While it is premature, and perhaps overly optimistic, to talk about what it will take for the Seattle Seahawks to return to the playoffs, there is hope that the team's season won't end on the first of January. In fact, a visit to ESPN's "NFL Playoff Machine" shows just how real the possibilities are.
The ability to even talk playoffs in Seattle after the start to their season is quite surprising. The team's slow start was predictable, though.
Seattle had four new starters on the offensive line, along with new starters at quarterback, tight end and wide receiver. They also had a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach bringing in new blocking schemes.
Difficulties moving the ball were obvious the first half of the season. The absence of Organized Team Activities and mini-camps took their toll on the Seahawks, particularly on the offensive line.
The Seattle Seahawks dropped a close home game to the Atlanta Falcons to slip to 1-3 in Pete Carroll's second season as head coach and all-around football guru.
To many, the season seemed over. After all, the Falcons had struggled to that point and the team was headed to the Meadowlands to face the 3-1 New York Giants.
However, the offense started to come alive vs. the Falcons. The defense was also showing signs of improvement. Fans leaving CenturyLink were actually excited about the team despite the loss, fueled in part by having an opportunity to beat the Falcons on a last-second field goal attempt.
Seattle followed that performance with a win over the Giants. It was costly, though. Tarvaris Jackson strained his pectoral muscle and would miss one start and be hampered in several more.
Jackson may not get any Pro Bowl consideration, but he had still performed well enough at that point to give the team hope. His QB rating and overall performance had him at the bottom of the mid-tier quarterbacks.
Charlie Whitehurst wasn't able to move the offense in his first start of the season against the Cleveland Browns. A similar pattern was developing against the Cincinnati Bengals and he was replaced by Jackson. The Seahawks suffered tough defeats in both games.
Jackson, who had thrown for 750 yards in his previous eight quarters of work, had issues of his own in Dallas. Seattle finished the first half of the season with a 2-6 record and analysts had fans dreaming of what quarterback the Seahawks would be able to draft.
Carroll had other plans for his team, though. The offensive line was beginning to gel, opening holes for Marshawn Lynch and giving Jackson time in the pocket.
The defense was also beginning to click. Brandon Browner was settling into his role and learning just how little contact was allowed in the NFL. Kam Chancellor was making up for it, delivering brutal blows to receivers that ventured over the middle of the field ... even though two of those hits cost him dearly with $60,000 in fines levied by the NFL.
Earl Thomas is the other half of the best young safety tandem in the NFL, and rookie Richard Sherman was also making quarterbacks question how to get the ball over him to their receivers.
While some analysts were still calling that secondary one of the worst in the NFL, those that follow the team closely knew just how special it was becoming.
They helped Seattle go 3-1 over the next four games, getting the team to their current 5-7 record. Close losses to the Falcons and Browns loom large, as do the fourth quarter meltdowns against the 49ers, Bengals and Washington Redskins.
The youth on Seattle should help establish a solid team going forward, but their mistakes cost them in those losses.
Wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles have some wondering if the Seahawks can muster a 4-0 finish to the season. If so, a return to the playoffs are a distinct possibility ... perhaps even likely.
“It’s a long ways away right now,” claimed Carroll when asked about the possibility of claiming the NFC West's first Wild Card berth since the 8-8 Rams in 2004.
That kind of question is good. It’s good those questions are out there. That means there are some possibilities and things like that.
It just reemphasizes to us how important it is to go to work this week. None of that matters unless you do something this week and you set yourself with the opportunity at hand.
Following the Week 8 loss to the Bengals, Bleacher Report ran a series of second-half predictions. I pegged the Seahawks at 7-9, but felt I was being stingy with wins. Notably, I liked Seattle's odds vs. the Eagles on Thursday night. Their matchup with the Chicago Bears also held an opportunity to win, as the Bears passing game was struggling.
The game in Chicago has turned further towards Seattle's favor given the Bears' injury concerns.
Head coach Lovie Smith could be without his starting quarterback and star running back, casting doubt on their ability to move the ball. They are already hampered by a porous offensive line and lack of talent at wide receiver.
The season could come down to the Seahawks asking Santa to deliver a present to CenturyLink field when the San Francisco 49ers visit on Christmas Eve.
Despite the 49ers' record, the first matchup between these two teams was fairly close. Two late return touchdowns made the score lopsided, but overall matchups on offense and defense were extremely competitive.
Both teams have certainly improved since Week 1, but the game could be meaningless for the 49ers in terms of playoff seeding.
Jim Harbaugh will face a dilemma. He could choose to protect Frank Gore, Patrick Willis and a few other players by limiting (or eliminating) their playing time, or he may opt to play his starters at 100 percent and attempt to go 2-0 vs. Carroll in the NFL. With Harbaugh's ego, don't be surprised to see him ignore the potential impact on the playoffs to win a game that will have no bearing on their playoff seeding.
Seattle's final game can't be overlooked, either. The Arizona Cardinals have won four of their last five games ... even if two of them were close wins over the Rams.
While a 9-7 record is far from certain, it makes it intriguing to look at the other teams in position to take a Wild Card berth.
Seattle would lose a head-to-head tie-breaker with just the Falcons, and would hold that advantage over the Giants and Bears. They also hold the all-important conference record advantage over the four teams in front of them.
If all of the following teams end up at 9-7, Seattle would take the fifth seed. Atlanta is in the driver's seat for that slot, though, as their schedule is amenable to a 10-6 finish. As long as a second team doesn't get to 10 wins, Seattle would be headed to the postseason with a 9-7 record.
Atlanta Falcons: 7-5, 10-6 projected finish, fifth seed
Chicago Bears: 7-5, 8-8 projected finish
Detroit Lions: 7-5, 9-7 projected finish
New York Giants: 6-6, 8-8 projected finish
@ Dallas, Loss
vs. Washington, Win
@ N.Y. Jets, Loss
vs. Dallas, Win
Seattle Seahawks: 5-7, 9-7 possible finish, sixth seed
vs. St. Louis
One question remaining for the Seahawks is if they can string together four more clean games. The team has shown an ability to make costly mistakes that cost them games they could win, be it penalties, dropped passes or missed assignments.
The biggest issue could be the loss of a third member of the offensive line. Russell Okung has been transforming into one of the better left tackles in the NFL. Since being thrown over Trent Cole's hip and landing on IR, there is a hole left on the offensive line.
Tom Cable has been able to coach up Paul McQuistan at right guard. He's now moving to left tackle, but will likely have a fair amount of help from Zach Miller. He'll be tested by Chris Long and Julius Peppers in the coming weeks.
Seattle should be able to handle the Rams in McQuistan's first start at left tackle. However, when looking for a piece that could break over the final three weeks, left tackle is the first point to consider.
While it is premature to be looking at plane tickets to Dallas or New Orleans, Seahawks fans can at least be thinking about a possible playoff run following a 2-6 start to the season. This is a sign of good things to come for the franchise.
There is likely one other team pulling for the Seahawks to wrap up the sixth seed for the NFC. This would likely end up in a trip to New Orleans, where the Saints would most certainly welcome a chance at redemption following their playoff loss in Seattle last season.