It’s a big week for the Seattle Seahawks. If they take care of business against the Buffalo Bills in a road-neutral game at Toronto, while the San Francisco 49ers lose to the New England Patriots on Sunday night in Foxboro, it would mean that the Seahawks control their own destiny to win the NFC West. This is a team that’s coming on strong and with a road win over Chicago, followed by a 58-0 smackdown of Arizona, is it time to start taking Seattle seriously as a true Super Bowl threat, rather than just a pleasant playoff team?
Seattle’s offense is very efficient. They run the ball frequently, second-most in the NFL and they do it well, still ranking 8th in yards-per-attempt. The reason is Marshawn Lynch, with his 1,266 yards. Seattle plays it close to the vest in the passing game, attempting the fewest passes in the league, but rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has made his throws count, hitting 63% and ranking a solid seventh in yards-per-attempt. This team takes good care of the ball and when you put that all together it makes them an efficient, if unspectacular offense, that can still come from behind if they need to.
The defense has a good reputation in the Pacific Northwest and that’s mostly justified. They get after the quarterback, with defensive end Chris Clemons leading a pass rush that’s tied for 10th in the NFL in sacks, and the coverage as a whole ranks high both in terms of forcing incompletions and making sure the balls that are caught go for minimal yardage. Consequently, teams don’t bother much with trying to throw the ball on this team. They’re missing Brandon Browner at corner right now, but he’ll be back for the playoff, and combined with Richard Sherman, they give the Seahawks the best corner duo in the game.
All of this makes Seattle a bona fide contender and we can add to the fact their kickoff return game is excellent. But not all is rosy. As physical as the defense is, they don’t defend the run particularly well, ranking only 21st. It’s something of a mystery why teams don’t run the ball more on Seattle and if a team like the 49ers or Giants decide to try and muscle up, it’s going to be a big challenge for Pete Carroll’s defense.
And when we look at the offense, is the fact they’re tied for seventh in sacks allowed a good thing or a bad thing? The ranking is good, but considering they throw less often than anyone else and have an extremely mobile quarterback, does it really speak well of the pass protection that they don’t rank higher? This adds to the question mark of whether Wilson could maintain his efficiency if he found himself in a quick 17-7 hole in a playoff game.
Finally, while the kick return game is outstanding, the rest of the special teams is lacking, with subpar rankings in coverage of both kickoffs and punts, and in punt returns. When you play the style Seattle wants to play—run the ball, play with a lead, pressure the quarterback—every little edge is huge, and the potential of giving up some field position on special teams is a good way to lose a heartbreaker in January.
The biggest issue—both pro and con—with Seattle is their home/road dichotomy. This is an oft-commented feature about the Seahawks, so I won’t spill a lot of ink on stuff you likely already know. But the dominance of Seattle at home—where they’re 6-0—vis-à-vis their play on the road, where they’re 2-5 is absolutely real. The home resume includes wins over New England, Dallas and a pseudo-win over Green Bay (the fiasco that ended the officials’ lockout in Week 3). The road resume includes losses at St. Louis, Miami and Detroit, and for that reason even a game like Sunday against Buffalo can’t be counted on. Conversely, if the Seahawks play the 49ers for first place on Sunday night in Week 16, do you really want to bet against Seattle at home?
Seattle is coming on strong—two of their losses, along with the should-have-been loss to Green Bay came in September, and it was just two weeks ago they answered a lot of critics with the big road win at Chicago. So to bring it back to our original question of whether the Seahawks are Super Bowl-caliber, I’m going to come down in the mealy-mouthed middle. On the negative, there is no way they’ll go on the road and win three in a row, or even two in a row. Its imperative they win the NFC West and get the #2 seed, ensuring they’d only need one road win, presumably the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta.
Matchups are going to be important as well. Seattle will fare better against a pass-heavy team like Atlanta or Green Bay, rather than a team willing to test them on the ground. This is another reason why I think they could win on the road in Atlanta. If Seattle grabs the #2 seed and gets the right matchup, they can get to the Super Bowl. But they aren’t a team that’s so good that just getting into the bracket is all that matters.