The Seattle Seahawks have looked like a lot different teams this season — good, bad, whatever — but the funniest was the Benny Hill version that played the Arizona Cardinals to a 6-6 tie. That game gave me the sort of giggles you can only get when you’re over-tired and frayed, and something slapstick hits you just right. Both teams missed sub 30-yard field goals in the final minute of an overtime game, and it was one of the damndest, stupidest things I have ever seen.
That ending represented how I think about the Seahawks this season. This is not the same Seahawks team of the last four seasons — far from it. Those teams all finished No. 1 scoring defense and overall DVOA, and had top-five running games. This year’s team is third in scoring defense, ninth in DVOA, 25th in total rushing yards, and 24th in yards per carry.
Those numbers don’t describe a bad team, but they don’t describe the Seahawks that we’ve come accustomed to. Those teams always seemed to win close, get bounces, and generally annoy the hell out of everyone with how talented and confident they were. They oozed competence. Whereas this year’s team — a 10-win team, mind you — is perfectly capable of being the big doofus that steps on a rake, pratfalls through a coffee table, or splits his pants bending over for a gummy bear.
That’s not all that they are, but the Seahawks have gone through so many phases this season that it would be wrong to implicitly trust them to go farther in these playoffs. For starters, they’ll be on the road against the Atlanta Falcons. They’re just 3-4-1 outside of CenturyLink Stadium this season, with losses to the seven-win Saints and four-win Rams.
But the biggest reason might be the void of bodies. The offensive line looks nothing like it did for the 2013 Super Bowl team. There’s no Marshawn Lynch, Golden Tate, Bruce Irvin, Max Unger, or Malcolm Smith. Only Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin have hung around on offense. On defense, six of the 12 original members of the Legion of Boom are out of the league or playing elsewhere. And with Earl Thomas out for the season, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor the only core LOB members left in the playoffs.
The Seahawks don’t look like they used to because almost all the component parts have changed. They’re like the Ship of Theseus, and maybe the hull has finally been replaced to the point that it’s hard to call them the same Seahawks any more.
And yet ... when the Seahawks have been good this season they’ve been outstanding. Beating the Patriots in Foxborough is as good a performance as any team has had this season. Tom Brady didn’t get completely comfortable until the second half. The team turned the ball over zero times to the Patriots’ two. And the offensive line protected Wilson well enough to allow him to throw for 348 yards and three touchdowns.
Any minor complaints about the performance are mitigated by the fact that they beat the PATRIOTS in FOXBOROUGH when the Pats had Brady and had begun to look like one of the better teams that Bill Belichick has had. The next week, the Seahawks beat the Philadelphia Eagles to improve to 7-2-1 and become the No. 1 team in the NFL by DVOA up to that point.
There was some concern, then, that the offense would only go as far as Wilson could take it. The offensive line was holding up its end in pass protection after a disastrous stretch, and the running game was producing in fits, but there was a lot of pure individual brilliance in those two wins, too. Here’s Wilson bolting away from a pass rush and flicking a ball to Jimmy Graham like a guy in a bar throwing darts.
To score points, Wilson essentially had to play like an MVP candidate. That’s not a bad bet to make. Over the last seven games of the 2015 regular season, Wilson threw 24 touchdowns to one interception and compiled a 132.8 passer rating. Many expected him to be an MVP candidate this season.
When Wilson has been disrupted, however, the Seahawks offense has struggled to do anything. Wilson’s ankle and knee injuries early in the season nullified the read-option and chained him to the pocket behind an offensive line that at times played like the worst in the league. As he began to feel better, the offense kicked into high gear for a 4-1 midseason stretch. The Seahawks had four games with 400-plus yards of offense, and three of them came between Nov. 13 and Dec. 4.
The one loss during that stretch illustrates just how close the Seahawks are to falling on their face at any moment, however. Center Justin Britt was ruled out at game time against the Bucs with an ankle injury, and the line couldn’t adjust. Wilson took a barrage, and left Raymond James Stadium having been sacked a season-high six times. He threw two interceptions in a season worst 38.8 passer rating performance.
Last week, the Seahawks looked like the Seahawks of old, holding the Lions to six points and 231 yards of total offense while grinding out 177 yards on the ground. Thomas Rawls set a Seahawks playoff record with 161 yards on 27 carries. All Wilson had to do was throw for a breezy 224 yards and two touchdowns on 30 attempts. The game was a clinic in Pete Carroll values.
Whether a win over the Lions means much is another question. The Lions gave up 4.4 yards per carry during the regular season, tied for 20th-worst in the league, and were beaten up after giving up 164 and 153 yards on the ground the previous two weeks. Offensively, quarterback Matthew Stafford hadn’t been effective after dislocating the tip of his finger in Week 14.
The Falcons will be a great barometer. The Seahawks beat them in October, but that game was in Seattle, and it ended controversially when Sherman committed a blatant pass interference foul against Julio Jones that went uncalled. The Falcons outgained the Seahawks in the two-point loss, holding them to 2.7 yards per carry while passing for a respectable 7.98 yards per attempt against a secondary that had Thomas at its disposal.
While the Seahawks have come down from their November heights, the Falcons have only gotten better. Over the last six games of the season, they went 5-1 and averaged nearly 37 points per game. They’re imperfect defensively, but Vic Beasley has come alive as a pass rusher and helped make the Falcons a disruptive unit, if nothing else. They’re 5-point favorites for good reason.
But here’s a bit of wisdom I’m sure you’ve never heard before: Come the playoffs, nothing you did before matters. And the Seahawks played an outstanding game last Saturday, so if one thing has held true over the years it’s that they know how to play their best in the postseason. All that matters is what a team is now, and that the Falcons will be the perfect barometer. Win in Atlanta, and this team might be as good as any team Seattle has ever had.