Introspection seemed to be in order this week in Seattle, where, following three losses in four weeks, the Seahawks were forced to answer questions about a lack of balance on offense and an absence of playmaking on defense. It would be hyperbolic to say they had lost their identity, but there were murmurs about it. And another defeat surely could turn murmurs into whispers and whispers into shouts.
But on a 48-degree evening in Lumen Field, formerly known as CenturyLink, the Seahawks ground any potential speculation to a halt with a 28-21 victory over the up-and-coming Cardinals. They relied on the tried and trusted blueprint that has made them one of the NFL's most successful franchises since 2012, creating balance on the ground thanks in part to the return of Carlos Hyde, who gained 79 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, and by shutting down the league's top ground game while also applying consistent pressure to wunderkind QB Kyler Murray. In fact, it was Carlos Dunlap's fourth-down sack of Murray that ended the Cardinals' hopes of a staging a dramatic finish to rival their 37-34 overtime defeat of the Seahawks on Oct. 25.
"It felt like the Seahawks that we've all seen over the years," said head coach Pete Carroll.
The performance was like a release valve, sending the rising heat into the crisp Seattle air. The Seahawks had never lost three in a row since QB Russell Wilson arrived in 2012, and there was a genuine feeling that this could be the most serious threat to that accomplishment. Because even after opening the season with five consecutive wins, the Seahawks were viewed with suspicion, largely because their success was achieved so differently from previous years. Instead of balance on offense, Seattle was leaning heavily on the arm of Wilson, who entered Thursday night leading the league in touchdown passes. And instead of stinginess on defense, the Seahawks were consistently giving up big plays while failing to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable.
The latter triggered their late-October trade for Dunlap, acquiring him from the Bengals for a reserve offensive lineman and a seventh-round draft pick. It might not be as great a heist as Arizona getting wideout DeAndre Hopkins from Houston without surrendering even one first-round draft pick, but it could be just as significant because Seattle has to be stout on defense to make a title run. In three games, Dunlap now has 3.5 sacks to rank second on the team.
Any handwringing entering Thursday now seems comical considering no team is set up better for a run to the playoffs. The Seahawks (7-3) are alone atop the NFC West, a game ahead of the Cardinals (6-4), and on paper have only one remaining opponent with a winning record: the division rival Rams, who are 6-3 heading into Monday night's contest at Tampa Bay. Their five other games are against the Eagles, Giants, Jets, 49ers and the Washington Football Team.
"We have a chance to really put together a good opportunity for us," said Carroll.
As is the case with most every team, title chases are largely dependent on quarterback play. Through five weeks, no one was playing better than Wilson, who was widely viewed as the front-runner for his first MVP award. However, the ball security that has been such a significant part of his game over the years became an issue over the last month-plus, with him throwing a total of 10 giveaways in the three losses. The turnovers were such an issue that Wilson felt compelled to publicly remind reporters that he is a "great" player. Not that there was ever a doubt, but feeling the need to say so can be viewed as a sign the noise was advancing beyond the mental gates he so fervently guards.
But the questions for Wilson went beyond giveaways. There was also the issue of poor decision-making, such as choosing to throw the football when he should have tucked it and run. Against the Rams last Sunday, he passed up opportunities to make a difference with his legs and instead attempted to make the more difficult play with his arm, unsuccessfully so. That was not an issue Thursday. Wilson was efficient and poised. He took what was given to him, whether by land or air, finishing 23-of-28 passing for 197 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He also rushed for 42 yards on 10 carries.
"I love playing this game. There are always highs and lows and tough challenges, but great players always know, one, how to be consistent and, two, how to consistently adjust and how to consistently overcome," Wilson said. "For me, that's my mentality. I tell you guys all the time I want to be neutral. I want to be able to remain calm in the midst of the storm. I know the kind of player I am. I know what I'm capable of."
Wilson didn't have to carry the load because the Seahawks got contributions from their ground game, with Hyde returning after missing three games with hamstring issues. The hope is that running back Chris Carson, who has been sidelined by injury, might return as early as next week, which could make the offense even more balanced and, therefore, dangerous. Thursday the run game finished with 165 yards on 31 carries, with each of the four ball-carriers having at least one rush of 10 yards or longer.
"Before the week, I just envisioned myself having a good game and playing a clean game -- not trying to do anything out of the ordinary, just run the ball and protect Russ," said Hyde, who visualized during the week that he "would be talking (at the lectern) after the game."
Dunlap also was brought to the postgame lectern for continuing to impose his will on the field. He had 82.5 career sacks with the Bengals, but tallied just one this year before being traded. Since then, he has brought energy to what had been an anemic pass rush; Seattle has 13 sacks in three games with him, one more than it had in its first seven games. Dunlap did not play in the first game against Arizona on Oct. 25, when the Seahawks had no sacks and no quarterback hits on Murray, who threw for 360 yards and a touchdown and ran for 67 more and a score. However, Thursday night was a different story. Seattle had three sacks and seven QB hits.
"It was surreal," Dunlap said of basically ending the game with his sack of Murray. "The way the sideline erupted, I could only imagine what it would have been like if the [fans] were in there. This team is very exciting. I'm happy to be a part of it. They brought me here to do one job, and I'm happy to say I was able to get it done."
Seattle was able to generate a rush in part because it shut down the Cardinals' run game. Arizona began the evening averaging just under 169 yards on the ground, but managed just 57 on 18 carries in the rematch. The Seahawks' defense did a great job of setting the edge and keeping Murray contained. It also was disciplined in gap assignments, thus preventing the elusive Murray from finding creases and getting into space.
"It was just reminding the guys that we have to get to this guy," said middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. "We had to make him uncomfortable. That was the only way we were going to win this game -- get in his face, make him move around, as opposed to letting him just sit back and go through all his looks."
The Seahawks couldn't be more pleased with what they're seeing from their view at the top. It looks a lot like it has in previous years, in part because they recommitted to an identity that has been so successful for them.
"Our guys really wanted to turn things and get back on track," said Carroll. "And even with all of the situations with guys in and out of the lineup, it just didn't matter. The guys played really well across the board."