Are Hawks finally good enough to get back to NFC title game?

The Seahawks have not reached the NFC title game since 2014, when the Legion of Boom was in its prime and Pete Carroll’s team seem poised to create the NFL’s first dynasty since the 2000s Patriots.

After Carroll’s coaching gaffe gave the Patriots the win in Super Bowl XLIX and set New England off on another dynastic run, the Hawks slid back to the playoff pack. They lost in the divisional round the next two years, missed the playoffs in 2017, lost in the wild-card round in 2018 and again were dismissed in the divisional playoffs last season. That’s a 3-4 record in the playoffs since the XLIX loss.

As the Hawks prepare to host the Rams on Saturday, the big question: Are they any better than they have been the past five years? Can they finally get back to the NFC title game, at least?

To recap their failures:

In 2015, the Seahawks were surging in December, looking very capable of winning the Super Bowl (they were the top team by Football Outsiders’ DVOA). They escaped frozen Minneapolis with a wild-card win but melted down in Carolina, which blew them out in the first half and held on to advance to the NFC title game and Super Bowl. Seattle’s offensive line had trouble against good fronts all season — and that was largely what cost them in Charlotte.

In 2016, injuries (Earl Thomas was out) and attitude problems (Kam Chancellor’s holdout, Richard Sherman’s rants, etc.) messed up the defense, Russell Wilson played through major injuries all season and the offensive line was even worse than it had been in 2015. The result: The Hawks were blown out by Atlanta in the divisional round.

In 2017, the LOB was blown up by injuries (Chancellor, Sherman, Cliff Avril), the running game was MIA and Wilson imploded in December – leading to the only playoff miss of Wilson’s career and the (somewhat surprising) firing of the top two offensive coaches.

In 2018, the ultra-conservative, slow-starting offense was a problem all season even as the Seahawks led the league in rushing. And a horrendous offensive plan by Brian Schottenheimer (running the ball into a wall) cost what should have been a playoff win in Dallas (Wilson was lighting up the Cowboys’ secondary).

Last season, Seattle was without two starting O-linemen and the top three running backs in a divisional-round loss in Green Bay, and Schottenheimer did not have a good enough plan to account for those missing players as the Hawks started slowly yet again in a road playoff game and the weak defense failed at the end.

The Hawks are now in the playoffs for the eighth time in Wilson’s nine seasons, but are they good enough to get back to the NFC title game for the first time since his third season?

The defense has turned it around after a horrendous first half. It has held the Rams to 32 points this season – the fewest it has allowed Sean McVay’s offense since he became Rams coach in 2017.  

The Seattle offense lit up bad defenses early in the season and, as in previous years, struggled against good ones in the second half of the season. Wilson and Co. always have a tough time against Aaron Donald and the Rams, so expect more of the same — unless Schottenheimer uses a lot of play action, misdirection and QB rollouts while staying balanced with the run.

If the Hawks can beat the Rams for the second time in three weeks, Seattle likely would go to New Orleans for the divisional round. Carroll’s club is 0-5 in road divisional games, and the Saints have the No. 2 defense (by DVOA) in the NFL, so the odds would be stacked pretty heavily against Seattle in that possible meeting. If Chicago somehow knocked off the Saints, the Hawks would get another home game, against Tampa Bay or Washington.

By DVOA, this is Seattle’s best team since 2015, when the Hawks were considered No. 1 but lost to No. 4 Carolina in the divisional round.

Since 2015, by DVOA matchup, Seattle is 2-0 against lower-ranked teams, 0-2 against higher-ranked teams and 1-2 in “equal” matchups (within three ranking spots).

This year, all of the prospective matchups are pretty equal. Seattle ranks fifth in DVOA, the Rams ninth. The Saints, Bucs and Packers are 1-2-3. It’s going to be a tough road no matter the opponent.

How tough? FiveThirtyEight gives the Hawks just a 23 percent chance to reach the NFC title game, 9 percent to win it and 3 percent to win the Super Bowl.

It really will come down to whether Schotty, Wilson and the offense are aggressive and creative enough against the tough defenses of the Rams (No. 4 DVOA) and, likely, Saints. If they are, that would set up a probable return trip to Green Bay (or, if they are lucky, a home game against Tampa Bay).

But, if the offense cannot do its part, this team won’t do any better than the past five Seahawks iterations.

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