If the Seahawks don’t yet understand how fleeting top-dog status can be in the NFL, they need only consider the Houston Texans over the past year.
Eleven months ago, the Texans had arrived as the NFL’s best team. They destroyed the Baltimore Ravens 43-13, similar to Seattle’s 42-13 blowout of San Francisco last December or its 29-3 Niners beatdown two weeks ago. The victory over Baltimore gave the Texans a 6-1 record, and by early December, they would improve to 11-1.
The Texans looked like a Super Bowl team: balanced offense featuring running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson, top-notch defense led by the league’s best performer, J.J. Watt, and plenty of star power in its prime. Houston was so good that, with four games remaining in 2012, it had already earned a second consecutive playoff bid and set a franchise record for victories in a season.
But the NFL has a way of dismantling the anointed. Even when you’re rolling, you’re not that far ahead of the pack. New England, the team that never goes away, blew out the Texans 42-14 last December, and Houston ended the year with three losses in four games. The Texans went from thinking about byes and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs to being in the wild-card game. They won a home playoff game over Cincinnati but lost 41-28 at New England in the divisional round.
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And crazy enough, Baltimore — the team Houston smashed last October — recovered and won the Super Bowl.
The Texans were left with so many questions about why they lost their edge. They wondered what might have been if linebacker Brian Cushing hadn’t injured his knee early in the season, or if Johnson hadn’t played in pain all season, or if quarterback Matt Schaub had played a little better in certain critical situations. They wondered about their bad luck, about peaking too soon last season and about having to play without Schaub in the postseason a year earlier. And on the outside, many wondered if the Texans had blown their best chance to win a championship.
Now, as the Seahawks (3-0) prepare to face the Texans on Sunday, you see a Houston team that is still very good, still very much in the playoffs conversation, but many are uncertain whether the Texans will ever be special again. The 32-year-old Schaub is under scrutiny for his mistakes. All of a sudden, Johnson, 32, is no longer in his prime. Foster may be slowing down after a heavy workload the past three years. Watt, Cushing and the rest of the defense are still progressing, but overall, the Texans leave something to be desired. Their window hasn’t closed, but their road is much more difficult than it seemed last December.
They’re 2-1, but they’ve been outscored by 12 points so far. Baltimore beat them 30-9 last week. Their depth isn’t what it should be. At times, their special-teams play borders on disastrous.
The lesson for the Seahawks: You’re young and exciting and seemingly have a window of opportunity large enough to fit five Red Bryants through it. But you must convince yourself otherwise. Even though you’re built for sustained success, urgency is required.
You’re the best team now, or the co-best with the Denver Broncos, and you must treat that status like it’s the most fragile thing you possess. Because, really, it is.
It seems the Seahawks understand this. Coach Pete Carroll’s “every game is a championship opportunity” and “always compete” messages are getting through.
Defensive end Cliff Avril endured the negatives of being the “it” team in Detroit last season. A year after being celebrated for breaking through with an exciting young team, the Lions finished 4-12 last season.
This Seahawks team, much more balanced than those offense-centric Lions, is different in every way, Avril says.
“Everything about this team is unique,” Avril said. “We have a young team, but we have so many true professionals at such a young team. Guys like Russell Wilson, you can’t be a truer pro than he is. I’m not sure how he even got to be that way. It was like he was born into it. We have a lot of guys with similar passion about the game and maturity that they shouldn’t really have. That’s the biggest difference.”
It’s so difficult to maintain an edge, though. Even when you’re at the top, you’re only a couple of negative plays from mediocrity. That’s life in a league legislated for parity.
The Seahawks can be either a team that was good for a while, or they can make the most of their dominance. Their intention is to do the latter.
Sometimes, an NFL team can miss its window and find a way to win as an aging group. The Ravens are the reigning example, but they needed playoff miracles to pull it off. It’s best to embrace the now and realize that, in this league, there really isn’t such a thing as the hunted. They’re all hunters in the NFL, and currently, the Seahawks have perhaps the best rifle.
But as the Texans can attest, supremacy can be the most fleeting thing in the NFL.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer