Pete Carroll's best season: Nobody saw these Seahawks coming

SEATTLE -- Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has enjoyed bigger moments. He's won a Super Bowl, a couple national championships and served as the architect of one of the best defenses in NFL history. There's basically little to question about the legacy Carroll has created, which is why his latest season is so impressive. After all he's done in his career, the job he's done this year has to be his finest.

Seattle is now officially back in the playoffs after a 38-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. More importantly, the Seahawks have returned to a level of prominence few people imagined for them this year. This was supposed to be the season when the the 'Hawks learned how hard it is to rebuild after a long run of success. What they've shown is that they were more than ready to handle the new set of challenges that awaited them.

There are certainly teams with better records than Seattle's current 9-6 mark. It's hard to find any that have been more surprising than this bunch, which speaks to the job Carroll and his staff have done.

"This whole team has been about opportunities," Carroll said. "Throughout the whole offseason, the end of last year, all the way throughout the year, they have competed to make themselves a spot and a fit and bring this thing together. This is a really special accomplishment. But what's really exciting is that we're so young that it feels like we're just getting started. We're just getting warmed up."

It's not difficult to understand Carroll's giddiness at locking up a wild-card spot. The Seahawks didn't make the playoffs after finishing 9-7 in 2017 (which ended a run of five straight postseason appearances). They lost an insane amount of star players, as well, a group that included cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Kam Chancellor and defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Throw in a bitter contract dispute by safety Earl Thomas at the start of this season -- and the fact that Thomas wound up on injured reserve with a broken leg in late September -- and there was a sense that Seattle would be lucky just to end the season around the .500 mark.

The Seahawks provided more substance to those projections by starting the season with two straight losses. Then a funny thing happened. They started to believe in all the optimism Carroll and his coaches kept preaching. They started looking around the locker room and realizing they had enough talent to still be viable. The leaders who were left over from the glory years -- people like quarterback Russell Wilson, wide receiver Doug Baldwin and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner -- also kept pushing the expectations higher and higher.

The end result is what Seahawks fans witnessed on Sunday night. The Kansas City Chiefs came in with more talent, more explosiveness and more accolades. They left with a loss because the Seahawks came at them with a more grounded approach: a rugged running game, an inspired defense, a quarterback who knows a thing or two about how to win and a roster of young talents eager to prove themselves in their most critical game of the season.

"This year has been special because we really came together," Wilson said. "I was talking to some of the guys last night and I said one of my favorite parts about this season has been watching guys celebrate with one another. When guys score touchdowns, everyone is together. Everybody was counting us out early on, but we had no fear. There's a lot more that we want to do. We're not stopping here."

"There weren't very many people who thought we'd have a chance to be in this position, but the guys in the room did," Carroll said. "Led by the leaders -- Bobby, Russell, Doug, Frank (Clark), (Jarran) Reed, Tyler (Lockett) -- all those guys would not think anything except that we were going to do something special with this team this year. I know it looked bleak at times and we started terribly. But this is a real statement about leadership. This is a young team and they led those guys to believe in this."

Sunday's game was yet another example of what makes these Seahawks so dangerous. They controlled the game by dominating the clock, holding the football for just over 35 minutes. They gashed the Chiefs' porous defense for 210 yards on the ground (with Chris Carson gaining 116 yards and scoring two touchdowns), while Wilson passed for 271 yards and three scores. The Seahawks also fought through a collection of offensive line injuries that required that unit to be reshuffled at various times throughout the game.

The Seahawks' victory basically came down to them wanting this win more than the Chiefs. You could sense that in Baldwin, who had seven receptions for 126 yards and a touchdown. You could feel it in the way Seattle's defenders kept chasing Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Seahawks also forced two turnovers and continually found ways to make the necessary plays to stay ahead of Kansas City.

It's fair to say Seattle learned how to win this game by losing so many close ones earlier this season. Of their six losses in 2018, all have come by eight points or less. Three have been decided by a field goal or less, including Week 15's overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The Seahawks also acknowledged that they had to go through some heavy soul-searching to reach the place they now find themselves in.

"We did lose our way for a minute," Baldwin said. "It was hard to hear the ugly truth about some things at times, but sometimes the truth is also beautiful. And it forces you to look at yourself. The truth of the matter is that we had some questions that we had to answer. And we've done an excellent job as players, coaches and a staff of asking the hard questions about who we're going to be. And we've figured it out."

"The most powerful aspect of this is that we know who we are," Carroll said. "That's such a powerful element of this situation with the team. We know who we are. We know what we're trying to create each week. We know how to do it. When you have that connection with who you are, you become very powerful. I love that that's where we've arrived because it's been a long two years of not getting back there."

That's as close as Carroll would come to referencing the dominant years of this franchise under his guidance. As much as those previous teams were defined by various elements -- the Legion of Boom, Marshawn Lynch's power running and the improvisational brilliance of Wilson -- it also had a mental toughness that was undeniable. Playing the Seahawks back then was like engaging in a street fight. They relished the opportunity to impose their will on their opponents every week.

This bunch feels a little different. They still have brashness and talent, but -- as Wilson stated -- there's more camaraderie. The issues that sometimes led to divides between the offense and defense in the past have given way to a more communal spirit. It's helped this team discover its edge at a most crucial time and it could mean even more once January arrives.

So while Carroll is still learning about this latest team, he's already discovered two pretty important facts about them: They know how to grow up fast and they understand that there's more to winning than having a roster stocked with Pro Bowlers.

Pete Carroll has won a lot in his life by hoarding exceptional talent. This time around, he's shown us a lot more about his coaching chops -- and what he can do when nobody sees his team coming.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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