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Seattle Seahawks regain swagger in win over Arizona Cardinals

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SEATTLE -- The Seahawks' smothering defense, the unit that swallowed up Peyton Manning and the Broncos' record-setting offense so resoundingly in Super Bowl XLVIII, got its swagger back Sunday, snuffing out the NFC West-leading Cardinals in a 19-3 smackdown at CenturyLink Field on Sunday.

And if it turns out that this pivotal performance is the start of a true renaissance -- and, perhaps, the start of another assault on a championship -- let the record show that the seeds of resurgence were sown in a walkthrough last Thursday at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center.

Literally.

During an otherwise mundane indoor practice session, All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas noticed some of the team's defensive linemen sharing sunflower seeds -- and brought the thunder for all to hear. Viewing the seeds as a sign of insufficient focus, Thomas began admonishing a couple of much larger teammates, and soon he was face to face with several defensive linemen, some of whom were similarly expressive.

The argument escalated, devolving into a referendum concerning each unit's performance in recent weeks, as the Seahawks slipped to 6-4 and fell three games behind the Cardinals in the division standings. The talk got real, and then it got productive -- and, in the end, Thomas and his fellow defenders ended up in a better mental place.

"It started with some remarks, and it turned into something beautiful, man," Thomas said in a private moment at his locker after Seattle (7-4) handed Arizona (9-2) its first defeat since Oct. 5. "I wasn't thinking clearly. I kinda challenged some guys. Maybe it was a little harsh, but I apologized, and it led to something great -- us understanding each other more, and love and togetherness and playing for our brothers.

"I've got to work on my delivery. Some of my leadership skills ... I think I keep it real sometimes too much. But that's how I grow. Whenever I make boneheaded decisions, I learn from it, man. And I think that's a big reason why we played the way we did today."

It helped that Thomas, with a leaping pass deflection to kill the Cardinals' opening drive and a terrific open-field tackle to squelch a third-quarter possession, was as prolific and disruptive as usual on Sunday. And if there were any remaining hard feelings among the defensive linemen he challenged three days earlier, they seemed to take them out on Arizona, with the Seahawks' front seven sacking quarterback Drew Stanton three times, hitting him on seven other occasions and registering five tackles for losses -- beginning with defensive tackle Kevin Williams' takedown of running back Andre Ellington 4 yards behind the line on the Cards' first play from scrimmage.

"Oh, (Earl) said some good stuff at the walkthrough, and he didn't apologize," said All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, Thomas' fellow Legion of Boom mainstay. "It was very specific, more than it's been in a long time."

Sherman wouldn't name the specific individuals to whom Thomas was directing his displeasure, but the cornerback did say, "The ones he was talking to ... they played a hell of a game today."

In fairness, that superlative could apply to many Seahawks defenders, including cornerback Byron Maxwell, whose second-quarter interception was the game's sole turnover. But it started up front, from Williams' tone-setting tackle on the Cards' first play to defensive end Cliff Avril's second sack on their final possession.

"I think we found our mojo," linebacker Bruce Irvin said. "We got our swag back today. Last year guys were loose and talking smack. Last week (in a 24-20 defeat at Kansas City) our huddle was so quiet, you could hear a needle drop. Today we were talking smack, dapping each other up, and it seemed a lot like last year."

Last year, the Seahawks were hungry for the first championship in franchise history. This year, in the wake of that success, there has been a sense internally that some have enjoyed the spoils -- and basked in the glory -- more than others.

"When you get around your brothers, you're gonna have a miscommunication and an argument once in a while," Irvin said, referring to Thomas' outburst. "Afterward he was accountable and approachable, and we had a great talk. When you win, egos can get in the way. We needed to air some stuff."

Said versatile defensive end Michael Bennett: "I think (Thomas' words and the subsequent discussion) made a big difference. This is crunch time. We were cooking today. That has to be the standard; this is the way we have to play."

The Seahawks can't afford to let up -- on Thursday night in Santa Clara, California, they'll face the 7-4 San Francisco 49ers, the first of two meetings with their fierce rivals and 2013 NFC Championship Game foes. Seattle gets another crack at the Cardinals on Dec. 21 in Glendale, Arizona. The NFC West remains an intense and intriguing division, and whichever team(s) come out of it should consider themselves playoff-ready.

While Russell Wilson, who completed 17 of 22 passes for 211 yards, ran for 73 more on 10 carries and survived seven sacks on Sunday, and Marshawn Lynch (43 receiving yards, only 39 on the ground) get the bulk of the attention, the Seahawks' D remains the team's tone-setter.

On Sunday, for the first time in a long time, the unit was mostly intact. Ten of the team's projected 2014 starters -- including underrated middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who'd missed the previous five games with a turf toe injury -- were on the field, with Williams, a former Vikings star, having replaced disruptive defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who's out for the season with a torn hamstring.

"Those guys on D were unbelievable today," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "They're back to playing Seahawks football."

Asked about the sunflower-seed incident, Baldwin said, "We (offensive players) couldn't see it, but we could hear it. It was intense. But it worked out for the best. It sparked a conversation about trusting each other."

And, of course, it featured a relative flyweight, the 5-foot-10, 202-pound Thomas, acting like a heavyweight while confronting teammates who play in the trenches.

"That's a perfect way to describe him," Baldwin said. "But he plays like a heavyweight, so it's hard to say anything (negative) about it."

Wagner, in a manner befitting his role as the Seahawks' defensive signal-caller and connective force, said he had no worries that the confrontation between Thomas and his heavier teammates would escalate.

"There wasn't going to be any drama with me standing right there," he said. "I like clogging up the middle -- that's my job."

The way Thomas sees it, those sunflower seeds might have been the magic pill that brought back the Seahawks' Super Bowl mojo.

"The whole thing brought me closer to myself, to my true nature," he said before leaving the locker room. "My teammates helped me get there, though. But staying true to myself helped me get there, too.

"We came away from that with a lot of love, and we gave a lot of hugs. And it reminded us to just go out and have fun and not worry about messing up. If somebody messes up, their brother's gonna take care of him. You can't let anything you hold back. That's when we're at our best. When we have love and togetherness, we feed off each other, and it's a beautiful thing."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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