RENTON — Early in practice Friday, 69-year-old Seahawks coach Pete Carroll turned from the middle of the field toward the end zone as players moved from one drill to the next. And from around the 20-yard line to the end zone, Carroll broke into a bit of a sprint.
Just 15 days earlier, Carroll had needed a golf cart to get around practice after a minor setback in his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery.
Carroll’s sprint to the end zone was a moment that provided further testament to his seemingly bottomless energy. It also was emblematic of a week that put more spring into the Seahawks’ collective step.
A week ago, the Seahawks were coming off their first loss of the season and entering a weekend fraught with potential peril. A home loss to the 49ers could have dropped the Seahawks into third place in the NFC West, and could have set up a scenario in which every division team was within a game of each other.
Instead, proving again how much things can change each week in the NFL, the Seahawks enter Sunday’s game at Buffalo in the most advantageous position they could have hoped for seven days ago.
Seattle’s win over the 49ers coupled with the Rams’ surprising loss at Miami meant the Seahawks were alone atop the NFC West.
And in addition to losing a game, the 49ers lost quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and tight end George Kittle, then suffered a handful of COVID-19 absences for their Thursday game against Green Bay. They predictably were blown out by the Packers — who had done Seattle a favor Sunday by losing at home to Minnesota.
Given the 49ers’ 4-5 record and health issues, San Francisco went from having a shot to get back in the division race to essentially being done in the span of five days. The website fivethirtyeight.com on Friday gave the 49ers, the preseason NFC West favorite, less than a 1% chance to win the division and only a 16% chance to make the playoffs.
And now comes a three-game stretch in which the Seahawks can essentially end the NFC West race by the end of November and turn their attention toward having the conference’s best record — more important this year because only the top team receives a playoff bye. Or they can find themselves still fighting for the division.
Of Seattle’s remaining nine games, just four come against teams that currently have winning records.
Three of those four will be played in the next 11 days, beginning Sunday at 6-2 Buffalo. Then comes a game in Los Angeles against the 5-3 Rams and a Thursday night matchup at home Nov. 19 against Arizona.
Winning both division games would go a long way toward securing the West — and if there’s a game of that trio to lose it would be Sunday at Buffalo, considering that out-of-conference games factor the least in playoff tiebreaking scenarios.
But win all three, and the Seahawks would be in good shape to have the NFC’s best record and secure a first-round bye regardless of what anyone else does.
In fact, fivethirtyeight.com this week gave the Seahawks the best chance to earn the NFC bye at 37% — next on the list was Tampa Bay at 21% followed by Green Bay at 19%, both of whom have 6-2 records and Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, respectively.
That favorable percentage is due not only to Seattle (6-1) having the NFC’s best record but also having the easiest remaining schedule of the legitimate conference title contenders.
As noted, Seattle plays just four of its final nine games against teams with winning records. Those nine teams are a combined 29-39-1, a .444 winning percentage, the second-easiest schedule left of any team in the NFC (Dallas has the easiest at .443).
That compares with .458 for the 5-2 Saints, .475 for the Bucs, .502 for Green Bay, .521 for Arizona (which still has to play the Rams twice, at Seattle and Buffalo) and .567 for the Rams (two games against both the Seahawks and Cardinals, and at Tampa Bay).
In fact, Seattle’s only game after Nov. 19 against a team that currently has a winning record comes Dec. 27 at home against the Rams.
Do things right the next three weeks, and that game, and maybe even the regular-season finale at San Francisco — which loomed as one of the NFL’s games of the year when the schedule was released — might be solely about conference playoff positioning, or in the best-case scenario getting/staying healthy for the postseason.
The odds turned in Seattle’s favor during a week in which it also got strong safety Jamal Adams back from injury and integrated new defensive end Carlos Dunlap onto the team.
Sure, the running-back situation remains somewhat angst-inducing with Chris Carson again out Sunday. In the season of “Let Russ Cook,” maybe the Seahawks will really prove once and for all how much running backs matter.
Yeah, the defense still has a lot to prove, even if last week was a step in the right direction and with Adams and Dunlap playing this week.
And no doubt, the game against the Bills looms as tricky.
But simply put, after the week that was, the road to win the West, and the NFC, has never looked clearer for Seattle.