SEATTLE – Predicting anything in the “Any Given Sunday” NFL with any degree of certainty is about as risky as trying to tackle Chris Carson with just one arm.
But one prediction made this week by Seahawks coach Pete Carroll – to expect his team to continue to have to win close games to reach any of its goals this season, and maybe even another overtime contest or two – seems a safe bet.
“Hate to say it, but there’s probably another one in the works down the road here somewhere,” Carroll said after Sunday’s 40-34 overtime thriller against Tampa Bay.
He then – in another easy prediction – spun it to the positive.
“If that’s the case, we will have been through it and grown from it,” Carroll said.
Few NFL teams have become as accustomed to playing in, and winning, close games over the last year than the Seahawks.
In most NFL seasons, about half of games are decided by a touchdown or less – 48.8% last season.
But seven of Seattle’s nine games this year have been decided by a touchdown or less, with the Seahawks standing at 6-1 in those games (in the one loss, 33-27 to New Orleans, Seattle scored on the final play after having trailed by 13 points or more the entire second half).
Seattle is 3-0 in games decided by three points or less (Sunday’s game would’ve been had Jason Myers made that last-play field goal), continuing a trend from last season when the Seahawks had four wins by three points or less, tied for the most in the NFL, and were 4-0 in games decided by four points or less.
Seattle is 17-6 overall since the third week of the 2018 season and has won seven of 10 games decided by three points or fewer in that time and six of the last eight – in a typical season, about a quarter of a team’s games are decided by three points or less (last year, it was 28.5%). That, though, does not include the playoff loss to Dallas, a 24-22 game in which the Seahawks scored their last touchdown with 1 minute, 18 seconds left.
One more number illustrating how close to the edge the Seahawks have walked this season: Seattle has a point differential of just plus-18, 12th in the NFL, despite having the fourth-best record in the league.
As football analyst Scott Kacsmar detailed this week, only nine teams since 1976 have started 7-2 or better with a point differential of plus-20 or less, and none since the 2004 Atlanta Falcons.
Winning a lot of close games isn’t generally regarded as sustainable for the long haul. Most dominant NFL teams usually win a lot of blowouts along the way – consider that the 2013 Seahawks, the last Seattle team to start 7-2 or better (starting 11-1) went 5-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less but 8-0 in games decided by eight points or more (this year’s Seahawks are 1-1 in games decided by a touchdown or more).
The history of the previous eight teams to have a point differential of 20 or less and start out 7-2 or better shows winning a lot of close ones early can be a springboard to a big season.
Of those eight teams, six advanced to the conference championship game and three to the Super Bowl, including the 1976 Raiders, who won it all (the Raiders lost only once that year but it was by 31 points in their fourth game, putting a severe crimp in their early point differential).
What’s been the key for the Seahawks winning a lot of close games?
Russell Wilson playing at an MVP level is probably the biggest.
It’s not just the plays he makes – he’s on pace to shatter team records for passing yards and touchdowns – but the mistakes he doesn’t make that prove critical in close games.
Consider that Seattle again has one of the best turnover margins in the NFL at plus-seven (tied for third) and that the Seahawks are at a whopping plus-22 in their last 23 games, during which time they have gone 13-2 when winning the turnover battle and 5-0 this year.
Wilson throwing just five interceptions in that time, and only one this season, is the biggest reason for Seattle’s huge turnover advantage (Seattle’s eight lost fumbles is actually third most in the NFL).
Carroll this week also cited the team’s mental makeup and never-give-up attitude, of which Wilson is also a key part along with veteran defenders Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright.
“I’ve talked the whole year about the attitude of this team,” Carroll said. “It’s a really, really strong mentality that they have about the hanging together, talking right, supporting each other, looking after one another and playing for one another. It’s really important. It’s an important message that goes throughout this locker room and in these halls here. We’re going to try to keep building on it and keep finding ways to find a way to win”
Some good fortune helps, such as Greg Zuerlein’s missed field goal on the final play, or getting the coin flip to start overtime against Tampa Bay (though obviously, had Myers just made his kick, overtime never needs to happen).
What also can’t be ignored is that the schedule gets tougher from here – Seattle has played just three teams that have winning records but now finishes with six of seven against teams that are over .500, four on the road, beginning Monday night at 8-0 San Francisco.
The task going forward for the Seahawks may be just to keep the games close to begin with, and then hoping their history can keep repeating itself.
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