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Identity Shift: Are the 2017 Seahawks a playoff team?

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maybe

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys
A Griffin sack is not a mythical creature
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

While the Seattle Seahawks are in process of defeating the Arizona Cardinals on New Year’s Eve, they will find out if a trip to the playoffs is. In the. Cards.

(There will be no apologies.)

If the Carolina Panthers simultaneously upend the Atlanta Falcons, in Atlanta, our Seahawks are headed to the postseason, just like every other season under the controlled chaotic leadership of Russell Wilson.

But say the Panthers choke from a Seattle perspective, and the Falcons whisk the sixth seed away from the talons of our Taimas. Then the 10-6 Seahawks settle for double digit victories and a fullJanuary vacation, their first since 2011. What other recent teams have suffered the same cruel fate?

A lot of franchises, it turns out. In 2012 through 2015, for each season, a 10-6 team was left out of the playoffs.

2012: The 10-win Chicago Bears finish with the top defense by DVOA, a +98 point differential, but lose out on a tie-breaker to the Minnesota Vikings.

2013: The Arizona Cardinals take third place in the NFC West with a 10-6 record. They were third in scoring defense and the second-ranked defense in terms of DVOA but just 20th in offense and 27th in special teams. They were good enough to defeat the eventual Super Bowl champs on the road, but not good enough to chase the Super Bowl itself.

2014: It’s the Philadelphia Eagles who miss out this time. Nobody cares about them.

2015: I jest you not, the New York Jets stay home at 10-6. They compile a whole yard in team ANY/A differential (huge) despite starting Ryan Fitzpatrick for all 16 games. If only they’d had Jermaine Kearse on the team, things could've been different.

It won’t feel good if the Seahawks prevail Sunday but lose a tie-breaker to the Falcons, the fast-becoming-a-major-rival Falcons. But it will hardly be a travesty. Seattle ambles into Week 17 with a pedestrian +36 scoring differential, no top ten DVOA ranking in any category, and recently lost a de facto division championship game at home by five touchdowns. This current version of the Seahawks, it’s a good team, a fine team, but not a great one whose playoff absence would cause an uproar.

The Seahawks could help themselves a great deal by starting fast against the Cards, but...

1. The Seahawks are a second-half offense

Narrative status, last week: Definite Identity Match

Narrative status, this week: Definite Identity Match

Seattle’s first 19 plays from scrimmage in Dallas netted 11 yards. Is that good? That doesn’t sound good.

Breaking it down further, as usual:

Qtr 1: 21st, 3.3 ppq

Qtr 2: 27th, 4.6 ppq

Qtr 3: 7th, 6.1 ppq

Qtr 4: 1st, 8.8 ppq

At least the Seahawks, at home, get going somewhat earlier and still keep up their torrid scoring later on.

Home splits:

Qtr 1: 6.0 ppq

Qtr 2: 3.4 ppq

Qtr 3: 6.9 ppq

Qtr 4: 8.7 ppq

The Seahawks have posted one scoring drive in their last three first halves, combined. It was the late second-quarter touchdown against the Cowboys in Week 15. It came during a half in which Seattle “accumulated” 44 yards of offense.

The 2017 Seahawks offense is not good at starting games. Dangerously, perilously, self-defeatingly not good.

2. Penalties called against Seattle are excessive

TrendCon, last week: 2 (second-highest concern)

TrendCon, this week: 2 again

You didn’t think the trend would improve after the Seahawks incurred more penalty yardage than yards gained in Dallas, right?

In Seattle’s collective defense, this play was called defensive pass interference.

How dare Justin Coleman grab Cole Beasley’s hands with his helmet and twist them around! Dock the Seahawks 43 yards! Flip the field!

Net penalties (last week’s ranking)

5. Oakland, 13 (5th)

4. Philadelphia, 15 (5th)

3. Denver, 24 (still 3rd)

2. San Francisco, 28 (still 2nd)

1. Seattle, 42 (still 1st, still by a mile)

Net yardage lost via penalties (last week’s ranking)

5. Buffalo, 99 (unranked)

4. Cincinnati, 109 (4th)

3. Kansas City, 170 (3rd)

2. San Francisco, 219 (2nd)

1. Seattle, 389 (1st)

The Seahawks have lost as many net yards via flags as the second-and third-most teams combined. While it’s a little cuckoo to scream “conspiracy!?!” it’s also a little cuckoo that Seattle is as penalized as the next two teams on the list combined.

The Seahawks have almost twice as many net yards lost as the second-place team, which in turn actually does have twice as many net yards lost as the fourth-place team. The standard deviations involved are so off the charts as to become absurd and meaningless. At least that’s what someone who calculates standard deviations might say.

3. NEW: Fumble luck has favored the Seahawks’ opponents

Narrative status, this week: Mostly Dubious

Narrative status, this week: Mostly Dubious

As we saw last week, Seattle skated through the first half of 2017 with fumble luck on its side.

Season’s first half:

Seattle: 9 fumbles, 2 lost

Opponents: 11 fumbles, 6 lost

Through 15 games, i.e., the present:

Seattle: 16 fumbles, 5 lost

Opponents: 21 fumbles, 11 lost

Whereas the Seahawks recover the vast majority (76 percent) of their own fumbles, opponents lose more than half of theirs. Penalties are killing Seattle. Reread section 2. (Don’t, actually.) Meanwhile, good fumble luck is helping even out that substantial disadvantage. It’s like karma, but temporary.

For next week, the narrative will have to flip. And we’ll instead track whether fumble luck lasted long enough for the Seahawks to ride it into the postseason, rather than trying to blame it for some of the team’s travails.

4. The Seahawks are now a passing team

Narrative status, last week: Definite Identity Match

Narrative status, this week: Definite Identity Match

All year long the passing percentage has hovered within a point of 60 percent. The Seahawks braintrust made a concerted effort to reverse the thrust toward passing last week, with 30 runs and 24 passes. But you can’t count on the defense scoring more touchdowns than the opponent every week. Coleman’s pick-six and the defense limiting the Cowboys to six field goal attempts means the offense didn’t need to do much at all. Ball control and a couple timely plays, a.k.a. the Pete Carroll Special, made for a road win. Now, when the Seahawks reach the playoffs that won’t hold... right? (You bet your ass I said “when.”)

Through Week 8: 59.5 percent passing

Through Week 9: 60.0

Through Week 10: 60.1

Through Week 11: 60.8

Through Week 12: 60.1

Through Week 13: 59.9

Through Week 14: 59.8

Through Week 15: 60.3

Through Week 16: 59.4

Cardinals game could be another one where Drew Stanton fails to move the ball against a still-talented crew. In which case maybe another run-heavy game plan carries the Seahawks to victory. Or, we get a shootout. Few observers foresaw Week 8’s 41-38 victory over the Houston Watsons.

5. Pass protection issues

TrendCon level, last week: 3

TrendCon level, this week: 2 (second-most worrisome)

A chart, where you want to be underwater:

A story of pass protection emerges. A narrative, if you will.

In games 1-7, a green offensive line with subpar left tackle generally struggles to keep pressure off Wilson. Very tall bars across the graph. More bad games than good.

Then, in games 8-11, the timely addition of Duane Brown stabilizes the line. More good games than bad. Maybe they’ve turned a corner —

Games 12-15: oh shit

In terms of QB hits allowed, Seattle sits at 114 and counting, fourth-most in the league. Only the Browns, 49ers and Cardinals let their quarterback take more abuse.

Sack percentage update: 12th most. Neither alarming nor good.

6. The RB job will be done by committee, right?

Narrative status, last week: Worth Monitoring

Narrative status, this week: Mostly Dubious

Probably the most interesting narrative to track in 2017 has been the evolution of running back workloads. It’s been a mostly sad, discouraging, heartbreaking and ankle-breaking tale. But an interesting one to chronicle nonetheless.

Before we break down 2017 into two chapters in this column space next week, there’s something you should know. Footballoutsiders.com publishes a stat called DYAR, an advanced way of looking at rushing efficiency. Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara lead the league with 232 DYAR apiece, or about 15.5 a game. Only seven running backs have collected a DYAR lower than -50, which is pretty bad in itself.

Three of those backs are Seattle Seahawks. Mike Davis, Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls.

Only Adrian Peterson, who is second in fumbles despite being 27th in carries, ranks lower in DYAR, with -93.

(It should be noted that Davis and teammate J.D. McKissic are both in the top 30 in receiving DYAR for running backs. The Seahawks are adept at using their backs in the passing game, which is something to remember when looking ahead to 2018.)

In December, Lacy has been inactive more times than he’s gained yardage on carries. He has been a healthy scratch twice and carried the ball once for three precious yards. That was back on December 3 against the Eagles.

Davis is the workhorse now, with 52 out of the last 71 carries since the strangely encouraging Eagles game.

And Rawls appears, on the basis of his five carries in Dallas, to have regained the second back role. With that in mind, truthfully, no Week 17 outcome has the capacity to shock me. Davis could exhibit better vision and rumble for 100 yards, easy. He has a knack for making guys miss. Rawls could return to his 2015 form. Did you know he holds the Seahawks single-game playoff rushing record? 161 yards last season, in the wild-card victory over the Lions. You probably did know that. But it’s so easy to forget.

McKissic could awaken again in Week 17 to turn six touches into 60 yards, easy. Hell, even Lacy could, but he’d have to be active first.

7. The defense’s return to dominance

Narrative status, last week: Mostly Dubious

Narrative status, this week: Mostly Dubious

Tough red zone defense, a touchdown of their own, two other takeaways besides — the Cowboys were steamrolled by a vintage 2013 model of Seahawk Motors, Inc. Which helped push Seattle’s forgettable outings against Jacksonville and LA to the background.

The statistics remember everything, however.

Defensive rankings

Points allowed: 20.4 (13th, no change)

Passing yards allowed: 213.7 (9th, up four spots)

Yards/attempt against: 6.2 (7th, up two spots)

Passer rating against: 80.7 (8th, up three spots)

Rushing yards allowed: 113.9 (18th, down one spots)

Yards/carry against: 4.1 (15th, down two spots)

Sacks: 2.5 (13th, up two spots)

Takeaways: 1.6 (T-8th, up two spots)

Turnover margin: +7 (does not count stops on downs or safeties)

Defensive DVOA: -5.2 percent (11th)

Gone are the days of leading the league in scoring defense and/or defensive DVOA, as the Seahawks did several times earlier this decade.

Gone is the dominant midseason run defense that allowed 178-544-3.1 on the ground from Weeks 7 through 13. In its place is a three-game stretch of 112-528-4.7 that inspires little confidence.

But — feels like there’s always a but, be it negative or positive, with this team — there’s a story to tell in counter. Remember how Ezekiel Elliott started the game last Sunday? 51 yards in the first quarter. 22 more on his first four carries of the second quarter. And then. Just 8-24-0 the rest of the way.

Given enough time to adjust, the Seahawks run defense has the potential to remain an elite unit, I do believe. If it sustains exactly zero more injuries. If Earl is close to 100 percent, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright both play, and they don’t have to be on the field way more than half the time. Let’s not forget that amidst the 6-6 Blood Draw of 2016 (h/t Lars Russell), Thomas and Wagner were men among boys.

2017’s been an uneven journey. Maybe one final memorable play against the Cardinals will send Bruce Arians off into the sunset with one final...