The Seattle Seahawks had about as good a weekend as an NFL team can have without winning a football game. They leapt into first place in the NFC West thanks to the Los Angeles Rams’ home loss to the Buffalo Bills, and the only team ahead of them in the DVOA
standings rankings lost to the Detroit Lions (although this is apparently not enough to lift Seattle atop the list, for now). Still in the real standings it only helps the Seahawks that the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the two previously-undefeated teams in the NFC, joined them in the loss column.
However, while I’d high five you for anything, you might say high-fiving about Seattle’s 3-1 record right now is like high-fiving about stepping over a puddle. The Seahawks’ pre-bye opponents the Miami Dolphins, the Rams, San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets ranked 32nd in aggregate difficulty by DVOA already last week, and as Kenneth Arthur pointed out they all lost Sunday (or Thursday). In particular, the numbers suggested Seattle’s top defense by both yards per game and Football Outsiders’ formula (which uses limited opponent adjustments this early) may be fueled by playing some of the league’s worst offenses.
The counterpoint to this analysis was that in such a small sample it’s hard to say which is cause and which is effect. ESPN 710’s Danny O’Neil noticed how every team the Seahawks beat had deposited its lowest total of the year in its Seattle encounter. You can get into M.C. Escher waterfalls of skewed data. With each game counting for one quarter of the outcomes, maybe there was no such thing as a team in the top half of the league on offense. Maybe there were only teams that hadn’t played the Seahawks yet?
Last weekend didn’t help that argument as all four offenses played poorly again. Now even if you remove the Seattle game from each team’s averages, the Dolphins (ranked 29th in yards per game and 23rd in scoring) would be 25th and 19th in those categories, the Rams (32, 29) would still be last and 22nd, the 49ers (31, 16) still 31st and 16th, and the Jets (17, 25) would be 13th in yards and but still 25th in scoring.
Miami is a weird case because they rate eighth in the league right now with 5.8 yards per play, right between the Patriots’ and the Steelers’ offenses. They’ve had by far the fewest plays of any team that played five games—even fewer than three teams that only played four! The Dolphins are 30th in yards per drive because they are only 16 of 56 on third downs (28.6 percent, 31st in the NFL) and tied for second worst in turnovers—even after not losing the ball once in the opener in Seattle. New York, San Francisco and L.A. are 18th, 29th and 32nd, respectively, in Y/P.
Anyway, the remainder of the schedule was always projected to be harder. Football Outsiders’ new DVOA figures will be available later Tuesday, but last week the rest of the Seahawks opponents accumulated as the 15th-hardest yet to play (by combined offense, defense and special teams). That’s not outrageous, but an average schedule is still a stiffer challenge than the easiest one.
And as if to separate the cherries even more from the past-opponent pits, nearly all these upcoming teams look at least somewhat better than they did a week ago: Apart from the Eagles and the two teams Seattle already played (Rams, 49ers) every future opponent on the Seahawks’ schedule that was active in week 5 won*.
*Except, again, the Carolina Panthers who got beat 17-14 Monday night without Cam Newton. It sounds like I’m making a lot of qualifiers and exceptions to groom this statement into fact, but both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Panthers are in Seattle’s rotation through the NFC South this year. One of them had to lose that game, and it also means the Bucs now have a chance to right their own ship at 2-3. Yaarr!
Philadelphia took a spill, as we know, but even though losing to the Lions doesn’t sound like a good sign the Eagles defense acquitted itself soundly in the second half, holding Matthew Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter to just a field goal and 45 total yards after the break and enabling a comeback that was only betrayed by the fumble that set up that game-winner. Carson Wentz gets most of the attention, but Philly’s defense is the factor that makes the November 20 game in Seattle more of a contest than it appeared before the season.
Two more matchups that were penciled in as wins before the start of the season look like steeper obstacles all of a sudden. We’ll read plenty about the Atlanta Falcons in advance of this Sunday’s showdown of the league’s best offense against its stingiest defense, but until a week or two ago the Falcons were just a team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2012. Meanwhile the Bills are winners of three in a row, including two decisive road victories over division leaders. Even if you don’t take Buffalo all that seriously just yet, that Monday night game six days before the Seahawks travel to New England isn’t necessarily a gimme anymore.
My point is that not only are the next 12 games going to be more difficult than the first four, but they may become even harder than we expected. The only other eventual Seahawks foe that didn’t get in on the rolling good times over the weekend was the New Orleans Saints, who also had a bye. The Saints, by the way, had the league’s strongest schedule through four weeks, so it remains to be seen how representative their 1-3 record will be.
And then there are the tests we knew at the outset would be the sharpest:
Sunday the Patriots got Tom Brady back and once again operated like the well-oiled race of Kurzweilian post-humans implanted with Belichick’s orders that they are. Unlike the Panthers, the Arizona Cardinals won without their quarterback and did so on the road Thursday, leaving the possibility open that the Cardinals round into the threatening form they promised to be in time for their two remaining matchups against Seattle. Meanwhile the Green Bay Packers kept up their playoff-qualifying pace—and this time the scariest part about Green Bay may not be Aaron Rodgers’ proficiency with the offense but the fact the Packers’ run defense has been able to maintain a ridiculous 2.0 yards allowed per rush across now 86 carries. At first this trend seemed a quirky product of Dom Capers’s defense getting lucky by facing backup and injured running backs. But if the Packers’ run stuffing stats didn’t technically improve against the Giants, they definitely got realer as the sample size reached four games.
There’s still time for all these dynamics to change as the weeks go by, as ever. The good news on the other side of all these potential pitfalls is that if Seattle does well in some of those key matchups coming up, there will be plenty of high fives to give around.