Let’s call it the NFC West Championship Game, Part II.
The Seahawks closed the regular season with a 26-23 comeback victory over San Francisco on Sunday to finish with a 12-4 record and earn the No. 3 seed for the NFC playoffs.
Up next: a third meeting with the Los Angeles Rams, just 13 days after the Seahawks beat them 20-9 to win the NFC West title. Kickoff is set for 1:40 p.m. Saturday at Lumen Field.
In our weekly Four Down series with Seahawks beat writers Bob Condotta and Adam Jude, we look back at the victory Sunday and ahead to the playoff matchup:
1. Are the Seahawks a Super Bowl-caliber team?
Condotta: Can I give a hesitant yes? Like everyone, I’d like to see the offense playing a little more like its first-half-of-the-season self. And any injury to Jamal Adams is worrisome — not to mention Jarran Reed, whose 6.5 sacks quietly were second on the team this year behind Adams’ 9.5. Seattle had a point differential of plus-88. That’s the seventh best in team history and fifth best of the Pete Carroll era. But it pales in comparison to the Seahawks teams we’ve seen make Super Bowl runs. The 2013 team was plus-186 (the best in team history), the 2005 team was plus-181, and the 2014 team was plus-140. A year after the Seahawks tied an NFL record by winning 10 games by one score or fewer, this year they won eight (the 2013 team had five, and the 2014 team just three). Living on the edge gets much more difficult in the playoffs.
Jude: The Seahawks are good enough to win the NFC. They’re also inconsistent enough that they could well lose to the Rams in the opening round Saturday. Nothing is off the table with this team. Coach Pete Carroll wholeheartedly buys into the idea that “defense wins championships,” and he’s won a Super Bowl built on that philosophy. This Seahawks defense has shown over the past seven weeks that it is capable of dominating for stretches. Can this defense show that on the road against the likes of the Saints and Packers? I have a feeling it will get that chance. Sure, Adams’ new shoulder injury is an issue. But the Seahawks have been battle-tested all season — and particularly over the past three weeks — with playoff-type games, the kind of games in which Carroll is most comfortable, and the kind of games he said he believes gives his team the best chance to make a deep playoff run.
2. Pete Carroll is ‘not worried’ about the offense. Should he be?
Jude: The Seahawks gained just 109 yards and scored six points through three quarters Sunday. So, yes, there is cause for concern. Two things stand out. First, the Seahawks haven’t been able to produce the kind of breakthrough from Chris Carson that they hoped to have by now, as they’ve eased him back from a midseason foot injury. He’s averaging just 4.2 yards per carry over the past three games. Second, the deep passing game that Russell Wilson made look so easy in the first half of the season has largely disappeared. Wilson took several shots against the 49ers on Sunday. All fell incomplete — and it appeared there were communication issues with his receivers on most of those attempts. Yes, defenses have made it a priority to limit Wilson’s deep throws, but he did have one-on-one opportunities Sunday — and didn’t connect. In the playoffs, just one or two successful plays like that can change a game, and they’ll need to figure out how to reignite that aspect of the offense.
Condotta: One thing to remember is Carroll’s “something good is just about to happen” life philosophy. As he said on his ESPN 710 Seattle radio show Monday, “I’m sure it’s tough being a worrier.” I’m not sure how much he’d ever admit to being worried about anything. If I were him, I’d be a tiny bit worried about where all the big plays have gone — after averaging 5.1 yards per play or better in each of the first 10 games, Seattle has been held to 4.8 or worse in four of the past six, including a season-low 4.3 against the 49ers on Sunday. Defenses have come up with a plan to play a soft zone to keep Seattle’s receivers in check, and the Seahawks are struggling to make chunk plays in other ways. The problem with saying they’ve just played a lot of good defenses is that’s all that’s left. The six other NFC playoff teams ranked in the top 14 in fewest yards allowed per play this year. The good news is Seattle has found ways to win anyway. Limiting turnovers has been a huge reason — of Seattle’s 18 turnovers this season, just four came in the last seven games. That might be the biggest reason Carroll isn’t worried, as Seattle was 12-0 when it had one or fewer turnovers this season. Carroll is banking on that continuing.
3. Will Russell Wilson finally get an NFL MVP vote?
Condotta: The short answer — no. Again, voters vote for just one player. There is no 1-10 scoring system as in some other sports. It’s hard now to see Wilson receiving a vote considering the seasons others had. Also, when the dust settled, this ended up being pretty much the same season Wilson has always had, other than that because the team threw so much early in the year, many of his totals were career highs (such as 40 touchdowns, 384 completions and 538 attempts). But his yards per attempt actually were the second-lowest of his career (7.5), and his rating of 105.1 — while still really good, and seventh in the NFL — was lower than his previous two years, in part because of a career-high 13 interceptions. Don’t get me wrong: Wilson had a really good year overall. I think there remains a tendency to take him for granted when some of his games aren’t as good as some others. But the pace he was on at midseason — and was worthy of all the MVP talk — maybe inevitably slowed just enough that Wilson might have to wait yet another year to get a vote.
Jude: No, he won’t. And that is unfortunate, because those of us here know how valuable Wilson is to the Seahawks, and there are times when it does feel he might not be fully appreciated from a national perspective. That said, it was clear the MVP race was down to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes over the final few weeks of the season, and Rodgers ran away with it (48 touchdowns, five interceptions). There’s also decent cases to be made for Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, but that shouldn’t take away from another strong season from the Seahawks QB.
4. What’s one thing the Seahawks must do well against the Rams?
Jude: It starts with Aaron Donald, who is the favorite to win his third Defensive Player of the Year award. And Donald sounds plenty motivated for another shot at the Seahawks. “That’s what we wanted. That’s exactly what we wanted,” Donald told ESPN’s Lindsey Thiry after the Rams clinched their postseason berth with an 18-7 victory over Arizona on Sunday. Donald has 13.5 sacks and four forced fumbles this season, but the Seahawks have been able to limit him to one sack in two games. But the double-teams (and sometimes triple-teams) of Donald have opened up rush lanes for defensive end Leonard Floyd, who has five of his 10.5 sacks this season against the Seahawks. For the Seahawks to do what they need — establish the run and give Wilson time to take a few shots downfield — it’ll start up front with a plan to limit Donald again.
Condotta: Having already mentioned the value of turnovers, I’ll go with another really obvious one — start faster on offense. I know Carroll says it doesn’t matter when the points come, as long as they eventually arrive. But the first quarter was by far the lowest-scoring this season for the Seahawks — they average 5.4 points in the first quarter compared with 7.9 or more in each of the others. True, there’s always a feeling-out process — many teams score fewer points in the first quarter than in the others. But Seattle had it going for a while, scoring 56 points in the first quarters of the first seven games. Seattle scored just 30 in the last nine and had just one first-quarter touchdown in the past six games. Playoff games aren’t easy to win in any scenario. But the longer underdog teams playing on the road — which is what the Rams are in this case — hang around, the harder the task can be.