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Don’t worry about the Seahawks playoff chances — do worry about some of these potential postseason opponents

Seattle Seahawks v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks lost Sunday to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it probably doesn’t matter. The outcome didn’t change Seattle’s overall playoff chances, as the Seahawks maintain a three-game lead in the NFC West over the Arizona Cardinals that keeps them above 98 percent expectancy to make the postseason by all noteworthy simulations. The loss likely limits Seattle’s best prospects to protecting its second-seed slot in the conference playoffs, which itself becomes a harder challenge, but otherwise I’m not too bothered by the performance.

I realize I’ve said this before. I told you not to worry after the Seahawks put up three points in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams in week 2, and again I wasn’t discouraged by Seattle’s 21-0 third quarter slipup against the Atlanta Falcons. And, since my experience at Field Gulls doesn’t go beyond this season, you may be wondering whether my cheerful outlook comes from a naïve Seahawks apologist or a legit voice of reason. However, while I may not have a long record at this web site, mainly what gives me confidence in Seattle is my much longer experience as a gambler. Because gambling has taught me a great deal more patience with bad outcomes than I used to have.

Gambling shows that odds work in mysterious ways, and it’s best not to get bent out of shape about a loss just because you didn’t see it coming. And believe me: I didn’t see it coming either. But a loss, even an unhappy failure of a loss like this one, doesn’t prove the pregame reckoning was a failure: Even a 4-1 favorite, which is huge in football terms, comes up a loser every five chances or so. You’re still far better off in the long run playing those odds.

If the Seahawks are likely to go 12-4 or 11-5—or 11-4- 1 as the case may be—then those four or five losses are going to come from somewhere, and the order doesn’t really matter except for how interesting it makes the journey. Maybe you would wish the defeats come to more worthy opponents than the Rams, Saints, Buccaneers. But as the charming John Brandon says, “You’d also prefer brussels sprouts to taste like baby back ribs. Who cares?”

(I mean, not me; brussels sprouts are delicious—but really: Who cares?)

Anyway the important thing is not, as you already know, the fact of the loss or even the quality of the loss but what it indicates going forward. There are plenty of reasons to trust Seattle is a better team than it showed last Sunday, and can only do better with the number of injured starters returning for the playoff push.

Last year, the Seahawks abruptly departed from their five-game win streak in week 16 with a blundering 23-17 loss to the Rams that wasn’t even that close as Russell Wilson ducked from pressure and stumbled into inopportune turnovers, raising serious alarms that the cohesion and adjustments on the offensive line might not have been so corrective as supposed. Then the following week they destroyed the division champion Cardinals 36-6 on the road.

That’s a sign Seattle can put this sort of game behind it, but the concerning part would be how the Seahawks went on to struggle offensively against penetrating interior fronts in both playoff games. In the week 17 stomping, Arizona had been without its emerging edge rusher, Markus Golden, possibly masking Seattle’s chief flaw (then as now). It’s far too early to tell who Seattle’s likely playoff opponents might be, but let’s take a look at the possible NFC field and see which teams might be most likely to reproduce the havoc that Tampa Bay turned out last week.

Minnesota Vikings

Last year’s Wild Card opponent may not be around to cause any mischief this time, as the Vikings lost five of six after the 5-0 start and saw their defensive-powered DVOA plummet from first to 16th. The defense is still sixth overall and fourth against the pass, but the turnover faucet predictably slowed from 16 in the first six games to four in the last five. A healthy Linval Joseph’s worth is never shown in sacks, but it’s notable that Minnesota’s pass rush has not been as dynamic in tandem as it was earlier in the season when edge pressure allowed Joseph to cleanup with three of the interior quarterback takedowns that can so dramatically crush an offense.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers also are a long shot to make it, but have the team history as a sleeping dog and the stout run defense to hypothetically make the Seahawks one-dimensional if they do. Green Bay’s front line hasn’t been as dominant as it was when allowing 2.0 yards per carry earlier in the year, but it’s still holding teams to a solid 3.8-yard average that’s seventh in rush defense DVOA. The good news is they have no pass coverage, and either way we’ll get a chance for a preview or otherwise an early chance to eliminate the sometime-playoff nemeses next week.

Detroit Lions

The current NFC North leaders are probably the most favorable matchup in the conference if they visit Seattle as a potential third seed following a Wild Card win (or vice versa—the Lions currently are one loss up on the Atlanta Falcons in NFC record). Detroit is a “hot” team, winners of six out of seven, but have a blustery defense (31st in DVOA, with plenty of balance as neither unit ranks better than 28th) and the kind of unbalanced offense that plays right into the Seahawks’ gameplan so there shouldn’t be worry about matching Matthew Stafford in a shootout. DeAndre Levy could be back soon or by the playoffs—but that’s a fragile hope for the Lions these days.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is the matchup that has you scared right now, but I maintain that the numbers still favor Seattle. As Sheil Kapadia points out, “The Bucs came in ranked 30th in pressure rate and 14th in sacks per dropback,” and managed to manufacture pressure with elaborate end-tackle stunts and blitzes that the Seahawks coaches should be better prepared for—or more likely won’t see again. Add to that an offensive line anchored by Justin Britt, and potentially a more multiple backfield with a renewed C.J. Prosise and the issues (particularly out of empty backfield sets) that plagued Seattle Sunday might vanish. Also, no matter how good Tampa Bay looks after wins over Kansas City and Seattle, its playoff odds are also narrow unless it can catch the Falcons to win the NFC South. Remember, last year the Buccaneers also went on a string of wins to reach 6-6—then finished 6-10.

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Washington Redskins

Washington’s defense isn’t particularly worrisome, although its pass rush is better than its league-worst run defense. The Redskins have guys that can attack an offensive line from the outside and the inside, with Ryan Kerrigan steadily on pace for 12 or 13 sacks and Trent Murphy having bulked up to play defensive end in Joe Barry’s 3-4. However, I don’t think Washington’s coverage linebackers will be able to contain Doug Baldwin or Jimmy Graham, and with or without Prosise Thomas Rawls ought to be able to carve up this unit into the second and third levels.

New York Giants

The only team in the NFC other than the Dallas Cowboys with a better record than Seattle’s, N.Y. is either in for a rough couple of games to bring it back into the wide middle of the conference with four out of five against likely playoff teams—or is poised to be the most feared Wild Card apart from whoever wins the AFC West. The Giants are sneakily right next to the Seahawks in run defense at 3.5 yards per carry allowed, and although they don’t generate a ton of sacks like typical New York playoff teams of the past Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul could easily produce trouble for George Fant and Bradley Sowell or whoever is starting at tackle for Seattle by then. Plus, this group’s galvanized secondary at last brings balance to the back end for the Giants, who are (with the Seahawks) among only nine teams with net advantages in both pass and run defense DVOA.

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons don’t have the kind of defensive line that should cause Seattle trouble, and without Desmond Trufant don’t have much in the backfield to cover Wilson’s options downfield. As usual with Atlanta the problem is keeping up on the scoreboard, as Matt Ryan and Julio Jones combine for a passing attack that overcomes Dan Quinn’s below-average pass defense so well that it’s best in the NFL in offense-defense ANY/A differential according to Chase Stuart. Better than the Seahawks, better than the Denver Broncos—which is outstanding considering how good Denver’s pass defense is.

Dallas Cowboys

Like the Giants, the Cowboys have an underratedly difficult schedule to end the year, with either three or four playoff teams on the slate—and all five opponents vying for a division title or Wild Card. So it’s still not out of the question Seattle rockets back into the top seed somehow like it did in 2014. But I don’t want to get greedy so I’ll assume this NFC Championship Game, if it happens, will be at the new Cowboys Stadium. Rod Marinelli’s defense has outperformed expectations again, as it did in 2014 when Dallas was last a contender, but obviously it’s not the strength of this team. To beat Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys’ offense, the Seahawks will probably have to develop their running game enough to take possession away from Dallas’s rushing attack, because no matter how Wilson slings it against the 27th-best pass defense DVOA that won’t earn Seattle’s own defenders enough rest to push back against Zach Martin, Tyron Smith and La’el Collins and the league’s top-performing position group.

Regardless, this game would take a lot different complexion than the scoreless second half that Seahawks fans witnessed last week in Tampa Bay.