From rugged to revitalizing.
That’s what two games against their biggest division rivals in five days last week turned into for the Seahawks.
The back-to-back, 19-3 wins over Arizona and San Francisco have vaulted Seattle (8-4) from the brink of missing the postseason to controlling its fate in the NFC West — and perhaps to securing the conference’s top seed for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That, of course, is the cozy path the Seahawks took to their two previous Super Bowls, in the 2005 and ’13 seasons.
First things first, though: The latest huge test Sunday at the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles (9-3). The winning bird takes a big flight toward securing at least a bye for the first round of the playoffs with three regular-season games left.
The four days off Seahawks players got following their victory Thanksgiving night at San Francisco ended with practice Tuesday and could prove as important as those victories over the Cardinals and 49ers. Some players such as punter Jon Ryan flew home or elsewhere. Running back Marshawn Lynch was able to soothe his aching lower back. Russell Wilson was in Vancouver posing with the Grey Cup trophy with the commissioner of the Canadian Football League and watching its championship game from a suite.
The Seahawks are suddenly so refreshed they feel like school kids.
“We’re dedicated to one another right now,” Richard Sherman said after his two-interception night against the 49ers. “We’re playing like some 9-year-old, 10-year-old kids, not worried about the outcome, not worried about individual stats or anything like that. The guys are enjoying one another, playing really hard for one another.
“I think when we play like that we are really hard to beat.”
Yes, the Seahawks got more than just two huge wins last week. They stole a second, mini-bye, to boot, the overlooked backside to having to play on a Thursday.
“Now it feels like a bye break. We’re trying to take full advantage of that, rest-wise,” coach Pete Carroll said. “We go into it fairly healthy so we will come out of this little break time in pretty good shape for the week.”
Bobby Wagner, Cliff Avril, Wilson and other Seahawks in the locker room Thursday night in Santa Clara credited how Carroll and his staff managed the three practice days between the Arizona and San Francisco. The players had only walk-through, no-pads practices between beating the Cardinals and 49ers.
Nose tackle Brandon Mebane (on injured reserve) and center Max Unger (perhaps a week away from returning) are the only starters still out injured. This will be as fresh the Seahawks have been in a December for years when they face Philadelphia’s manic pass rush and frantic offense Sunday.
“It's a bonus for us, really, to be able to get two wins during that time and to also get a break,” Carroll said. “It sets us up for the last four games. It worked out well, so it's a good deal."
If the recently swarming defense comes back from this rest playing as it has while allowing just two field goals and 368 yards combined in the last two games, this could prove to be an awesome deal for Seattle.
The Seahawks hold the fifth seed in the NFC, which would be the first wild-card and mean a game at the division leader with the worst record on the first postseason weekend (currently 5-7 Atlanta in the NFC South). Wins at the Eagles, home against the 49ers, at the Cardinals and home to the Rams would give Seattle another NFC West title.
Seattle could earn home-field advantage for the playoffs if it wins out and red-hot Green Bay (9-3) loses once among remaining games at home against Atlanta and Detroit and at Buffalo and Tampa Bay. If the Seahawks and Packers finish the regular season with the same records, Seattle gets the higher playoff seed because of its win over Green Bay in the opener.
The Seahawks could also win the division by going 3-1 including beating the Cardinals and 49ers — so long as Arizona loses one other time among its other three remaining games: home to the Chiefs on Sunday or at the Rams and Niners. Those will be sandwiched around the Cardinals’ Dec. 21 game against the Seahawks in Glendale, Ariz.
If all else holds form in the division, if the 49ers don’t suddenly revive and U-turn, that Seahawks-Cardinals game in Week 16 will determine the NFC West title.
“We just want to keep winning,” Wilson said. “Every week, have that championship mindset, like I’ve always said. It doesn’t change. Have that consistent mindset — and we’ll see what happens.”
Many are focusing on Arizona’s offense after Drew Stanton, the fill-in for out-for-the-year Carson Palmer, threw two more interceptions and the Cardinals got just one offensive touchdown in the 29-18 loss to the Falcons on Sunday. That’s one offensive TD in the last 11 quarters for Stanton and the Cards.
But also glaring is Arizona’s previously bedrock defense allowing 500 yards to Atlanta. It figured Matt Ryan might get his — and he did, passing for 358 yards. But Atlanta also rolled the Cardinals for 142 yards on the ground.
While Seattle is at Philadelphia on Sunday the Cardinals will be hosting the suddenly sliding Chiefs (7-5), who are holding the AFC’s last playoff seed despite not having won since leaving the Seahawks in seemingly dire straits on Nov. 16. Next week while the Seahawks host the 49ers the Cardinals play at the 5-6 Rams, who just beat Oakland 52-0 and have also defeated Seattle, Denver and San Francisco.
Thing is, just as quickly as the Seahawks vaulted to everyone’s favorite in the NFC West again they could drop back onto treacherous ground. Seattle’s hold on a playoff spot is tenuous. The Seahawks have the No. 5 seed only because of a three-game tie-breaker it holds over Detroit and Dallas.
The Lions are the sixth seed right now. Detroit figures to be headed to 10-4; it hosts Tampa Bay and Minnesota the next two weeks. Dallas’ next three games are at Chicago on Thursday night, at an Eagles team that just squashed the Cowboys 33-10 in Texas, then home against AFC South-leading Indianapolis.
The Seahawks lose a two-team tiebreaker with Dallas because of the Cowboys’ win in Seattle in October.
So, yes, as Carroll said before these last two, reviving wins, everything is still out there for the Seahawks — and everyone else in this race entering the regular season’s final quarter.
“We had a nice ball game and then had a nice break here, too, getting ready for this week. So we’re in good shape and looking forward to a terrific matchup coming up,” Carroll said of the Eagles.
“It’s an exciting time of year, starting the fourth quarter. Here we go.”