Moore: Underdogs are fun to root for, but this year’s NFL playoffs show why wild card isn’t good enough
Did you watch the NFC playoff game Saturday night and think the Seahawks would have been a better matchup for the Rams? If you did, I would put that in the category of wishful thinking.
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The week before, the Seahawks season ended with a 24-22 loss to the Cowboys, who turned around and lost 30-22 to the Rams. Since the Seahawks lost to the Rams 33-31 and 36-31 in the regular season, maybe they would have come through in the third meeting. But the Rams rushed for 273 yards against the Cowboys, the same team that completely shut down the Seahawks’ running game in the playoff game.
Good luck trying to figure it out. We watched C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley run roughshod over the Cowboys a week after Chris Carson went nowhere in Dallas. I suspect that Anderson and Gurley would have had similar success against a Seahawks’ run defense that was inferior to Dallas’ this year.
But the biggest takeaway from the weekend highlighted the importance of getting one of the top two playoff seeds. I lost sight of that when assessing the Seahawks’ chances of making a run to the Super Bowl as a wild-card team. I was focusing on the 10 teams that have made it to the Super Bowl as wild cards, including the last four who won it all. The Packers were the most recent example in 2010.
That was nine years ago. In this decade, more often than not, teams that have been the No. 1 or 2 seed have faced each other in the Super Bowl. It will happen again this year no matter how it plays out in the conference championship games this weekend. All that’s left are 1 and 2 seeds.
In hindsight, it makes sense. I’m not sure why I got lost in the postseason clutter when it’s pretty apparent that the teams that get two weeks off before hosting their first playoff game have a significantly better chance of going all the way. The teams they face in the divisional round are on the road and had to fight their way the week before to get there. Those opposing teams are dealing with travel and a hostile crowd while trying to beat a superior team.
In the case of the Chargers, who were obliterated by the Patriots, it was their third straight road game and second cross-country trip in as many weeks. As the Patriots were building a 35-7 halftime lead, the Chargers were so overmatched they appeared to quit.
As you know, the Seahawks have been to the Super Bowl only three times, and all of their appearances have one thing in common: they were there as a No. 1 seed, needing to win only two home games to make it. So all of this talk this season about the Seahawks having just as good a chance as any other team of advancing to the Super Bowl given the perceived parity among NFC playoff teams? I don’t feel that way anymore.
Yes, the sixth-seeded Eagles were in position to play in the NFC championship game with just over 2 minutes to go in New Orleans, trailing 20-14. Their hopes ended when Alshon Jeffery had a pass sail through his hands, resulting in a game-clinching interception for the Saints. But I suspect that even if Jeffery caught that ball and the Eagles went on to score the go-ahead touchdown, Drew Brees would have found a way to get the Saints into position for a field goal and a 23-21 win.
So as much as this season gave us a terrific glimpse at the possibilities ahead for the Seahawks, they need to figure out how to close the two-game gap on the Rams next year. Every time you don’t win the division, the best you can do as a wild card is the No. 5 seed, as the Seahawks illustrated this year. So did the Chargers, who went 12-4 but the Chiefs won the AFC West and the No. 1 seed at 13-3.
Though much older than the Seahawks, the Rams still look like they’ll be a 12-4 team next year with Jared Goff in the last year of his rookie contract, which has beneficial salary-cap ramifications. Meanwhile the Seahawks will be looking at giving mega-deal extensions to Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and Frank Clark, the latter of whom might be franchised.
Without getting knee deep in the financial weeds, for me the biggest thing that would help close the gap is improvement in the run defense. Maybe they already have that winning ticket in-house with Poona Ford, an undrafted rookie who really came on toward the end of the year. Or maybe help will come in the draft from a defensive tackle who can help reduce the current opponent yards per carry of nearly 5 yards, one of the worst marks in the league. That won’t cut it against Anderson and Gurley, who play for the team you’re trying to catch.
Sure, getting another pass-rusher would help too, but I didn’t think that was as big of a problem as the run defense this year. I’d also like to see the Seahawks upgrade at wide receiver, particularly as insurance for Doug Baldwin as he enters his 30’s off of an injury-plagued season. Tyler Lockett had a terrific season, but the No. 3 and 4 guys, David Moore and Jaron Brown, didn’t do it for me. I know they caught a lot of touchdown passes per target, but still, I’d expect more from your third and fourth receivers in a league that is so pass-crazy now, even if the Seahawks are a run-first team.
We’ll see how it all shakes out with the Super Bowl finalists, but as much as the underdog stories are fun to root for, this is another year that shows why wild-card good isn’t good enough.