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Seattle Seahawks looking like NFC force again as playoffs near

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PHILADELPHIA -- The boom is back for the Seattle Seahawks, but the best time for a critique is in the middle of a loud, crowded celebration. And Richard Sherman is not entirely satisfied.

Philadelphia's first touchdown, which came off a short field that resulted when Seattle punter Jon Ryan dropped a snap and Philly recovered? The Seahawks should have held the Eagles to a field goal, Sherman said, shaking his head.

This, after all, is a defense with extremely high standards, and now that those standards are being met again, even the tiniest bit of slippage is a nuisance.

That was it, however. Sherman could not summon another example of failure in Sunday's muscle-flexing against the Eagles, a 24-14 smothering that was more dominant than the score indicates. It recalled -- for the first time this season -- the Seahawks defense that propelled Seattle to the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy.

"We've still got things to clean up," Sherman said. "We can't give up those scores in the red zone. In terms of energy and passion, though, it's definitely back."

That is bad news for the rest of the NFC, which might have been lulled by the Seahawks' somnolent start to the season into thinking Seattle would fade quietly in its title defense. The trouncing of the Eagles' full-throttle offense was so complete -- rendered as a cartoon, it would have looked like Superman halting a locomotive with his bare hands -- that it sent a tremor through the conference. The Seahawks might wind up with only a wild-card spot behind the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals, but with just three games to go in the regular season, Seattle has vaulted into the company of the Green Bay Packers as one of the NFC teams to beat. And the 'Hawks are 4-0 this season against teams that are currently leading their respective divisions -- including the Packers, Cardinals and Eagles.

The numbers are startling. The Eagles' point total was their lowest this season. The 139 yards gained were the fewest by any team -- ever -- that had Chip Kelly as its head coach, including his teams at Oregon. The closest a Kelly-coached group had come to producing this poorly previously was when the Ducks fell to Boise State, 19-8, in September 2009 -- in the very first game of Kelly's head-coaching career.

The trouble for the Eagles was that because they could not gain any yards Sunday (they rushed for 57) and because Mark Sanchez barely completed -- or attempted -- many passes (he was 10 of 20 for 96 yards), they could not sustain drives. And because the Eagles move so fast even in failure, the offense's appearances on the field were scant. Three of their 13 drives (excluding an end-of-half kickoff return following a Seahawks field goal) lasted 25 seconds or fewer. Nine of the 13 (again, excluding the end of the first half) did not last two minutes. Their longest drive of the afternoon was their final one, at 3:31, and that ended in a punt, too. Philly had just nine first downs and converted just two third-down opportunities. The Eagles held the ball for just 18:04 and ran just 45 offensive plays -- after averaging 73 plays in their previous 12 games. Blink -- or go on a beer run -- and you missed them.

This, Pete Carroll said after, is the way the Seahawks want to play, but his team had also seemingly heard quite enough about the Eagles' high-powered offense.

"I said this before -- they've got to deal with us, just like we've got to deal with them," Sherman said. "Hurry up all you want, but if you can't complete passes and get yards, that's a lot of three-and-outs."

The Eagles and Kelly repeatedly pleaded for officials to throw penalty flags to insulate them from the opposing secondary's brutality, a sure signal of their mounting frustration. The Seahawks' defense might be the best in the NFL at simply wearing opponents down -- physically, certainly, but mentally, too. They leave no oxygen for the offense to breathe, and a team as heavily based on tempo as Philly winds up badly out of sync, to the tune of three sacks and two turnovers. The blank look on Sanchez's face at the end was a relic from his bad old days with the New York Jets, and a very unfamiliar one for any quarterback in a Kelly offense.

Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett was asked what the Seahawks saw from Sanchez, and his reply was amusing in its honesty: "Not much."

Bennett could sense how frustrated the Eagles were getting.

"They are used to making big plays," Bennett said. "We stopped one of the best offenses. The Broncos didn't do much against us. We're hitting our stride."

They appear to have been at a full gallop since a team meeting last month that followed a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 11. Seattle then embarked on a remarkable three-game winning streak in which it held, in order, the Cardinals, 49ers and Eagles to their season lows in points and yards.

That meeting was intended to focus players on their bigger, collective goals, to set aside whatever personal grudges might have existed. Even Carroll admitted after the game that the defense hasn't always played this way this season, but Bennett noted that because the Seahawks are still such a young team that has already enjoyed so much success, individual accolades are not that important. Perhaps that meeting was needed to underscore that point.

"Everybody came together," said cornerback Tharold Simon, who had an interception Sunday. "Sometimes everybody doesn't get along. If we want to do what we did last season, we have to come together and buy into the season. It's not about how you start; it's how you finish. We had people that were down. It had a little to do with injuries. Too many people weren't believing."

The Seahawks are believing now, and this victory served notice that competitors had better believe the defense that ravaged the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII is at least close to that level again.

"We're back to that," Simon said. "I'm not being cocky. No offense can come out here and compete with our defense."

That boom from Sunday might just have been a warning shot.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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