Despite the Seahawks’ 0-2 start, NFL futures haven’t indicated that the public is switching its stance on the two-time defending NFC champs. Based on lines at 5Dimes, the Hawks remain an overwhelming -320 favorite to win the division, the second-best division NFL odds of any team.
And while history is stacked against 0-2 teams reaching the postseason, Seattle doesn’t fit the profile of the typical also-ran who loses its first two games. The Seahawks began 3-3 last year and trailed the Arizona Cardinals in the division race for nearly the entire 2014 season, only to storm back with nine wins in their final 10 regular-season games to steal homefield advantage in the NFC. Despite being two games behind the 2-0 Cardinals already, it’s not difficult to argue for Seattle as the NFC West favorite.
However, that doesn’t mean that Seattle’s true chances of winning the division are reflected in the NFL odds, and in this instance, Arizona (+650) looms as one of the best values on the board. Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, an opponent-adjusted measure of success rate, currently ranks the Cardinals as the best team in football by a wide margin. In fact, the last team to compile a higher DVOA rating over their first two games was the 2007 Patriots, who also finished with the highest DVOA ranking FO has ever measured.
The Cards aren’t likely to go down as a historic bunch, of course, but there’s reason to believe they could exceed their relatively modest preseason expectations. Headed into the season, everything surrounding Arizona screamed regression: Despite winning 11 games, the Cards had the point differential of an 8.3-win team. That -2.7-win gap in Pythagorean expectancy was the largest negative differential of any team in the league, and one of the 10 highest totals since 1990. Even with largely similar personnel on both sides of the ball, Arizona’s record figured to regress even if the Cardinals sustained their 2014 level of play.
Of course, Arizona’s 2014 season wasn’t normal by any standards, largely because of the turnover at the quarterback position. Along with the Houston Texans, the Cardinals were the only team to give multiple starts to three quarterbacks, the byproduct of Carson Palmer’s torn ACL. Everyone likes to cite the Cardinals’ shiny 6-0 record in games Palmer started last season, but the overall offense wasn’t particularly explosive under Palmer. In the six games he started, Arizona averaged 5.4 yards per offensive play, ranking a middling 15th in that set of games.
However, the early returns suggest that Arizona should be more than a middling offense in 2015. The biggest impact has actually been at running back, where the tandem of rookie David Johnson and Chris Johnson represents a big upgrade over what the hobbled Andre Ellington supplied in 2014. After ranking a dismal 30th in rushing DVOA last season, the Cards currently rank fifth in the category. The diminutive Ellington took a beating last year attempting to shoulder an untenable workload, and as a result, Arizona had just 32 runs of 10 or more yards, 30th in the league. Conversely, this year’s squad is already over a quarter of the way to that 2014 total with nine such runs, fourth in the league after two weeks.
The defense’s pressure-based structure has also produced similar results to 2014, as first-time defensive coordinator James Bettcher has retained the system Todd Bowles utilized so successfully last season. Apart from some issues covering running backs Mark Ingram and Matt Forte in the passing game, the Cards have largely turned the Saints and Bears into one-dimensional offenses by limiting them to 3.4 yards per rush attempt. Playing alongside a more explosive and two-dimensional offense, Arizona’s defense shouldn’t be required to carry the load as it often did when Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley commandeered the offense last year.
Granted, two wins over New Orleans and Chicago isn’t likely to tell much about a team’s postseason viability. Currently, Football Outsiders' playoff odds projects the Saints and Bears to finish with top-four picks in the draft. Though the Cards haven’t been heavy favorites in either game—they were two-point favorites against both teams—that could simply represent a case of Vegas feeling its way into the new season with cautious pregame lines. Still, Arizona has clearly burned through two of its easiest opponents from this season, while the Seattle Seahawks have already moved past two of their most difficult road contests at St. Louis and Green Bay.
Still, common sense tells us that the Cardinals’ NFC West line is a huge market inefficiency, given that teams like the Bills, Lions and Texans all have shorter odds at the moment. And remember, much of Arizona’s disconnect between its point differential and actual record happened in the 10 games without Palmer under center. When the Cardinals did have their starter, their plus-54 point differential ranked sixth among all teams in those particular games. Prorated to a full season, that pace equates to a plus-144 point differential, which would have ranked second in 2014 behind only the Patriots.
Six games is a small sample, but Arizona profiled as an elite team in that time. It’s possible the Cardinals are simply picking up where they left off having returned to full health in the offseason. While we don’t know if that theory will hold true over a full 16-game sample, it’s simply smart business to jump on a team playing like a championship contender with our NFL picks while the public still wavers and treats them like a mid-tier squad.