The overachieving 11-4 Seattle Seahawks are in desperate need of a reality check. Their week 17 matchup with the 12-3 San Francisco 49ers is the perfect opportunity for the Niners to pull their NFC West rivals back down to earth.
Updated on Jan. 1, 2020.
“A win is a win” is the mantra of the 2019 Seattle Seahawks, who have somehow managed to tally 11 victories over their first 15 games of the NFL regular season, and host the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC West title in Week 17.
Although this slogan rings true when it comes to playoff seeding, the Seahawks — amidst perhaps the luckiest NFL season in recent memory — will soon crash back down to earth. Seattle’s playoff exit will be earlier than planned for “the 12s,” and will not include the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy. But which team will have the privilege of delivering the news? The 49ers hope to provide their NFC West rivals with a much-needed reality check during the teams’ winner-take-all matchup tonight on Sunday Night Football.
The 49ers’ record in Seattle has been far from stellar in recent seasons, with the away team losing each of the last eight contests to their NFC West rival. However, the Seahawks’ home-field advantage at CenturyLink Field isn’t what it was during the team’s dominant seasons earlier this decade; Three of the Seahawks’ four losses in 2019 have come at home, just two years after they also posted a better record on the road than in Seattle.
San Francisco also fell to the Seahawks in front of a Levi’s Stadium crowd earlier this season; However, it took an overtime field goal and key injuries to the 49ers’ top two receiving threats — tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders — and kicker Robbie Gould for the Seahawks to barely pull off the upset victory over the undefeated Niners in Week 10.
Still, there’s good reason for the San Francisco 49ers to be 3.5-point favorites over Seattle in Week 17, because although they amassed 11 victories over the course of the 2019 NFL regular season, the Seahawks are not an 11-win team.
Each victorious game indeed ended with Seattle in the lead, but only barely, and winning NFL football games by narrow margins is not a sustainable feat. The 2019 Seahawks have yet to realize this, but they certainly will before the Lombardi Trophy is hoisted at the conclusion of Super Bowl LIV — and perhaps as soon as tonight’s key showdown with the 49ers.
NFL football is a game of exceptional athleticism, endless hours of preparation and a whole lot of luck — particularly in close games. The 2019 Seahawks are 11-4 for one primary reason, and it’s not the magic bubble water peddled by quarterback Russell Wilson or some mysterious strength received when teams fail to win convincingly, per head coach Pete Carroll.
Sorry, Seattle. You’ve just been really lucky in 2019, and that luck will soon end.
Not surprisingly, Seahawks fans have praised their unprecedented string of last-second victories as historic, and credited their head coach and “clutch” playmakers for the team’s good fortunes this season. Carroll recently claimed, “I love close games,” which is surprising since the head coach entered his tenth season in Seattle with a losing record in close games, and an even worse record in close playoff games.
The Seahawks’ HC credited two veterans in particular for the team’s close wins, stating, “I think it comes right from Russell [Wilson] and Bobby [Wagner]. I think those guys on the field make other guys stay within themselves and not get scattered and continue to help us execute.”
Carroll has never been one to allow facts to get in the way of his cheerleading efforts. The Seahawks posted winning seasons each year since they drafted Wilson and Wagner in 2012, yet somehow fell short of winning the majority of the their close games during the following seven-year stretch.
So what’s different in 2019? Could it be the Bubble Water? One thing’s for certain: Wilson’s ongoing efforts to transform himself into a leader remain a painful work in progress:
Russell Wilson gave us the most cringe-worthy mic’d up in NFL history on Monday night pic.twitter.com/EGihjIloMD
— Kevin Boilard (@247KevinBoilard) December 3, 2019
The difference in 2019 isn’t Carroll, nor Wilson or Wagner. Although Seattle’s playmakers have shown success in crunchtime this season, the Seahawks have primarily relied on an unsustainable amount of luck to propel them from an average team to the one competing for the NFC West title tonight against the 49ers. And they weren’t getting lucky only in the final minutes of their wins; Seattle had luck on their side in numerous ways throughout their first 15 games of the season.
One of countless examples is turnover differential, which I discussed at length last year as the 49ers were on pace for the worst turnover differential in NFL history. To summarize, teams that win the turnover battle win the game approximately 75 percent of the time, and over the course of a season, turnovers account for approximately half of team’s final win total — and over half of seasonal turnover differential can be attributed to luck. Not surprisingly, 10 of the NFL’s top 11 teams in turnover margin will be playing playoff football in January. Teams do have some control over the other half of the turnover battle, but it’s disingenuous, ignorant or both to totally disregard blind luck and instead credit the coaching staff an “emphasis in turnovers” for the creation of a positive turnover margin.
Turnover differential is an excellent indicator of team wins, but perhaps the best indicator is Pythagorean Win Expection, which is based on a similar theorem created for baseball by sabermetrics guru and the inspiration for the 2011 film Moneyball, Bill James. The calculation has been tweaked by many over time, including STATS, Inc., Football Perspective, Football Outsiders and others, but the underlying theory remains the same: By plugging an NFL team’s point differential into a simple formula, you can determine with relative accuracy the number of wins a team should accumulate over the course of the season.
Point differential and Pythagorean Wins are often better indicators of future success than a team’s actual win total. By calculating expected wins, we can determine which teams were lucky or unlucky, and are likely to regress to the mean during the following season. All of this is possible because NFL teams win approximately half of their one-score games and any continued success in close games isn’t sustainable — just don’t tell Pete Carroll.
So when I say “the Seahawks are not an 11-win team,” I’m really saying the Seahawks should not be an 11-win team, and they will not continue their success in close games in the future.
Over the first 15 weeks of the 2019 NFL regular season, the 11-win Seahawks scored a mere 12 points more than they allowed — fewer than every other NFC team with a winning record and two NFC teams with losing records. By comparison, the 49ers’ point differential is an NFC-leading +164:
NFC 2019 Week 17 expected win totals based on Pythagorean Win Expectation/Point Differential:
With a total of 7.8 Pythagorean Wins, the Seattle Seahawks won over 3 more games than expected over the first 15 games of 2019. But despite boasting an expected win total slightly under the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle has locked up a playoff spot, and is aiming to defeat the 12-win 49ers and clinch the NFC title tonight:
The reason why the Seahawks’ Pythagorean Win total is so low is because most of their games are either close victories or double-digit blowout losses. This has resulted in an average scoring margin one would expect from an average NFL football team:
Are the Seahawks merely an average football team? Although luck played a significant role in nearly each of their 11 victories, Seattle still remains an above-average team in the NFC, and is certainly a worthy adversary for the San Francisco 49ers in Week 17. But the Seattle Seahawks aren’t a Super Bowl-caliber team, and are in desperate need of a reality check.
That reality check will surely come — and there would be no better time than tonight against the San Francisco 49ers:
This article was originally written on Dec. 29, 2019, and updated on Jan. 1, 2020 with the following information:
In Week 17, the Seattle Seahawks lost to the San Francisco 49ers 27 to 21. Seattle finished the 2019 NFL regular season with a record of 11-5, a point differential of seven points, and a Pythagorean Win total of 8.2. The No. 5 seed Seahawks will travel east to face the No. 4 seed Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020 at 1:40 PT. The 9-7 Eagles finished the season with a point differential of 31 points and a Pythagorean Win total of 8.8.
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