Are the Seattle Seahawks Still a Top-10 Team in the NFL?

Seattle is probably better than the record shows, but they may be in too deep of a hole to make the playoffs.

Bill Parcells once famously said, “You are what your record says you are.”

Parcells is a smart guy, so he probably meant to say you are what your point differential, strength of schedule and other underlying factors say you are.

In a small sample of games, wins and losses cannot always capture a team’s true talent level, and the team that best exemplifies this concept this year is probably the Seattle Seahawks.

The Seahawks are 3-4, but the argument 14 teams in the league are better than the two-time reigning NFC champions is flimsy at best.

Seattle is tied for 10th in average margin of victory (3.7) and ranks seventh in our power ratings. Based on our numbers, we would expect the Seahawks to beat an average opponent by 4.7 points on a neutral field.

Their strength of schedule ranks 16th according to Pro-Football-Reference, but (perhaps) with the exception of the Rams, Seattle has not actually played an average team.

The teams that have beaten Seattle have an average rank of 6.5 in our power ratings, while the teams that the Seahawks have beaten have an average rank of 29.7.

Outside of a narrow home win over the Lions (arguably Seattle’s worst performance of the season), the Seahawks have dominated in their wins and been competitive in their losses.

In the three wins over Chicago (last in our ratings), Detroit (26th), and San Francisco (31st), Seattle has won by an average of 15.3 points. In its losses to St. Louis (12th), Green Bay (6th), Cincinnati (3rd) and Carolina (5th), its average scoring margin is -5, and the Packers game was Seattle’s only loss by more than four points.

The Seahawks have led in the fourth quarter in all four of their losses, so while they have taken care of business against the teams they should beat, they have also been competitive in all of their losses.

There is a lot of evidence indicating that winning close games is not a repeatable skill for NFL teams, and when the margins are slim, one or two big plays can have an outsized impact on the outcomes.

In Seattle’s case, this has been apparent coverage breakdowns late, notably against St. Louis and Carolina. It does not seem like these breakdowns are symptomatic of a poor defense, as the Seahawks are sixth in opponent-adjusted Defensive NEP per play and eighth in opponent-adjusted Defensive NEP per pass play.

Seattle is still in the upper echelon of the league, but while talent won’t hold the Seahawks back, the hole they find themselves in as a result of their record very well could.

Let’s look closer at the numbers behind both statements.

Still Booming on Defense

Whether or not it is getting the attention it has received over the past few years, the Seattle defense is still one of the best in the league.

As mentioned, it ranks sixth in opponent-adjusted Defensive NEP per play, fourth in raw yards per play, and fifth in points per game.

Against the pass, Seattle is tied for sixth in net yards allowed per pass and also boasts the sixth best sack rate (8.1%). On the ground, the Seahawks defense ranks fifth in yards per carry (3.68) and second in opponent-adjusted Defensive NEP per carry. It has allowed a 41.3% Success Rate on the ground (the percentage of carries that yield positive expected points; 40% is roughly average), but has been adept at stopping big gains on the ground (no team has allowed fewer runs of 10 or more yards than Seattle).

The success on defense looks even more impressive considering that Seattle has achieved it without relying on turnovers. In 2013, the Seahawks led the league in turnovers forced per drive before falling to 20th last season and 21st in 2015, according to Football Outsiders.

The Seahawks have gotten the bounces on fumbles this year (ranking seventh in fumble recoveries per drive, while recovering two-thirds of opponents’ fumbles) but have only intercepted three passes.

Only four defenses have a worse interception-per-pass rate than Seattle’s 1.4%, after the Seahawks ranked 14th in interception rate last season (2.6%; the league average since 2014 is 2.5%).

Though there is an incredible amount of randomness in turnover rates, some regression could be in order here, as Ed Feng found there is a linear relationship between completion percentage and interception rate for quarterbacks.

Seattle is near the league average in terms of completion percentage allowed (64.4% versus the NFL average of 63.9%), so it is not a bad bet to assume its interception rate will increase.

In any case, Seattle has shown so far this year it does not need to rely on turnovers, as it has simply stopped opponents from moving the ball on them (a method that is probably more sustainable anyway).

The defense has had to carry some weight for the offense, which ranks 18th in opponent-adjusted NEP per play and 15th in raw yards per play. Seattle ranks 19th in points per game (22.0), but this is a bit misleading, given Seattle has 4 return touchdowns on defense and special teams, in addition to a safety.

The offense and kicking game itself has scored 18.3 points per game, and ranks 28th in points per drive (1.6).

The Seahawks have done well to avoid turnovers (eighth in turnovers per drive) but have struggled in the red zone, and this explains much of their scoring woes.

They are 30th in touchdowns per drive, 29th in points per red zone trip, and 32nd in touchdowns per red zone trip.

Fortunately for them, red zone performance tends to regress to a team’s overall level of performance in the long run.

Seattle does not look like more than an average offense, but if it had produced a league-average points per drive rate, it would have averaged three more points per game through seven weeks.

Given the narrow margins of some of their losses, it’s not unreasonable to think this would have swung an outcome or two.

A Tough Hole To Climb Out Of

While Seattle may have been unfortunate in some of its losses, these defeats are in the books nevertheless and put the Seahawks in a precarious position with regards to the playoffs.

Arizona leads the NFC West, and the 5-2 Cardinals have looked like one of the NFL’s best teams, ranking first in the league by our metrics.

The Rams are also ahead of Seattle with a 3-3 record and a head-to-head win over the Seahawks.

We give the Cardinals a 73.3% chance to win the division, compared to a 17.9% probability for the Rams and an 8.6% chance for the Seahawks.

We project the Cardinals to finish 11-5, the Rams to finish 9-7, and the Seahawks to go 5-4 the rest of the way and finish 8-8.

The Seahawks are a better team than the Rams but are projected to finish behind them due to a disparity in remaining strength of schedule.

The median numberFire ranking of the remaining Rams opponents is 23, and they get to face our 26th, 30th, and 32nd ranked teams (Detroit, Tampa Bay and Chicago, respectively). They also have two games against the 31st-ranked 49ers and one game remaining against the top-ranked Cardinals.

Seattle’s median future opponent, meanwhile, is ranked 14th. They may not have to play a murderer's’ row of opponents, but they still have to face the Cardinals twice and the 9th-ranked Steelers in Week 12.

With a third-straight division crown unlikely, Seattle will presumably need to earn a wild card berth to make the playoffs.

The fifth seed in the conference will almost surely be Atlanta or Carolina, depending on who wins the NFC South (both teams have playoff odds above 96%; 6 wins already in the bag with an easy remaining schedule will do that).

That leaves one spot for Seattle to fight for, and in addition to competition from the Rams, Seattle will also have to fight off the Vikings (1.5 games ahead of Seattle in the current standings) and whichever team does not win the NFC East.

The odds of the Seahawks doing so are not great, as we give them only a 19.9% chance to make the playoffs. Among teams not in first place in their division in the NFC, the Falcons (96.4%), Eagles (45.2%), Vikings (40.0%), Giants (37.7%) and Rams (36.8%) all have better postseason odds.

Their chances are not great, but it is the NFL, and with its schedule of only 16 games, a small number of wins can have a great impact on playoff odds.

A win this week would help, and the Seahawks are six-point favorites on the road against Dallas. The line and the over/under forecasts a 23.5-17.5 Dallas win, and the moneyline implies the people in Vegas give the Cowboys a 69.4% of winning.

Still, the Seahawks face an uphill climb trying to get back to the playoffs, despite being one of the better teams in the NFL.

With apologies to Parcells, there’s a good chance the Seahawks finish better than what their record says they are.