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Week 17 is perfect time for 49ers to bring Seahawks back to reality

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49ers Seahawks Week 17
© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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:

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:

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:

49ers Seahawks Week 17 - NFC Pythagorian Expected Wins

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:

49ers Seahawks Week 17 - NFC Scoring Margin

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.

Chris Wilson is the Lead Writer for Locked on 49ers - part of the Locked On Podcast Network. You may have seen Chris Wilson’s work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis and film breakdowns at FanSided, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, ClutchPoints, Insidethe49 and others. Follow Chris Wilson on Twitter @cgawilson.

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San Francisco 49ers

Colton McKivitz Scouting Report, Trent Williams and OL Depth Chart

Brian Peacock

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© Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
  • Is Trent Williams an upgrade at left tackle over the retired Joe Staley?
  • Scouting report on fifth round tackle Colton McKivitz
  • Tom Compton vs Daniel Brunskill at right guard
  • Battle for the final roster spot on the offensive line

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San Francisco 49ers

PODCAST: The Brandon Aiyuk Episode

Brian Peacock

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© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
  • Pick 25 in the 2020 draft, WR Brandon Aiyuk out of Arizona State
  • Scouting report, strengths, weaknesses
  • How Aiyuk went from community college corner to first round reciever
  • Challenges for Aiyuk to reach his immense ceiling with the 49ers

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San Francisco 49ers

49ers Surprise During Action-Packed 2020 NFL Draft, but at what Cost?

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49ers 2020 Draft, Javon Kinlaw
© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers filled three immediate needs during the 2020 NFL Draft, but were first-round draft picks DT Javon Kinlaw and WR Brandon Aiyuk — and new starting LT Trent Williams — worth the cost?

This is the first in a three-part series analyzing the San Francisco 49ers’ 2020 “draft masterclass.” The Niners’ draft has been ranked by analysts as one of the NFL’s best, although it takes years before a draft class can be properly assessed. So instead of merely grading these college talents before their first NFL snaps, we’ll take a look at the 49ers’ picks — and more importantly — the 49ers’ process.

San Francisco’s general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were full of surprises during the 2020 NFL Draft, beginning in the first round. Every 2020 mock draft was immediately ripped to shreds as the vast majority of fans and analysts expected the Niners to trade away one of their prized first-round picks for additional draft capital. Instead, the 49ers traded both of their Day 1 picks but ended the evening with just two players, and no selections for the second day of the draft.

Lynch and Shanahan started their “draft tradefest” in a dream scenario: on the clock with the consensus top-2 wide receivers in the draft — Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb — on the board, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the phone. The Bucs wanted to move up a single spot to the No. 13 selection — the pick the receiver-needy 49ers obtained via their trade of star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner — which would leave at least one of the two top receiver prospects on the board for San Francisco.

The two teams executed the trade, which scored the Niners a fouth-rounder in exchange for one of the 49ers’ seventh-round picks. Minutes later, San Francisco was back on the clock, and both receivers were still on the board. But instead of taking advantage of the situation they lucked themselves into, the Lynch and Shanahan did what they seem to do every year — follow their collective gut or the opinion of a trusted contact outside the organization — and drafted Buckner’s hopeful replacement, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw:

 

49ers Draft Pick No. 14: DT Javon Kinlaw

On Tuesday, Lynch spoke about the decision on FOX Sports’ The Herd with Collin Cowherd:

“We were incredibly comfortable with Will Muschamp because he gave us such an accurate depiction of Deebo Samuel last year. I didn’t know Will. I met him once. But we called on Deebo and he hit all his strengths, but he also hit his, not really weaknesses, but just realities of who the person is. And he depicted Deebo so well, a year later I said, ‘Kyle, we’ve got to pick up the phone and call Will about Kinlaw because he was so darn honest.” -John Lynch

Despite Muschamp’s biased opinion of his former player, there’s a lot to like about the raw Kinlaw:

Standing at 6-foot-5 and 324 pounds, he is shorter and stouter than his predecessor. And surprisingly, given his massive size, the DT has proven to be a better defender against the pass than the run. In 2019, Kinlaw received a 90.7 pass-rushing grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF), despite logging just six sacks during the season, and 10 only sacks over his three-year college career:

49ers DT Javon Kinlaw – College Defensive Statistics
Tackles Def Int Fumbles
Year School Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int Yds Avg TD PD FR Yds TD FF
*2017 South Carolina SEC SO DL 7 12 5 17 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 1 2 1
*2018 South Carolina SEC JR DL 10 15 15 30 9.0 4.0 0 0 0 5 0 2
2019 South Carolina SEC SR DL 12 15 20 35 6.0 6.0 0 0 0 2 2 0
Career South Carolina 42 40 82 17.0 10.0 0 0 0 8 4 3

 

Since there are no easy games in the NFL, the 49ers hope they drafted the overpowering and productive version of Kinlaw and not the version who disappeared when South Carolina faced weaker opponents.

My initial assessment of the Kinlaw selection is I like the player, but I’m not a fan of the 49ers spending the draft pick they acquired in exchange for Buckner on a less-talented but cheaper version of the stud defensive lineman. San Francisco should have entered this year’s draft with one primary goal: improving their 2020 roster enough to win one more game than they did in 2019 — and “trading” Buckner for Kinlaw makes the Niners worse, albeit richer, in the short term.

Perhaps this pick would have been a bit sweeter if Lynch didn’t promptly waste the fourth-round selection he just obtained from Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, the 49ers’ fourth-year GM — in the role normally played by his partner-in-crime Shanahan — fell in love with a prospect and wasted valuable draft capital to unnecessarily trade up for the one player he desperately needed to draft.

We’ll break down the San Francisco 49ers’ second first-round selection — and how the Niners got there — next.

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