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Subtraction by Division

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By Thomas Boswell
Friday, January 4, 2008

The Seattle Seahawks are a worthy playoff team with a famous coach, a clutch quarterback, a crazy crowd, the NFL's No. 2 sack man, an 1,100-yard pass receiver and a knack for winning the turnover battle. They're favored to beat the Washington Redskins by 3 1/2 points tomorrow at Qwest Field, and they may well do it, in a close game between two good but far from great teams.

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There, that's the end of the compliments for the outfit from the "other" Washington. After everything the Redskins have surmounted this season, the least we can do is drink some Kool-Aid with 'em. In the spirit of the season, why not spike it, too?

The Seahawks are a pleasant 10-6 team from a weak division, but the Redskins should win this first-round battle for the simplest of all reasons. They're just a better team -- not by a ton, but by more than enough. The Redskins, adjusted for their brutal schedule, probably have the second-best defense in the NFC. The Seahawks, factoring in their lame schedule, have almost the worst defense in the entire NFL. That gap is too wide to hide and will ultimately tell the tale.

All season long, the Seahawks have played patsies while the Redskins played the Pats. And the Redskins haven't just had to confront the 16-0 Patriots. Washington also had to travel to Green Bay (13-3), play the Cowboys (13-3) twice, the Giants (10-6) twice and the division champion Bucs on the road, too. In all, Washington coped with seven games against teams that are in the playoffs and four others against 8-8 teams.

While the Redskins played almost everybody, Seattle faced almost nobody. The Seahawks played only two games against teams that are still alive in January. Instead, they played nine games against teams with a losing record. In fact, Seattle only faced two teams that won even 10 games -- the Steelers, who whipped them, 21-0, and the Browns, who won, 33-30, in overtime. Seattle's record is mostly a mirage, built on four cream-puff wins against paltry NFC West rivals San Francisco and St. Louis -- chumps whom they thumped by 104-28 -- as well as fattening their team statistics with assorted other trifles from the NFL dessert cart.

So, remember "strength of schedule" when you're watching Washington vs. Washington. You'll seldom see a greater contrast. The Seahawks' road to January was a marshmallow roast. The battle-tested Redskins arrive on the West Coast battered but still inspired by the memory of Sean Taylor. The biggest question may be whether the Redskins have any gas left after the schedule they have played, the toughest in the NFC, on top of all the injuries they've had.

The Seahawks are fresh and claim they have the NFL's loudest crowd. But they haven't beaten a team with a record better than .500 since opening day. That's right, since Game 1. They haven't played a team of the Redskins' caliber in more than two months. They've had it so soft that they even finished the season against two crumbling franchises -- the Ravens, who just fired Brian Billick and the Falcons, reeling from the loss of quarterback Michael Vick to a prison sentence. "I don't worry about [not] being tested too much during the year," Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren said. "But we lost last week to Atlanta, so that doesn't turn you on too much."

Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has a clear sense of the challenge his Seahawks face. "I don't think there is a hotter team right now than the Redskins. They are on fire. They are the team that nobody wants to play. If they are favored, I wouldn't be surprised. They deserve it," said Hasselbeck, probably playing possum. "They have made a shift in their defensive philosophy. They just say, 'Hey, we are not necessarily going to try to trick you. We are just better than you. We are more physical than you. We are going to play smarter and harder.' "

That change of style was partly a reaction to Taylor's death. "We want to represent one of our brothers and play the way Sean did -- flying to the ball, playing pure football, just getting after people," linebacker Marcus Washington said this week.

Using that approach, often playing only three defensive backs, thus adding a larger and more destructive linebacker or defensive lineman, the Redskins have jumped to huge leads in their last three games. They led the Giants 22-3 in the third quarter, led the Vikings 25-0 just after halftime and knocked out unmotivated Dallas, 27-6.

Defense probably will be the key to this game, too. But it's hard to grasp the Redskins' superiority from the conventional stats. The Redskins are ranked eighth in the NFL in total defense while Seattle is 15th. Seattle actually has given up slightly fewer points, 291 to 310, largely because it has a turnover differential of plus-10 compared with the Redskins' disappointing minus-five.

To get a more accurate reading on these teams, we need to normalize their schedules. Luckily, there is a simple way to do it. Subtract the results of the Seahawks' four games against the Rams (3-13) and 49ers (5-11) -- the kind of lowly teams the Redskins never get to face in the tough NFC East. Then erase the statistics from the Redskins' 52-7 disaster in New England.

Even after this mammoth adjustment, Washington still played the tougher schedule, while Seattle's remaining opponents were still net losers for the season.

But what a difference we suddenly see in the team's statistics -- especially on defense. The only team all season that beat the Redskins by more than eight points was the Patriots, and they did it by shredding Washington's defense for 486 yards. Just erase that one game and the Redskins would have the No. 2 defense in the NFC, allowing only 293.2 yards per game.

Conversely, Seattle only played strong defense against lousy teams. After you take out victories over the 49ers and Rams, the Seahawks had the second-worst total defense in the NFC and the third worst in the entire NFL, allowing 358.9 yards a game.

Second-best defense in the conference vs. third worst in the NFL: that's the "normalized" reality of these teams.

"Defensively, we have a whole flock of new guys playing," Holmgren said this week. "We have been very good at times and then sometimes probably a little disappointing. We have pretty good team speed on defense but a lot of new faces."

What about the Redskins' defense?

"They can do it all," Holmgren said.

The Seahawks are sensitive to criticism that they have proved little this season because they haven't beaten any of the 10 other teams in the NFL with 10 or more wins. "You can only beat the teams you get to play. Back in '05 everyone said the exact same thing, but we beat every team in the NFC," said Hasselbeck, who led Seattle to the Super Bowl. "We didn't play our best football at times and our schedule was not the toughest. But all of that is kind of out of the window now."

Actually, it probably isn't. The Redskins keep reciting the adage that what doesn't destroy you makes you stronger. In most seasons, for most teams, that's probably just a cliche. For these Redskins, it's more likely to be the truth.

"Since Sean's death, we've gotten closer, more focused. We realize how precious this game is that we play," said middle linebacker London Fletcher. "We have a greater appreciation of what we have here."

Somebody will end this remarkable Redskins run. But it's not going to be the Seahawks.


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