SEATTLE -- The biggest issue the Seattle Seahawks had to address coming into this postseason was how they were going to advance without a reliable running game. The only question they faced after Saturday night's 26-6 NFC wild-card win over Detroit was how far they might go with Thomas Rawls back in the mix. That's how much Seattle changed in the course of one week. Just like that, the Seahawks were back to looking completely capable of wreaking havoc in the playoffs.
The major story of Saturday was Rawls, who set a team playoff record with 161 yards on 27 carries and scored a touchdown. He made life easier for quarterback Russell Wilson. He proved that all the problems that have plagued the Seahawks offensive line this year might be resolving themselves faster than we knew. He also reminded us of what the Seahawks can do when their run game is gashing opponents.
The comment that echoed throughout the Seattle locker room afterwards was hard to miss: This was the team they've been trying to be all season, one that could beat teams up on the ground, devastate them with Wilson's playmaking and stifle them with a defense that knows how to win at this time of year. "We did it on the ground," Rawls said. "The identity that we always try to maintain is running the ball. We want to run hard, tough and that's exactly what we did. When we're true to our identity, it feeds the crowd, it feeds the offense, it feeds the special teams. And that's something we want to maintain throughout the rest of this journey."
It wasn't difficult to understand the jubilation in Rawls' voice as he spoke at his postgame press conference. After finishing in the top five in the NFL in rushing in each of the previous four seasons, the Seahawks fell to 25th this season. Some of that had to do with an inexperienced, makeshift offensive line. More of it had to do with injuries in the backfield, as Rawls sustained a fractured fibula in Week 2 that limited him to nine games.
Rawls was supposed to be the guy who made life easier for Seattle after star running back Marshawn Lynch retired last year. Instead, he looked more like the player whose strong rookie season in 2015 (when he gained 830 yards) ended with a fractured ankle. Given that the Seahawks also lost another young back to injury midway through the year -- rookie C.J. Prosise has missed the last seven games with a fractured scapula -- it didn't seem like there was much reason for optimism. Any hopes Seattle had of making a successful playoff run revolved mainly around Wilson carrying this offense.
That belief began to evaporate in the first half of Saturday's game. The Seahawks ran the ball on eight of their first 11 plays on their first scoring drive, a possession that ended with a two-yard pass from Wilson to Paul Richardson in the second quarter. Rawls also eclipsed the 100-yard mark before both teams returned to their locker rooms for halftime. Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin said the impact on the team was immeasurable because, as he put it, "We obviously wanted to get back to playing the style of football that we're capable of."
The importance of this game wasn't lost on anybody on the Seattle roster. This isn't the same team that dominated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII nor is it the one that came within one play of winning a second championship a year later. The Seahawks clearly miss Lynch's power and his reliability. They also entered this postseason with a defense that lost the foundation of its secondary, Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas, to a broken leg a month ago.
All those issues made it hard to think of the Seahawks being able to keep pace with the sexier teams in the NFC playoff race. Dallas had the best record, a couple of exciting rookies and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Green Bay Packers had ripped off six straight wins while the Atlanta Falcons -- whom Seattle will face in the divisional round -- had the most prolific offense in football. The Seahawks felt like old news, a once proud team just waiting to be put down for the rest of this year.
The reality is this team always needed somebody like Rawls to emerge in its backfield. This franchise might rely on Wilson's leadership but it's founded on an aggressiveness that Lynch consistently delivered and Rawls can easily provide. "I'll do whatever I have to do to help this team," Rawls said. "I want a championship. I've been waiting my whole life for this. I wasn't here last year. I broke my ankle. I was sitting on the couch with my leg up. I told myself that when I got to this point, I'd do whatever I have to do for it. Anything. It doesn't matter."
Rawls was so spectacular on Saturday night that Carroll stopped by his locker after the game to offer a congratulatory hug. Rawls admitted that his coach was there because he was excited to see Rawls succeed. But Carroll also was thrilled about the way Seattle performed, with a trademark toughness that had long been missing from this offense. Carroll knew his team had to keep that mindset alive, which meant reminding Rawls of how much work still remained for him.
Said Carroll: "That was Thomas Rawls (tonight). That's the guy we fell in love with last year. We hadn't seen a lot of him but who cares? We have another game coming up this week and we'll see him again."
The Seahawks had better hope that statement rings true. If there's one thing Rawls has proven, it's that his body isn't the most reliable on this Seattle roster. He's dealt with two serious leg injuries and he also looked a bit woozy after being hit following a long run in this game. This dream that he inspired on Saturday night could easily evaporate with one unfortunate tackle.
On the other hand, it's not hard to see why Seattle was so excited after this victory. They still have plenty of stars, ample pride and the experience that comes with all the postseason games they've played over the last five years. Now they've got something else that means a lot to whatever they hope to accomplish in the next three weeks. They've got a runner who reminded them of how they built such a dominant franchise in the first place.