The 2014 NFL season feels sometimes like it's lasted for a month, sometimes a year. It's been weird, and we've known it was going to be weird for a while. Besides the draft, a frantic offseason gave us three main storylines/bags of Skittles on which to chew:
1. The path is new, the territory uncharted: The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl
2. The schedule is fraught with peril: early bye, lack of primetime games, five division games in the last six weeks
3. The potential for churn remains high: would the roster change dramatically, via drafting and cuts and trades and injuries, or would it look pretty much like 2013?
All of those stories converged as training camp arrived, then September, at last, Beautiful September. After two convincing home wins and one close road loss to open the season, all against 2013 playoff teams, and with the team in pretty good health overall, most observers agreed that the Hawks had picked up more or less where they'd left off as champs.
But three additional close losses later, and seven quillion injuries later, and with the schedule's most treacherous curve right ahead, expectations are getting... involuntarily adjusted.... for some of us.
Here's my take on four ways the season might play out, plus an unsolicited opinion on which one is likeliest. Your input is welcomed in the poll below.
1. The Limp-To-The Finish Scenario
Just short of catastrophe. Another key contributor gets seriously injured or is suspended. Michael Bennett? Richard Sherman? I'll stop there. The team never recovers from losing Zach Miller, Brandon Mebane, Max Unger for the year; Wagner never comes back. Kam Chancellor and Russell Okung and Marshawn Lynch all get even more nicked up and never get the chance to heal completely.
7-9 is how it ends, with the only win coming at home against the Niners on Dec. 14 when Colin Kaepernick commits three turnovers in the fourth quarter, because that's what he does on his visits here. People "joke" about the Madden curse. Drafting at #14, which would have sounded ludicrous two months ago, becomes a reality, for better or worse.
WHY THIS HAPPENS:
The depth proves to be nothing like it was in 2013. The D-line is thin, the linebackers aren't explosive, the backup DB's are, uh, pedestrian. Norwood and Richardson bring nothing more to the table than they have so far.
RW continues to be harassed behind the Offensive Line of Continuous Makeshiftiness and never does find his 2012-2013 groove again.
The turnovers don't come, either. Dropped interceptions and unlucky bounces pile up, much as they did earlier in the year.
The Hawks conclude their season by facing a 9-1 team twice, a 7-3 team once, a 6-4 team twice and a 4-6 team that already beat them. That's a brutal 41-19 record for foes.
2. The 'Sure Could've Used One More Win' Scenario
No playoffs. The injuries on the Hawks take their toll, but are counteracted by significant ones to their foes -- so it's a wash there. Mark Sanchez generously implodes against a temporarily rejuvenated LOB; the overrated Niners still lose here; so do the Rams, because it's tough to win in Seattle no matter what.
So 9-7 is how it ends. Cards sweep the Hawks and run away with the division, while the Cowboys sneak in as the 6 seed at 10-6, causing fans to rue "3rd-and-23" all over again. Some start rooting for the Lions, because all other options are frankly dumb.
WHY THIS HAPPENS:
Hawks have a hard time winning on the road, period, because they're an NFL team and NFL teams have a hard time winning on the road. 1-2 makes sense with games against three tough but flawed squads. Especially if the games keep coming down to the final possession. 2-1 makes sense at the Clink for a beat-up Seattle squad, no matter who the three opponents are.
Brace yourself for our old friend DVOA.
Hawks' road losses: against Nos. 8, 18 and 26 by wDVOA. Average: 17.
Hawks' road wins: against Nos. 22 and 30. Average: 26.
Hawks' home loss: against No. 13. Average still 13.
Hawks' home wins: against Nos. 1, 3, 20 and 29. Average 13 again!
These Seahawks have proven they can play with anyone, anywhere, any Sunday. But they're also probably going to lose to a good-to-decent team on the road. They'll beat most teams here, no matter how good. 3-3 is reasonable.
3. The 'One-And-Done' Scenario
Hawks make the playoffs! Bad news is, it's as a wild-card team. Badder news, it's as the 6 seed, edging Philadelphia out with the fortuitous tie-breaker. Traveling to Dallas seems like not the worst thing in the world until DeMarco Murray violates the worn-down Seattle defense, and the offseason arrives, too soon, but maybe also none too soon.
10-6 in the regular-season record, 10-7 is the final mark. That's the most losses for any Russell Wilson-led team, ever, in his life. (I didn't look that up and neither should you.)
WHY THIS HAPPENS:
Healthy new players contribute; Will Tukuafu, Tony Moeaki, Allen Bradford, Travian Robertson, possibly Lemuel Jeanpierre all step in and make an impact. Special teams rediscover their specialness, and score a few touchdowns. Yes, even Bryan Walters finds the end zone on a punt return, as does Doug Baldwin on a kickoff. D/ST score three times in Philadelphia.
The Hawks also win the turnover battle four times, as the interceptions show up en masse.
Splits with the Cards and Niners, plus the usual result in Week 17, all complete quite the journey toward 10 of the hardest-earned wins in Seahawks history.
Turnovers haven't been there this year like they were in 2013, when the Hawks collected 2.6 per game. This year it's only 1.4. Crazy. What if the final six games looked more like last year, and the interceptions piled up, and the turnover battle goes 16-7? That's good for 1.5 more possessions than the opponent per game. That's good for wins no matter who the opponent is.
4. The 'How-The-West-Was-Won' Scenario
Sweeping the reeling Cardinals gives Seattle the division and all the spoils that come with: a two seed and a badly needed bye; poor Eagles managed just an 11-5 mark in the East. Hosting a divisional playoff game against the Cardinals-Eagles winner? Yes please. We just beat those two teams... three times.
A narrow home win puts Seattle in the NFCCG, either here or in Detroit or in Green Bay. I don't care what your/my expectations were coming into 2014, that's a hell of a place to be.
WHY THIS HAPPENS:
Kam finally gets healthy and starts playing like 2013 Deathbacker. Unger actually makes it back for the finale after LeSavior Jeanpierre fills in admirably for five weeks. Wagner returns with a vengeance. KPL comes on strong. Britt turns a corner. Lynch stays healthy and twice more posts four-touchdown games. Mebane is still dearly missed, and opponents run at semi-will, but the offense starts to move the ball consistently and kills it in the red zone...
Because Russell stops doing whatever weird unhelpful thing he's been doing all year.
A) Wishful thinking
But also B), Pete Carroll does a lot of his best coaching in November and December.
At USC: 32-3 in November and bowl games
As Hawks coach: 22-13 in November-December, but especially 15-4 in the last three Nov-Dec's.
Final Piece Of Data: The Chart Of Foreknowledge
Hawks are 6-4. The chart below (courtesy of fivethirtyeight.com) tells us that a 6-4 team reaches the postseason 62 percent of the time.
Let's grant the Hawks a split next few weeks, so they reach 7-5. Odds move to 56 percent.
Before we go any farther, here's the famous chart (with the Seahawks responsible for the two most conspicuous 1% red squares).
At this point, a lot hinges on the Philly game, if Seattle's 7-5. A win gives the Hawks 70 percent playoff odds; a loss drops them to 39 percent.
Mentally, feel free to adjust the numbers for a strong NFC, and for tie-breakers, as you walk your way through the schedule. The chart is just a guide. But it's easy to imagine the Hawks living in the orange area all the way until Week 17. Take your heart meds, people.
Gratuitous Opinion Moment
I'm seeing 10-6. That's enough to get a 6 seed, travel to the NFC East winner, but also guarantees a forbidding wall of road playoff games. And without a stout run defense anchored by Brandon Mebane, winning one single playoff game, against a strong rushing team, in a non-CLink environment -- that is too tall an order.
10-6 is a far cry from the 15-1 I called at the beginning of the year. But if this amount of turmoil, of underperformance, of key injuries, and of so-so luck, and 10 wins, and a playoff spot, is our new "down year," I'll take it. I won't like it, but I'll take it.