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Seahawks Semantics Week 14: Playoffs, draft order and a complicated machinery of rooting interest

All Cowboys losses matter

Carolina Panthers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Programming note: Connor Worley is finishing final exams this week, so I’m handling Seahawks Semantics for week 14. The cooking might not taste exactly as you’re used to, but shucks: Steven Terrell isn’t Earl Thomas either. But unlike Earl, Connor will be back next week to guide you through the closing gauntlet of NFC West anticlimax and playoff opponent be-careful-what-you-wishmaking.

My childhood involved spending whole seasons hoping—just hoping—the Seattle Seahawks would reach eight wins. When they did (Seattle went 8-8 three times from 1995-1998) it was always an upriver swim, the last few victories a meter of grace to avoid having the consolations sent to my Loser City address. In the mid-1990s the idea of a winning record felt like the promise of lost jewels under some splash of ink on a map I knew all along was charted for imaginary purposes only.

Then the Seahawks stormed to an 8-2 record in 1999, including a Monday night win in Lambeau Field against new coach Mike Holmgren’s former Green Bay Packers, and I became Eddie Murphy making Harlem Nights. Instead of swimming upstream we had a canoe and a course for real postseason treasure—and the river was all gravy. Of course, Seattle lost five of its last six and failed to score a touchdown in week 17 to fall to 9-7, only qualifying for the playoffs when the Kansas City Chiefs blew a 17-0 lead at home after Pete Stoyanovich’s game-winning kick attempt went wide. But the Seahawks lost their Wild Card game—the last ever played at the Kingdome—and I learned that behind the veil of eight wins was a whole world fraught with new horizons of expectations and cataracts of disappointments.

For a winning team, eight wins is more an equinox than a solstice, just a bend in the river not an arrival anywhere. But eight wins is still a passage worth noting so I try to celebrate when it comes around each year. I had intended to Tweet something about it after last week’s game (after originally intending it the week before) but when the time came I forgot entirely. Part of it was I was shook by what happened to Earl Thomas, but it was also that football had taken place—had taken the place of the ritual achievement knotted in moribund math.

The Seahawks are guaranteed a winning record now (since the tie makes the worst possible finish 8-7-1), and can actually clinch the division this week. The NFC West is in fact so far below Seattle that I’m not going to wrap it up in depth: The San Francisco 49ers got smoked by one of the worst teams in football and are rewarded this week with yet another showcase of ineptitude against the Jets. The Los Angeles Rams are now 4-8, having gone 1-7 since their earlier auspicious arrival in California. I’ve been saying for a minute that the Rams are not reaching 7-9 this year, and so it goes; sorry jokers. And the Arizona Cardinals dug out a win over Washington’s Redskins to keep their West hopes alive as they scoot close to .500—but they should have been trying for draft position.

Draft Order

(Strength of schedule is found by calculating the win percentage of all 13 opponents on a team's schedule. Divisional opponents get double weight. In the event of a tie for strength of schedule, tiebreakers occur in the following order: conference record, division record and if the teams are from different conferences, a coinflip is used.)

*Since the draft order is not strictly made by record—playoff teams pick at the end—I’ve added colored lines to separate which teams are officially eliminated [red] even if in the case of the Jets that disobeys the SOS tiebreak with Chicago, as well as teams in current playoff position [blue] regardless of record. And because playoff qualifiers are determined in order of elimination, the next tier [green] separates division leaders for now likelier to host a game, regardless of record. Dallas is the only team already assured a postseason berth, so I indicate that with the silver line—since that’s another true Seahawks color.

See: The Cardinals are close to costing themselves a dozen spots by winning games. Look at how a full quarter of the league is bunched between six losses and six wins. There will be more separation later, but if Arizona falls slightly above a group of .500ish teams thanks to its tie and costs itself even five or six slots in every round of the draft next year, that’s the value equivalent of a really terrible trade by Steve Keim.

Playoff Position

(Division tiebreakers are handled first, and go in the following order: head-to-head, division record, common opponents, conference record, strength of victory, strength of schedule. After that, conference ties are handled in this order: head-to-head, conference record, common opponents, strength of victory, strength of schedule. Ties are counted as half a win for percentage purposes.)

Teams below the red line have been officially eliminated from playoff contention.

AFC

  • The Oakland Raiders’ win over the Buffalo Bills has far-reaching consequences for the conference’s top seed by evening the conference record and giving them the common opponents tiebreak over the New England Patriots (1-1 versus Buffalo). The common games edge requires a minimum overlap of four teams, but this will activate after New England plays the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos the next two weeks. Oakland already beat Baltimore too, so both teams’ upcoming matchups against the Broncos magnify now—not that those weren’t already key games, and obviously as it stands any losses by either team down the stretch would shake up homefield advantage in the AFC.
  • Denver is going to have to keep joints rolled tight to hold onto the Wild Card spot anyway, given it faces both those AFC contenders, plus the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans, who are themselves tied for first but behind a titanic iceberg of tiebreakers in the AFC South so they need wins. The Broncos were up by only a possession late against Jacksonville last week so the road trip to Tennessee this week is no safe space: Those preseason projections for the Super Bowl champs to finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs don’t seem so far off anymore, with the Dolphins and either the Steelers or Ravens breathing hot breath into the earhole of the sixth seed.
  • Two teams join the Cleveland Browns in the discard pile. The Jets have been bad all season, but it strikes me as funny how three wins looks so dismal now, when for most of the season it was the sign of a decent-ish record.

NFC

  • Thanks to its loss and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ win last week, the 49ers are behind the red line, which makes sense given that city’s historical problems with segregation. I mean the Bay Area is still destructively segregated, but it used to be too.
  • The Atlanta Falcons tentatively maintain their lead in the NFC South thanks to having played more divisional games, but that will be corrected after this week when the Buccaneers host the New Orleans Saints. If it can win, even if Atlanta beats the Rams, Tampa will jump into the fourth seed. The Buccaneers’ next uncommon opponent among the two may be its undoing, however, or it may save the NFC for Seattle, when they face the Cowboys a week later.
  • Both Tampa and the New York Giants have lethal schedules down the stretch, relative to some, so these Wild Card alignments are far from set—and I guess that’s a perfectly good counter to my earlier suggestion that Arizona start losing games for draft slotting.

Rooting Interest Guide

My personal calculus for developing rooting interests in a given week is a complicated formula of loyalties to certain personnel, favorite organizations, uniforms—whatever you like—around the league, not just the playoff standings and draft order. But even when it comes to analyzing what’s best for the Seahawks, I think it becomes vital to remember this is an exercise whose fruits don’t come ripe until week 17. The current standings above are an important data point, but when we examine preferences for a given week we have to remember to look for patterns of outcomes beyond next week’s standings. That means trying to make a model (or using existing ones) accounting for team strength independent of current record, as well as future schedule and injuries, and gaze a little bit into a crystal ball. You can’t be slave to projections either, or you end up short circuiting the 12-game pile of evidence we now have. Either way, decisions on this week’s games are mostly colored by the numbers…

Washington Redskins (6-5-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)

Seattle’s tie takes nearly all the fun out of trying to figure out how third party-games affect the Seahawks, because you can pretty much ignore things like strength of victory, common opponents—elements that otherwise could factor in the case of Seattle ending with the same record as a rival for seeding, which is nearly impossible now. Washington’s tie might have made things interesting in the NFC, but with the Redskins now unable to catch Dallas and the Seahawks around the corner from shutting down the West, this one hardly matters. Technically you have to go with Philly because of the longshot ramifications and anything that keeps the Eagles’ week 17 game against the Cowboys relevant is relevant to Seattle.

Root for: Philadelphia

Arizona Cardinals (5-6-1) at Miami Dolphins (7-5)

At this point, as I suggested above, I don’t really mind the Cardinals winning if it lowers their draft position. And a part of me wouldn’t mind keeping them within distance so the Seahawks can officially clip their wings Christmas Eve, but that eventuality implies another Seattle loss, so you might as well cheer on elimination now.

Root for: Miami

San Diego Chargers (5-7) at Carolina Panthers (4-8)

This one’s more or less moot for playoffs purposes; it really comes down to whether you’d rather help Seattle’s opponent adjustments rise for DVOA coefficiency, or try to lift the Panthers above Los Angeles in the draft order. The Rams rivalry probably outweighs any fear of galvanizing Carolina anytime soon, but I trust Les Snead less to make L.A.’s pick count anyway.

Root for: Carolina

Chicago Bears (3-9) at Detroit Lions (8-4)

All about that bass baseball championship number two seed.

Root for: Chicago

Minnesota Vikings (6-6) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10)

I don’t think Minnesota is a threat to catch the Seahawks—even winning out with one of the easiest schedules would require Seattle to go 1-3 or worse against a nearly comparable slate, strengthwise. So it becomes a matter of: How much do you want to fuck with Packers fans versus giving the Lions more reason to keep winning games? Gus Bradley’s fortunes don’t weigh into it because Doug Marrone is already the shadow coach of the Jags anyway.

Root for: Minnesota

New York Jets (3-9) at San Francisco 49ers (1-10)

Cursing the 49ers is laughing at them for slipping down the draft board at this point.

Root for: San Francisco

New Orleans Saints (5-7) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)

This one is more complicated than it looks, and the best case this week for not viewing the standings as a cross section but with a perspective of their dynamic trajectory. The reflex is to side with the squad more obviously out of reach of Seattle, New Orleans—but at what cost?

End-of-season machinery can get more intricate than you realize: For example, remember last year hoping for the Vikings to bury Green Bay, only for it to cost the Seahawks the fifth seed, which meant not only eventually playing the top-seeded Panthers instead of the always-vulnerable Cardinals but also playing in frigid Minnesota instead of balmy Washington in the first round—a Rube Goldberg action of effects whose lingering consequences may have cast the spell that hobbled Seattle’s season.

Saints-Bucs likely won’t alter the Seahawks’ seed, but it has potentially similar reverberations around the NFC—and they meet twice in the next three weeks to double down (or cancel out) the outcome. In week 15 we will be presumably backing New Orleans against Arizona and Tampa against Dallas, but the Saints are the likelier winner. So a New Orleans win here then puts them on the other side of this choice by then, undoing the premise of choosing them right now. Sure, you may say, yet it’s still generally better to level the losses out and expand the cushion for Seattle. Perhaps, but then it’s a question of who you’d rather win the NFC South. Ideally, both the Falcons and Buccaneers would lose a game or two to protect the two-seed for the Seahawks—but Atlanta, also 7-5 right now, has a remaining schedule among the easiest in the league (31st according to both Football Outsiders and betting markets) and the Falcons have the greatest likelihood of all teams to win out. Atlanta’s finale comes against the Saints, so you might want to give them some divisional margin and New Orleans a chance to be motivated by a Wild Card potential there with a trio of intervening wins. However, regular season results notwithstanding, I believe Julio Jones and the Falcons are a more dangerous matchup in a hypothetical second-round game for Seattle—especially with Earl Thomas out—so I’m investing in the Bucs overtaking that division, starting here. Reminder: the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Seahawks won’t factor for the second seed unless one of these teams tie in the next four weeks.

Root for: Tampa Bay

Atlanta Falcons (7-5) at Los Angeles Rams (4-8)

Beside, you get to go against the Falcons right here while letting the Rams squander draft chips.

Root for: Los Angeles

Dallas Cowboys (11-1) at New York Giants (8-4)

All Cowboys losses matter.

Root for: New York

Remaining Games

Oakland Raiders (10-2) at Kansas City Chiefs (9-3)

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) at Buffalo Bills (6-6)

Denver Broncos (8-4) at Tennessee Titans (6-6)

Cincinnati Bengals (4-7-1) at Cleveland Browns (0-12)

Houston Texans (6-6) at Indianapolis Colts (6-6)

Baltimore Ravens (7-5) at New England Patriots (10-2)

None of these AFC-only games affect Seattle, except for DVOA adjustments, but I’m rooting for Raiders (to screw with New England), Bills, Titans, Browns (in a huge exception since I nearly always like the Bengals), Ravens and Meteor

Stay safe on the streets, finish your homework, and delight in Christine Michael’s first ever experience of snow!