The Seattle Seahawks’ encounter with the New York Giants Sunday presents an opportunity for the Seahawks to add another conference win and establish a good start coming out of its bye in 2017. It also gives a chance to put, at potentially 4-2 rather than 3-3, a little cushion between the wins and losses columns for the first time this season—a room to breathe and flap their wings that every team leaving the nest with playoff aspirations should desire.
To be honest I used go into every NFL season with a mixture of hope and expectation that Seattle could reach exactly 4-2. Before 2013, to expect more seemed unrealistic, in nearly all cases. To hope for more seemed greedy. (Before ’13 the only time in franchise history the Seahawks started 5-1 was 2003—then swiftly fell to 8-6. Seattle saved its playoff chance by winning the last two, but all that generated was “We want the ball and we’re going to score.” Damnit now I have to pour out a little of my 40 for 5-1.)
Back then the record seemed like a good opening for whatever kind of season you might call success. Whether merely hoping to prove the team’s doubters wrong and avoid utter failure, as had too-frequently been my outlook, or to generate a sense of relief and protecting any hope toward a final winning record and playoff opportunity that they may have started with—those were typically my precarious wishes.
And even to propel a truly memorable season toward anticipated lofts, 4-2 seemed undeniably good enough. Right now in 2017, only two teams in the league have better records. It’s not totally mathematically sound, but you can see 12-4 coming out of 4-2, maybe because most of those numbers are already present. The more natural protraction of the record becomes 11-5 or 10-6, and most often that was quite good enough for a playoff berth. As simple as it sounds, it always felt like a fine thing to win twice as often as you lose. In an otherwise inequitable world, that’s called a good deal.
These instincts are also borne out by the math: In FiveThirtyEight’s generic figures gathered from all team-seasons from 1995-2016, having four wins after six games projects as the dividing line between being on track for a nine-plus win season and a mediocre or worse one. More fatefully, squads that start 4-2 are 23.7 percentage points more likely to reach the playoffs (60 percent) than ones that go 3-3, on average (fewer than 37 percent—yikes!).
As much as 4-2 feels like an excellent launching pad for a fledgling season, if I can push this hawk’s nest imagery even farther, once you get there it still feels like walking on eggshells. If we’re going to keep being honest, we all concede 4-2 is a feather’s breadth from .500. Not only is it, in any reasonable allowance of variance (+/-1 game, given the units), within the margin of error of .500 in games played so far, it also brings the sudden approachability of falling to 4-3. Such a slight advantage that there’s no more room for that hopeful wing-flutter.
Indeed, in terms of the next game holding playoff leverage, being at four wins in this stretch of the season carries more sway (a difference of more than 33.5 percentage points) over future postseason possibility, according to the same FiveThirtyEight template, than any scenario on the schedule except having eight or nine wins (34 to 42 percentage points) headed into week 17! It’s not just a good deal, it’s a big deal.
Now, the Seahawks may be in a better place right in week 7 than those averages, considering Brian Burke projects Seattle with the second-highest playoff probability in the NFC granted its FPI rating and divisional context. His data give this Giants game only a 12 percent playoff-leverage swing, with the Seahawks holding still 75 percent chance even with a loss.
But especially when we feel maybe lucky already to be there, sometimes being at a good perch comes with the dread reminder that things often even out, statistically or karmically, and brings forth the fear of swinging the other way altogether into complete second-half collapse, the not-nice kind of being on a roll. But even forfending abject disaster, another way of looking at 4-2 while still staying in flight on the upside of things, is that another logical endpoint of maintaining the “breathing room” gap between wins and losses represented in 4-2 is actually just 9-7. Remember that disappointing 2003 group, whose slide to 8-6 after 5-1 seemed calamitous but contained just a barely-sub-.500 3-5 stretch; how fragile and close all these figures are.
Anyway these days 9-7 or 10-6 rarely gets it done for any NFL teams, and after seeing what missing out on a first-round bye wrought for Seattle the last two seasons, even my old standards feel a little bit low. I love being 4-2. I hate being 4-2. But that’s the same as the crisis of sports: You have to put yourself over the edge into certain doubt to ever find its yield. You have to snap the football, otherwise forfeit.
Even so, as a Seahawks fan, I feel like I’ve been seduced by the promise of 4-2 and disappointed by second half regression so many times. Unhappy families are never alike, of course, and the standpoint or fragility of 4-2 is totally context-dependent for a football team and its fans. I wondered how you’re feeling about it.
But out of curiosity, I checked on Seattle’s fortunes following 4-2 in its history, and the news is more hopeful than my memory. It turns out they’ve managed that exact mark a total 10 times in their history, and never totally flubbed it!
In fact, the only time a 4-2 start yielded a less-than-.500 record was 2010, when the Seahawks still won their division and a(n awesome) playoff game. I can remember the encouragement of the beginning of that year, of the Pete Carroll era, the subsequent 2-7 same-ol’-slump, the victory over the Rams that redeemed it all, and then the raised arms of one of the genuinely greatest experiences in my life, followed by riding my bicycle home in the Brooklyn night seriously contemplating getting the date 1-8-2011 tattooed on my body.
The only real outright failure was 1985, when Super Bowl aspirations given a 12-4 1984 (also a 4-2 start), and a healthy Curt Warner returning after missing the near entirety of ’84, became a maddening two-games won two-games lost hopscotch to 8-8. The next year 4-2 held for 10-6 but still missed the playoffs in a stacked AFC West. In 2006, the Chicago Bears knocked Matt Hasselbeck out of a game in week 4, derailing a 3-0 start and dreams of a Super Bowl redemption and draining an otherwise-successful playoff year into a bummer in that context.
The later ’80s brought steady playoff appearances (Seattle was 4-2 five times in a row from 84-88). 1999 brought them back to the postseason after a decade absence in Mike Holmgren’s first year (although maybe this is the signature disappointment of the subset: dropping to 9-7 and losing in round one at home, the final game in the Kingdome, following an 8-2 start). 2012 (11-5) and 2005 (13-3) are both comparably magical.
So that’s eight playoff appearances, one Super Bowl bid and a collective finish of 97-62 in 10 seasons. Perhaps 4-2 really deserves its mantle of springboard optimism rather than eggshells. If Los Angeles loses to the Arizona Cardinals Sunday it will mean outright first place in the division, and should the Washington Redskins take care of the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday the Seahawks would then be tied for fewest losses in the conference. Either way, it will feel a lot better than getting 3-3 stuck in my beak.