Seattle figures to be favored in four of its final five games. Still, winning those four games, to get to 10 wins for the season, will present some challenges.
Everything seems in place now for the Seahawks to make it back to the playoffs after a year’s hiatus.
They have endured the rough part of their schedule — seven of the first 11 on the road, including a trip to London — to emerge with a 6-5 record and in as favorable a position for a playoff spot as any of the NFC teams not currently leading a division.
The Seahawks figure to be favored in four of their final five games (with the only one they won’t be — assuming nothing drastically happens between now and then — the home game against Kansas City on Dec. 23). And merely winning those four games as favorites would give Seattle 10 wins and almost certainly a spot in the playoffs.
And the Seahawks are understandably happy to be home for almost all of December (the only away game is a trip to San Francisco on Dec. 16), having played just two games in Seattle in the last 56 days.
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“We feel like we haven’t seen them all year,’’ quarterback Russell Wilson said this week of the fans at CenturyLink Field. “To play four out of the last five in the month of December is going to be a big deal and exciting for us.’’
But, as Wilson then added, “nothing is promised.’’
It never is in the NFL.
So, we present this not to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm, but rather as a note of caution — the three things that could trip up the Seahawks on their way to the postseason.
1. Run defense
No number stands out as a bigger red flag for Seattle than its run defense. Seattle is 22nd in the NFL overall, allowing 121.4 yards per game. But more tellingly, the Seahawks are allowing 5.3 yards per carry, last in the NFL and on track to be the worst in team history.
A few big runs, of course, can and have skewed the stats. And as made the difference last week, the Seahawks have often toughened up against the run when they’ve really needed to.
Still, consider that just four teams this year have allowed 8 yards per carry or more in a game and won, per Pro Football Reference, and Seattle accounts for two of those (8.74 yards per carry against Dallas and 8.15 against Carolina). Seattle’s not going to want to keep trying to pull that off.
And three of Seattle’s next four games are against teams that this week rank tied for fifth in the NFL in yards per carry at 4.8 (the 49ers, which Seattle plays twice in that span, and the Chiefs).
Seattle coach Pete Carroll said last week’s issues against Carolina spotlighted the absence of veteran weakside linebacker K.J. Wright, as much for his ability to communicate and set the defense as anything else.
The bad news there is there is no guarantee that Wright will be back anytime soon as he continues to battle a balky knee — he won’t play Sunday against the 49ers after being out of town getting treatment this week.
The good news is Mychal Kendricks will come off suspension next week and provide another veteran alternative at weakside linebacker — and maybe Wright will be back then, too.
Still, the run defense is something to particularly watch Sunday against the 49ers, who present a unique challenge with their liberal use of a fullback (Kyle Juszczyk, who has 463 snaps, 63 percent of the team’s offensive plays), which has helped pave the way for Matt Breida to rush for 738 yards and 5.8 per carry.
2. Rushing offense
Seattle’s rushing offense, which leads the NFL at 147.1 yards per game, has been one of the pleasant surprises of the season and viewed as one of the biggest keys for the Seahawks surpassing expectations (or the really pessimistic ones, anyway).
If there’s any worry about that number it’s that Seattle’s three-lowest games in terms of yards gained per carry this season have come against the only three teams it has played that rank among the top 13 defenses in fewest yards allowed per carry.
And Seattle now plays its next three games against teams that rank in the top eight in fewest yards allowed per carry — the 49ers are eighth at 4.0 and Minnesota (which Seattle hosts next Monday) is fourth at 3.7.
The good news is Seattle last week showed it can win a game when it has to pass and the 49ers rank 26th in the NFL in passer rating allowed at 101.5. The 49ers also have just 26 sacks, 22nd in the NFL, and just two interceptions, last in the league. So this might be another good day for the Seahawks to take flight.
3. Blowing one against an underdog divisional foe
Three of Seattle’s final five games are against teams from the NFC West, and in each Seattle figures to be heavily favored — the 49ers Sunday and Dec. 16 in Santa Clara and Arizona in Seattle on Dec. 30.
The Seahawks, though, have had an uncomfortable trend since 2013 of dropping a game it was heavily favored to win against a division team.
In fact, in the past five years, Seattle has lost four times at home to an NFC West team that was at least a one-touchdown underdog, and all in December (2013, Arizona; 2015, Rams; 2016, Arizona; 2017, Arizona).
The 49ers are 10-point underdogs Sunday. Last September, the 49ers were a 13.5-point underdog when Seattle had to scrape and claw for a 12-9 win at CenturyLink Field. The kind of win that was truly far more earned than promised, and the kind Seattle may need a few more of this year to get to the playoffs.