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The Seahawks Keep It Close. Is That Any Way To Win A Super Bowl?

The 11-3 Seattle Seahawks are either one of the luckiest teams in NFL history or one of the most clutch.

When asked about the team’s record in close games, head coach Pete Carroll chalked up Seattle’s apparent good fortune to the latter, citing team leadership and poise under pressure. What he’s implicitly telling us and his team is that he believes the 2019 Seahawks can continue prevailing in close games, which by definition tend to fall equally either way.

Seattle again tempted fate in Week 15 with a margin of victory of merely a touchdown against a Carolina Panthers team led by an interim coach and backup quarterback who is reportedly headed back to the bench after a three-pick performance. That marked the Seahawks’ record-tying ninth game won by 7 points or fewer through the season’s first 14 contests.

Seattle likes the close ones

NFL teams since 1970 with the most wins by 7 points or fewer through 14 team games

Year Team Wins
2019 Seattle Seahawks 9
1986 New York Giants 9
1978 Houston Oilers 9
2016 Detroit Lions 8
2016 New York Giants 8
2016 Oakland Raiders 8
2012 Indianapolis Colts 8
2005 Jacksonville Jaguars 8
2003 Carolina Panthers 8
2001 Chicago Bears 8
1993 Los Angeles Raiders 8
1980 Cleveland Browns 8
1976 St. Louis Cardinals 8

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Of the two other teams since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger who won nine of their first 14 games by 7 points or fewer, one went on to win a Super Bowl: the 1986 New York Giants. The other team, the 1978 Houston Oilers, lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game.

Those teams share some characteristics with the 2019 Seahawks — namely, a reliance on the running game relative to the league average. The Oilers ran the ball about 9 percent more often than the average 1978 team (60.7 percent of the team’s total offensive plays were runs, compared to the league-average 55.6 percent). The Giants ran 12 percent more than the 1986 league average (51.9 percent vs. 46.3 percent). The Seahawks, to the chagrin of those who want more passing from Russell Wilson, are even more extreme, running almost 14 percent more often than the league average (46.9 percent to 41.2 percent).

The narrative around the ground game is that it allows a team to batter its opponent and rest its defense. That may be helping Seattle’s offense late in games, but it doesn’t seem to matter for the defense.

We can measure this by looking at play success rate in tight games. When a game is within 7 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, the Seahawks’ offense is the sixth-best in the league by play success rate. However, in these situations, the defense is below average: It ranks 25th in the league in defensive play success, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

As a result, the Seahawks aren’t exactly blowing out opponents in their less competitive games. Despite their record, the Seahawks are just plus-26 in point differential, tied for 11th in football. (The divisional rival L.A. Rams, who are currently 8-6, also have a point differential of plus-26, while the 7-7 Dallas Cowboys are more than triple that, at plus-90). By comparison, the Super Bowl-winning 1986 Giants were plus-143 in point differential through 14 games despite the same number of “close” wins. And of all the 11-win teams through 14 games since the merger, Seattle’s point differential ranks 86th out of 87.

Although the Seahawks have already clinched a postseason berth, teams with lower point differentials don’t tend to win the Super Bowl. Between 1970 and 2018, 12 teams won 11 games with a point differential of less than 80 at this point in the season. Just one of those won the Super Bowl: the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.1 And at plus-65, Indianapolis that year was more dominant through 14 games than the Seahawks have been to date. The average point differential of all 87 11-win teams, including this year’s, is plus-112.

Yet the best measurable explanation for Seattle’s record is the turnovers, which are notoriously random — they describe wins and losses well but are unreliable predictors of them. The Seahawks’ net turnover margin is plus-13, third-best in the league. Opponents have also missed four more field goals than the Seahawks have. If you add net turnovers and net missed field goals, which former NFL general manager Mike Lombardi maintains should count as turnovers, the Seahawks are at plus-17, still the third-best differential in football behind the Patriots (+19) and Packers (+18).

Seattle’s impressive record may indeed be more fluke than fact. If the turnovers do prove less bountiful going forward, Carroll and co. will have to hope that the club’s veteran leadership and calmness under pressure can still somehow carry it to victory against the conference’s best teams.

Looking Ahead: Week 16

Best matchup:2 No. 2 New Orleans (-2) at No. 9 Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET Sunday

With Eagles-Cowboys, Vikings-Packers and Niners-Rams on tap, who would have guessed that the marquee game of Week 16 would feature the Titans going up against the Saints? Tennessee failed to capitalize on a golden opportunity to seize control of the AFC South over Houston last week, coming up just short in the end. But we still give Ryan Tannehill — who, astonishingly, remains the 13th-ranked QB in the league — and the Titans a 58 percent chance to make the playoffs after Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Oakland all lost in Week 15. A win here would boost those odds to 66 percent, with a 27 percent chance to win the division heading into an epic Week 17 rematch with the Texans. As for New Orleans, it’s currently in good position (60 percent) for a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs, and QB Drew Brees is red-hot: Over the past two weeks, he has produced two of the six best quarterback games of the entire 2019 NFL season, according to our QB Elo metric. As the Saints tune up for the playoffs, we give them a 16 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl — tops in the NFC and second only to Baltimore (38 percent) across the league as a whole.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 16

NFL matchups for Week 16, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
2 Saints at 9 Titans 57.2% 1 5 3 1
15 Eagles vs 13 Cowboys 55.9 8 4 1 2
4 Vikings vs 8 Packers 65.0 2 8 5 3
14 Buccaneers vs 12 Texans 54.0 7 1 7 4
6 49ers vs 10 Rams 66.3 5 9 4 8
18 Steelers at 23 Jets 54.1 10 3 2 15
1 Ravens at 22 Browns 80.2 6 14 6 6
3 Chiefs at 16 Bears 63.0 4 7 9 5
5 Patriots vs 11 Bills 67.8 3 10 9 10
20 Chargers vs 25 Raiders 70.5 13 12 8 9
31 Redskins vs 28 Giants 54.0 15 2 9 13
29 Dolphins vs 30 Bengals 61.7 16 6 9 12
7 Seahawks vs 27 Cardinals 85.0 9 16 9 7
21 Colts vs 24 Panthers 68.0 11 11 9 14
17 Falcons vs 26 Jaguars 74.5 12 13 9 11
19 Broncos vs 32 Lions 83.1 14 15 9 16

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s Importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 13 Dallas at No. 15 Philadelphia (-1.5), 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday

Potential shift in playoff odds: 76.0 total percentage points

This NFC East grudge match between the Cowboys and Eagles isn’t the prettiest on paper — both teams are barely above average, and each has had more than its share of ups and downs over the course of the season. But no game this season has arrived with more playoff probability on the line. For Dallas, it’s a win-and-you’re-in situation, as the Cowboys would clinch the division title with a victory here. Philly’s path is somewhat less straightforward; its division (and hence, playoff) odds would rise to 77 percent with a win over Dallas, but the Eagles would need either another win vs. the Giants or a Dallas loss (or tie) against Washington in Week 17 to realize their playoff aspirations. We think Philadelphia is a slim favorite — 56 percent to win — at home against Dallas in their must-win contest, but to do so they’ll need to shut down Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, who has posted an above-average QB Elo in 12 of his 14 starts so far this season.

Best QB duels: No. 2 Drew Brees (NO) vs. No. 13 Ryan Tannehill (TEN); No. 4 Dak Prescott (DAL) vs. No. 11 Carson Wentz (PHI); No. 6 Kirk Cousins (MIN) vs. No. 8 Aaron Rodgers (GB)

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here.) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 15

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 15 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
TEN 64% TEN 56% HOU 24, TEN 21 +7.3
PIT 54 BUF 54 BUF 17, PIT 10 +5.5
CLE 66 CLE 60 ARI 38, CLE 24 +5.2
SEA 66 SEA 73 SEA 30, CAR 24 +2.4
MIN 57 MIN 63 MIN 39, LAC 10 +2.3
OAK 68 OAK 65 JAX 20, OAK 16 +2.0
NE 82 NE 87 NE 34, CIN 13 -0.3
GB 63 GB 66 GB 21, CHI 13 -0.4
NO 79 NO 81 NO 34, IND 7 -0.9
BAL 90 BAL 91 BAL 42, NYJ 21 -1.3
NYG 52 NYG 52 NYG 36, MIA 20 -2.2
KC 78 KC 78 KC 23, DEN 3 -2.3
PHI 71 PHI 70 PHI 37, WSH 27 -2.8
SF 83 SF 85 ATL 29, SF 22 -4.5
LAR 54 LAR 58 DAL 44, LAR 21 -6.5
TB 73 TB 65 TB 38, DET 17 -6.9

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

The readers had a good showing in Week 15, picking up points for downplaying favorites like the Titans and Browns and for correctly defying the model in Sunday night’s Bills-Steelers tilt. Elo struck back by hedging against the Lions, Rams and Niners, though, and ended up winning the week by an average of 3.4 points. It was Elo’s smallest margin against the field since losing outright in Week 4, but it does mark the algorithm’s 11th consecutive victory over the readers, bringing its record on the season to 13-2.

Congratulations are in order, though, to Jason Andrew Cunningham, who led all readers in Week 15 with 198.3 points, and to Aaron DiGenova, who reclaimed the full-season contest lead with 1,016.3 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 15.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Four of the 14 11-win teams from 1970 through 2018 with point differentials of at least plus-150 went on to win the Super Bowl, and another three teams advanced to the Super Bowl but lost.

  2. Based on matchup quality, in terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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