Seattle Seahawks: What Will it Take to Win the NFC West?
A year after leaving the Southern California sunshine up I-5 North Highway, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is now in a higher league. But other than trading in a short-sleeved polo for the occasional rain jacket and hat, not much about his approach or philosophies have changed.
Upon being hired, the first thing he did was tweet quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, “We’ll turn this team around. Need you to buy in. I promise it works. Just saw Avatar. 3-D. Awesome.”
Sticking with his motto “always compete”, he promptly went out and acquired Charlie Whitehurst. His reasoning was that “competition breeds quality” and this applies to everyone – even the team’s leader. He and Hasselbeck later settled things “competing” on a basketball court.
At Notre Dame the players pound a sign before each game that reads “play like a champion today.” In Seattle they pound a sign that says “I’m in” before each practice. Meaning, when you enter the practice facility you give everything you've got for the next hour and 45 minutes.
Call it juvenile, call it beneath grown men, but even if the players seem iffy about his antics, they won't express it. It violates another one of Carrol’s rules: “No complaining, no whining”.
But more than that, six games into his tenure, his team appears to be responding.
A sloppy win and an ankle injury to his starting left tackle may have prevented him from getting overly excited on Sunday after his team’s 22-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals, but whether by default or by truly coming together as a team, the Seahawks are leading the NFC West at 4-2.
The team received a rousing endorsement from a man who had turned down the opportunity to coach them, Tony Dungy. He declared them the best team in the NFC.
While an uncertain debate could be formed over the Seahawks' current standing, one thing is clear: The Seahawks are not beating themselves with mistakes and are playing sound, team football.
By playing in the NFC West where nine wins may be their magic number -- the total of games the Seahawks have won the previous two seasons -- Carroll’s team has played their way into the driver’s seat.
Quite an accomplishment. Before the season, many looked at Seattle and thought they should rebuild.
So what will it take to win the NFC West? With the schedule in front of us, let’s break it down game by game to see how they could win each one and if Tony Dungy is really out of line. I'll discuss if Seattle has the advantage in each of their games left.
Week 8 (October 31st): @ Oakland Raiders
The Raiders are coming off their biggest win in years after setting a franchise record in points in a 59-14 stomping of the Broncos in Denver this past weekend. Coming off a week in which they allowed the hapless 49ers to get their only win of the season, Oakland rebounded and provided one of the most unlikely outcomes of the weekend. They now stand at 3-4, good for second in the AFC West.
The Seahawks, as noted, are leading the NFC West at 4-2. However, their game was not pretty and not finishing in the red zone is cause for concern.
When The Seahawks Have The Ball: Seahawks
The injury to Russell Okung provides some concern. It happened just as the Seahawks offensive line was showing signs of cohesiveness. In other words, it was last thing that they needed. The Raiders have 16 sacks this year, good for 11th in the league. They have just three interceptions, but their pass defense is ranked fifth in the league. This may be, however, because they do not stop the run well, ranking 28th. The keys will be getting the running game going and having a strong effort from a wounded offensive line which will allow the offense to make plays.
When the Raiders Have The Ball: Seahawks
The Raiders rely on their running game, where the Seahawks have performed well this season. Despite giving up a 5.7 yard per carry average last weekend to the Cardinals, they still rank second in the league. Dreadful at third-down conversions, the Raiders need Darren McFadden to set up second and third down short-yardage situations. If the Seahawks can stuff the run and force the Raiders to move the chains through the air they will be successful.
The Seahawks have not played well on the road this season. Being beaten 31-14 in Denver where Oakland won by a blowout in the same stadium does no service by comparison.
A repeat performance by the Raiders of last weekend seems unlikely as they will not be playing the floundering Broncos. All three of the Raiders wins have come against teams that are currently .500 or worse, the best being the St. Louis Rams in a 16-14 dogfight. They also have not won two games in a row in almost two years. Although some questions are apparent for the Seahawks, they should get this one.
Week 9 (Nov 7th): New York Giants
Winners of four straight and now leading the NFC East, the New York Giants rank second in total offense and third in total defense. The Giants will be coming off a bye week before this trip to Seattle after dealing a crippling blow to the Cowboys on Monday night.
The Seahawks should still be in control of the NFC West and many will look at this game to see how they stack up against more elite teams.
When The Seahawks Have The Ball: Giants
The Giants defense is stingy, so capitalizing on opportunities is a must to have a chance. In other words, the Seahawks will not be able to compensate for a poor red zone attack. However, despite a strong start on pass defense, New York has given up back-to-back 300-yard passing games, but some of that can be attributed to teams being forced the throw the ball to come back in games.
When the Giants Have The Ball: Giants
Prolific on offense, the Giants can run it and throw it. The one thing to nitpick, however, is that the Giants do turn the ball over. Star running back Ahmad Bradshaw has lost four fumbles and Eli Manning has thrown 11 interceptions.
Turnovers. The Seahawks will have a chance if the Giants leave the door open.
Being at home is also an advantage, but facing the best team they have faced so far this season could be a wake-up call for the relatively young Seahawks. Barring some turnover help, this game should bring the high-riding Hawks back down to earth a little.
Week 10 (Nov 14th): @ Arizona Cardinals
Just three weeks later, the Seahawks will rematch the Cardinals in the desert. Currently standing just below them in the conference standings, the Cardinals still have more questions than answers and last Sunday’s game against the Seahawks did little to answer them. After taking advantage of the Saints’ sloppy play the week before, the Cardinals looked lost against the more sound Seahawks. It isn't clear where the Cardinals will be at this point in the season, but the magic eight ball says, “Outlook not so good”.
Three weeks later, the Seahawks should still be looking down at the Cardinals in the standings. After suffering a setback the week before, fans and analysts alike will be watching to see how the team responds.
When the Seahawks Have The Ball: Seahawks
The Cardinals defense is struggling, ranked in the bottom third of the league against the run and pass. This past weekend the Seahawks were judicial, if not spectacular, at moving the chains, but they left the door open in the second half by failing to reach the end zone. If the Seahawks are more precise in their red zone offense, it could be a long afternoon for the Cardinals.
When the Cardinals Have the Ball: Seahawks
Despite searching for more consistent play from the quarterback position, the Cardinals have two capable running backs as the Seahawks found out this past Sunday. The Cardinals will have to run to be successful on offense, so look for the Seahawks to challenge than run more and force throws downfield.
The return game. The Cardinals could turn the tide here. They have done reasonably well with their kickoff return team and will need to put their offense in short-field situations to have a chance.
After solving the Arizona riddle in Week 7, the Seahawks will have to avoid making mistakes like they have done all season. Despite having some playmakers to work with, the Cardinals are still looking for answers at quarterback and need more consistent play besides effort.
Week 11 (Nov 21st): @ New Orleans Saints
The inconsistent New Orleans Saints now find themselves in third place in the NFC West at 4-3 after losing two of their last three. Last week was particularly disturbing, losing to the cellar-dwelling Browns and second-time starter Colt McCoy who threw for just 74 yards. Drew Brees was picked four times in a 30-17 loss. While sometimes impressive, the Saints have dragged their feet, looking vulnerable at times this season.
The Seahawks have not faced the Saints since 2007 and have not been to New Orleans in the regular season or post-season since 2004. At this point they should be looking to buck the thought that they can’t play with the big boys in the NFC and this provides the perfect opportunity.
When the Seahawks Have The Ball: Saints
Despite an inconsistent and error-prone offense, the Saints defense has kept them in many games this year. The Saints don’t force many turnovers, so it will be key for Seattle to keep the chains moving and keep their offense on the field.
When the Saints Have the Ball: Tie
At times the Saints offense has looked very sluggish. Much of what they do depends on Drew Brees despite the occasionally strong effort from running back Chris Ivory with Pierre Thomas injured. This could spell trouble for a weak Seahawks’ pass defense.
Reggie Bush and the running game. Bush will be back this weekend. He and Ivory will not allow the Seahawks defense to place too much focus on the passing game.
The Seahawks will hope the error-prone Saints show up. Certainly the Seahawks are a more consistent team, but feeling a sense of urgency somehow the defending champs may be more inclined to come out to play for this one. This game could go either way, but to be safe let’s put this one in the loss column.
Week 12 (Nov 28th): Kansas City Chiefs
The upstart Kansas City Chiefs lead the AFC West at 4-2 and are the top rushing offense in the league. With a mix of young, eager players and grizzled, intelligent veterans, they have become a factor in the AFC. Although they have not beaten a team that currently has a winning record, they did challenge both the Texans and Colts on the road. The Texans loss, in particular, was a heartbreaker.
Should the Seahawks lose to the Saints, this game would take on added importance as the Hawks would not want to inch closer to .500.
When The Seahawks Have The Ball: Tie
The Chiefs defend the run well but have a talented, yet inexperienced secondary. Matt Hasselbeck should be able to find holes in the defense to exploit, but will need to watch out for pass-rusher Tamba Hali, especially if the Seahawks are still playing a patchwork offensive line.
When the Chiefs Have The Ball: Tie
This will be a true test for the Seahawks defense. The Chiefs like to run the ball and put quarterback Matt Cassel in positions he can succeed. Keeping a running back tandem of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones grounded will be tough no matter the defense, but Seattle will need to make Matt Cassel beat them with some important throws.
(Possible) X-Factor: Tie
Both teams take care of the ball, so one turnover could be golden.
The Seahawks have not faced a team as committed to and dependent on the running game as the Chiefs. This one seems to play into the Seahawks' hands, but keeping pace with the Chiefs' offensive attack will be tough.
Week 13 (Dec 5th): Carolina Panthers
Mucking through a rebuilding season with a likely lame-duck coach, the Panthers sit at the bottom of the tough AFC South at just 1-5. Not much has gone right for the Panthers offensively despite having the talented DeAngelo Williams in the backfield. That being said quarterback Matt Moore did have a 300-yard passing game in route to the Panthers' first win last week over the 49ers.
However, the Seahawks are not the 49ers, and are at home facing a must-win.
When The Seahawks Have The Ball: Seahawks
Despite an inept offense, the Panthers rank fifth in the league in total defense and have forced 13 turnovers. However they have a weak pass-rush that is feeling the loss of Julius Peppers. The Seahawks will have the advantage if they can get the ground game going early.
When the Panthers Have The Ball: Seahawks
Outside of last week, the Panthers are still finding themselves offensively. With the run-stuffing defense like the Seahawks have, the Panthers are clearly out of their league here unless they can get another effort from Matt Moore like they did last Sunday.
At home, the Seahawks just need to take care of business early and take the Panthers out of game.
With the Seahawks in intensive care after possibly losing two straight, the Panthers provide the perfect chance to get healthy.
Week 14 (Dec 12th): @ San Francisco 49ers
A rematch from Week 1 that saw the Seahawks triumph 31-6 may have been telling. Many were high on San Francisco prior to the season, but things have turned south quickly as they take up the NFC West rear at 1-6. While receiving votes of confidence from upper management, many are talking hot seat and Mike Singletary. They currently are coming off a loss to the hapless Panthers.
Coming off a game against the Panthers, the 49ers may be taking on the two weakest teams in the NFC in back-to-back games.
When the Seahawks Have The Ball: Tie
The 49ers defense surprisingly ranks in the middle of the league. They have brought a decent pass-rush so far and have forced 10 turnovers. However, they are far from consistent and without a chief pass-rushing threat it is doubtful they will keep up their sack totals. The Seahawks offensive line should be on even ground here.
When the 49ers Have The Ball: Seahawks
The Alex Smith injury is considered minor at this point, but David Carr did relieve him last Sunday and promptly threw an interception. However, even if Smith is healthy, as dependent as the 49ers are on the ground game it is hard to imagine them moving the ball effectively against the Seahawks defense.
The 49ers have nothing to lose and may be playing for their coach’s job, but it is doubtful that will be enough.
It’s a road game, but working under the philosophy, “It you can’t beat the last place team in your division, you probably do not deserve to win it” the Seahawks need to win this one.
Week 15 (Dec 19th): Atlanta Falcons
At 5-2, the Falcons find themselves on top of the NFC South after they staved off a 22-point third quarter surge from the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday. Once seen as New Orleans' division to lose, Atlanta changed things when the Falcons beat the Saints in New Orleans in Week 3.
After two soft opponents and added confidence, the Seahawks should be charged up for this one. Since they're taking on another possible division leader, this game could have playoff seeding implications.
When the Seahawks Have The Ball: Seahawks
The Falcons have defended the run against below average backs, but have been burned for high per carry averages even in games where the other team did not run the ball much, such as struggling to stop Steelers running back Ken Mendenhall in Week 1. They have also been spotty against the pass. Just two weeks ago they were burned for 326 yards and three touchdowns by Kevin Kolb. They followed that up by giving up 412 yards and three touchdowns to Carson Palmer.
When the Falcons Have The Ball: Falcons
The Falcons bring a balanced offensive attack and one of this season’s biggest breakout stars in wide receiver Roddy White. Matt Ryan is having the best season of his young career and Michael Turner can churn out yards. With the Seahawks uneasy secondary, this combination provides some match-up problems.
Being at home will be a big advantage. Taking on a possible playoff opponent, the crowd should be amped up for this one.
Between the Chiefs, Saints, and Falcons you figure that the Seahawks will get at least one of them. Having reached a number that might be enough to win the NFC West, they have two games to spare in case they should fall victim to an upset.
Week 16 (Dec 26th): @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
One of the biggest surprise teams this season, the Tampa Bay Buccanneers sit at 4-2 and are a half-game ahead of the Saints in the NFC South. Although many are skeptical of this team, their schedule could keep them in contention as they move forward.
By now the Seahawks should have more confidence to go on the road and win.
When the Seahawks Have the Ball: Seahawks
While they defend the pass well, the Bucs are second to last in rush defense. With the acquisition of Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks have steadily seen their rushing offense improve. You do not have to pass if you can run the ball effectively.
When the Buccaneers Have the Ball: Seahawks
The Bucs are not very efficient on offense, and facing the Seahawks' run defense that has only given up more than 90 yards rushing in a game once should provide a stiff challenge. Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman is a rapidly improving player but will need some help in this one.
The Bucs probably are not as good as their record indicates. With wins built on a soft schedule, this game may look closer on paper than it is really is. That being said, the Seahawks will have padded their schedule as well and are on the road.
It is not certain whether the Bucs' start is for real or a fabrication. They have beaten bottom-feeding Cleveland, Carolina, and Cincinnati before edging the Rams by a point this past weekend. In their two real tests – against New Orleans and Pittsburgh – they were blown out. Despite being on the road, the Seahawks are the better team.
Week 17 (Jan 2nd): St. Louis Rams
After winning one game a year ago, the St. Louis Rams have made a quick rebound to respectability. They have already beaten the Seahawks by a decisive 20-3 margin in Week 4. Many thought the Rams showed their true colors in an ugly 44-6 loss to Detroit, but they came back and beat the Chargers before being outlasted by the Buccaneers last Sunday 18-17.
The Seahawks may the division wrapped up by now, but the Rams may be in second place in the division.
When The Seahawks Have The Ball: Seahawks
The Rams stuffed the Seahawks offense in St. Louis, but Seattle has grown more confident since then and has added Marshawn Lynch. While the Rams defense is average the Seahawks should be able to run the ball on them.
When the Rams Have The Ball: Seahawks
The Seahawks played well defensively in the first match-up, but were plagued by a couple of turnovers. If the Hawks can hold down Steven Jackson again it will be tough for the Rams to win.
(Possible) X-Factor: Seahawks
Unless the Seahawks can play for a bye, it is doubtful they will play their starters if the division is wrapped up. However, if the Seahawks play, a sweep at the hands of Rams is unlikely.
This could easily flip if the Seahawks decide to rest their starters.