Through the first weeks of the 2020 season, as the Seahawks took their initial steps toward clinching a playoff berth, it was impossible to imagine the biggest concern about the team entering the postseason might be the offense.
But that’s where things stand after a season that defined the term “doing a 180.”
The Seahawks had the NFL’s best offense and a historically bad defense in the first half. That evolved into a defense that allowed fewer points than any other team in the second half, and it devolved into an offense that, if not sputtering, suddenly spent a lot more time in neutral.
After the latest inconsistent outing by the offense last weekend against the 49ers — the Seahawks scored just six points through three quarters before pulling out a 26-23 win — coach Pete Carroll spent much of this week stating he was not worried.
“If you look at who we’ve been playing the last three weeks, these guys are really good,” he said. “They’ve made a difference. I don’t think the defenses early in the year were playing to this level, and so it’s a different set of circumstances we’re up against.”
But then as he noted, the Seahawks now must play one of those three “really good” defenses again in the Los Angeles Rams during Saturday’s wild-card playoff game at Lumen Field.
“Here we go with the Rams,” Carroll said. “The Rams are the best in the NFL.”
Indeed, Los Angeles finished the year allowing the fewest points in the NFL (18.5 per game), yards (281.9 per game) and passing yards (190.7). The Rams were third against the run (91.3).
The Rams have the NFL’s best defensive lineman in tackle Aaron Donald, and the best cornerback in Jalen Ramsey.
“They do everything well,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said.
One sense of how good the Rams defense played down the stretch is evident in the reaction to Seattle’s 20-9 win over Los Angeles on Dec. 27.
It took the Seahawks a while to get going in that game, which led to lots of questions about Wilson and the offense. Yet Wilson’s passer rating of 90.2 was the fourth highest of the season vs. the Rams. And Seattle was 8 for 17 on third downs, the most third-down conversions the Rams allowed all season.
And to Carroll, what mattered most is that Seattle scored more points than the Rams, which is all he says he cares about this week as well.
“We’re going to mix our game, do the things that we like doing, and see if we can find a way to get enough points to win the game,” Carroll said. “Whatever it is, it is. I don’t care about the numbers before or the stats or any of that stuff. It doesn’t matter. All that stuff is gone. It doesn’t matter at all right now. It’s what happens now that counts.”
Seattle’s offense enters the game with no asterisks or excuses.
The starting offensive line is intact for only the second time since Oct. 4 and just the sixth time all season with the return of right tackle Brandon Shell and left guard Mike Iupati.
Iupati was ranked 23rd of 84 guards this year by Pro Football Focus and Shell 37th of 83 tackles, but with an especially high grade as a pass blocker. Neither played the past two weeks, and Shell has played only once since Nov. 19 — most of the first half of the blowout against the Jets before re-injuring his ankle.
“Both those guys are starters for a reason,” Carroll said. “ … They have the most experience over the guys that have been playing. That should help the guys next to them.”
Seattle also has a full backfield, with Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde ready to go. And Greg Olsen returns to bolster the tight-end corps, a group that had some success against the Rams in the win two weeks ago (six catches for 49 yards).
But if Seattle’s offense enters the game with questions of perception, the Rams offense enters with a much more tangible one — who will play quarterback?
Regular starter Jared Goff broke his right thumb against the Seahawks on Dec. 27 and is questionable for the game after being limited in practice all week. His backup, John Wolford, has just one career NFL appearance, a start last week against Arizona, an 18-7 win in which L.A.’s only touchdown was an interception return. The Rams also recorded a safety in that game, meaning its defense outscored the Cardinals.
A report from the NFL Network Friday night said Wolford took the majority of snaps this week in practice and is “prepared to start” and that it would be “a challenge” for Goff to play.
But Seattle’s defense also is as healthy as it’s been this season, with safety Jamal Adams shrugging off a shoulder injury suffered last week. He has practiced this week and said he will play Saturday.
Carroll also said two players listed as questionable — defensive tackle Jarran Reed (oblique) and cornerback Shaquill Griffin (hamstring) — are expected to play.
What the Seahawks won’t have is a crowd — like the other eight home games this year, this one will be played with empty stands at Lumen Field because of COVID-19 restrictions.
But the Seahawks overcame that to go 7-1 at home this season.
The Seahawks also have history on their side. They are 6-0 at home in the playoffs under Carroll, though they haven’t played a home playoff game since a win over Detroit on Jan. 7, 2017. They are 5-1 in the wild-card round under Carroll, the only loss at Dallas after the 2018 season.
And in the four previous years when Seattle has won 12 or more regular-season games, the Seahawks advanced to the Super Bowl three times, the divisional round the other. Anything less than that will be a profound disappointment.
“We couldn’t be more fired up to go to this game and see if we can find a way to win,” Carroll said.
If that takes three points, or 30.