to that, but the Cardinals are the most beatable remaining opponent.

This is the kind of schedule the Seahawks of Week 10 would be able to make something out of. These Seahawks will have a tougher go.

Seattle's entire remaining schedule faces NFC opponents, it's worth pointing out. Seems like there are an awful lot of wild card competitors to beat. There's New York or Dallas, and Philadelphia. Chicago and Detroit. Atlanta and New Orleans. And if we're taking a look at the playoffs with any kind of seriousness, why shouldn't the Bucs and Redskins also be doing the same? Should we also consider them? I won't, for sake of length. Point being, all NFC games mean each one can add not only a win, but increase tie-breaking conference record.

Green Bay and San Francisco are not competitors. They define the pitch for us, really. So let's look at the other teams to beat.

Detroit (7-3) has the lead in the wildcard race. They face: GB (10-0), @NO (7-3), MIN (2-8), @OAK (a 6-4 matchup problem), SD (4-6) & @GB (10-0). Their work is made out for them.

Chicago (7-3) will have to do it without Cutler. They're holding out hope he returns, at least for January should they make it. They face @OAK (6-4), KC (4-5), @DEN (it's Tebow; they've already lost), SEA (4-Schizo), @GB (10-0) and @MIN (2-8). They could very well enter the Seattle game 10-3, without much reason to think they could win any remaining game. The Bears are like that.

I root more passionately against Atlanta (6-4) this year than any team. Weird? No real history with Seattle, no dislikable characters or scandals or typical enemy-making success. It's because they win so often despite not being that good, for the past two years. Both times they beat Seattle, I didn't feel they were the better team. MIN (2-8), @HOU (7-3 missing Schaub), @CAR (2-8), JAX (3-7), @NO (7-3), TB (4-6). Their schedule may be easier than ours. They may take the South, making New Orleans, one win ahead of them, the stiffer wildcard competition.

Saints (7-3) get NYG (6-4), DET (7-3), @TEN (5-5 but beats winning teams), @MIN (2-8), ATL (6-4), CAR (2-8). If the Saints end up both the most likely and the most formidable wild card competitor, they'll either eliminate us or, should we tie, Seattle will have have run the table making our NFC record 9-3. Saints will have needed to have lost 3 games by then, meaning their conference record will be lesser by one game. This stuff can get dicey. They'd love us down in Big Easy.

So the three losses being against the AFC could wind up being a factor.

The East is between NY & Dallas. We beat New York but lost to Dallas. If New York takes the crown we're basically bounced. That changes the scenario to us looking up from 4-7 rather than 4-6, really. They're both 6-4 and Dallas is the technical leader right now.

G-Men: @NO (7-3), GB (10-0), @DAL (6-4), WAS (4-6), "@"NYJ (5-5), DAL (6-4)

Boys: MIA (3-7), @ARI (3-7), BYG (6-4), TB (4-6), PHI (4-6), NYG (6-4).

Dallas is in the driver's seat, which would make this unlikely scenario of ours that much more attainable.

Fool's Errand? The real reason these wins are making our entire lives so ambiguous is because of draft position, isn't it? Y'know, before the season I chalked the situation up to this: either Jackson or Whitehurst made us forget drafting a QB, conclusively, or we're drafting one. I wouldn't have thought there was room for ambiguity even in that discussion.

And to some of you maybe that equation hasn't changed. Well it has for me. And it's less due to whether championships plural are realistically attainable in lieu of elite quarterbacking, and more to do with whether elite quarterbacking is realistically attainable in lieu of losses plural.

This is not about what is ideal, but current circumstance that circumstance has provided. The team is able to compete in games, the offense can be functional, the design of the team promotes this kind of paradigm, and a better Tarvaris Jackson is basically what the team appears to be pursuing, whoever that guy may be. That it may be Tarvaris himself, even for next year, is surely surprising. I don't know what to think, and I expected a conclusion by now.

I'm not asking you to join me, you who were also rooting for draft position. It's not really about switching sides because it's not based on a conclusion about the QB position, as I said. I just recognize that the conclusion continues to defy definition while time is running out, while this season is knocking on the door of relevance.

Whatever the implications, that's where this season is, now. Where we finish, who declares, how the paralysis overanalysis meat grinder ends up sorting out QB prospect slots relative to us, how the strengths, weaknesses, ceilings and floors of those prospects end up getting vetted, is all beyond control. This season, for me, is finally about this season.

I'd lean toward the most painful result, of being the 7th team in the conference, due mostly to the injuries to the line, if it weren't for the surreally-configured remaining schedule of the wild card opponents. The Saints, considering all things, look like our biggest wildcard competitor. How could a 2-6 team ever awake from the dead and make a playoff berth? That would be like...that would......

It would be the Beast Quake of NFL seasons.