The Seattle Seahawks had their worst season since 2011 last year, though “worst season” still resulted in a trip to the second round of the playoffs. If the Seahawks can improve in 2017, there’s a good chance they’ll be playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl again, and there’s plenty of reason to believe they’ll improve. None bigger than the return of All-Pro safety Earl Thomas.
And Thomas was a big reason why FootballOutsiders projected Seattle as the number one seed in the NFC (11-5 record) in their updated mean wins projection. (Paywall).
“Seattle's run of four straight years on top of our DVOA ratings ended last season, but there's plenty of reason to believe the Seahawks defense can rebound once Earl Thomas gets back on the field.”
FO also noted that Seattle should have the number one defense again, just ahead of the (surprising) LA Rams, who they projected at 8-8 thanks to the recruitment of new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips:
Phillips' scheme will likely have a similar effect in Los Angeles, where the defense was already loaded with talent in the front seven but underperformed and finished just 15th in defensive DVOA in 2016. Our current projections put them 28th on offense, second on defense (behind Seattle), and third on special teams (behind Baltimore and New England), which would be enough to make the Rams playoff contenders.
That “similar effect” is that teams show remarkable improvement on defense in the first year of Phillips every time he arrives in a new city. Two years ago, the Denver Broncos had the number one defense under Phillips and won the Super Bowl, and six years ago the Houston Texans improved from 31st to sixth under Phillips. He also improved the San Diego Chargers from 30th to 13th, the Atlanta Falcons from 26th to 12th, and the ‘89 Broncos from 27th to fourth.
FootballOutsiders also has the Arizona Cardinals going 9-7, putting them in position for a wild card slot. (These records are just based on mean wins projection and in no way means that they don’t think a team can go 12-4 in the NFC or that the wild card teams won’t need to do better than 9-7.) They also have the San Francisco 49ers as the worst team in the NFC, but going 5-11; most likely the worst team in the NFC will go 2-14 or something, but it’s hard to project any team doing that poorly just like it’s hard to project any team doing better than 12-4.
The New England Patriots were projected by FO to go 13-3, but they are also projected to have the easiest schedule in the NFL.
FO has the Green Bay Packers as the two seed, winning the division by two games over the Detroit Lions. Another potential surprise isn’t just that the Tennessee Titans could win the AFC South (I predict they will also), but FO also has the Texans falling to fourth place in that division after winning it the last two years.
The Seahawks are going for their seventh playoff appearance, and fifth division title, in eight years under Carroll.