Time for Hawks to prove they are contenders

Logo -- Los AngelesThe last time the Seahawks faced Philip Rivers, four years ago, they lost the day’s battle but won the season’s war (or came a yard short anyway).

Coming off a stunning 36-16 blowout of the Packers in the 2014 opener, the Seahawks went down to San Diego and melted in the heat against Rivers and the Gates of Hell. They stumbled to a 3-3 start that year, but they survived an early gantlet of great quarterbacks and rallied to reach the Super Bowl for the second straight year.

Now, here they are again — trying to pull away from 3-3 and make a deep playoff run, with a string of excellent QBs and offenses looming. It’s the perfect test for this team to prove it is a real contender.

The QB gantlet starts this week with the tough-to-beat Rivers. The Hawks then will face Jared Goff, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton in a lineup that resembles the 2014 opening run against Rodgers, Rivers and Peyton Manning (and, later, Newton).

Those 2014 Hawks, led by the Legion of Boom, went 3-1 against those franchise QBs — the only loss to Rivers.

Even though Pete Carroll once again has put together an excellent defense — ranked No. 2 by Football Outsiders and in the top four in pass defense and takeaways — many people seem skeptical of his Baby Boomers because they haven’t beaten a great offense yet. They have lost to DVOA offenses ranked first (Rams), 10th (Denver) and 11th (Chicago) and beaten Nos. 17 (Detroit), 19 (Oakland), 25 (Dallas) and 31 (Arizona).

And now the defense will be firmly tested over the next four weeks — four of the top six offenses (by DVOA). The next two weeks really will tell us the true quality of the Seahawks.

“It’s kind of like Christmas,” Carroll said. “I know it’s out there, but I’m not paying much attention to it yet. This is a big matchup and so this is the one we’re focused on, but there will be time to be concerned about those, too.”

It starts with Rivers, who might be having his best season at age 36. He and Antonio Gates picked apart the Seahawks’ LOB in that 2014 game, and Rivers knows how to attack Seattle’s Cover-3. He gets rid of the ball quickly, which offsets any possible pressure. So the Hawks will need to mix up their coverages, dropping their defensive linemen into the zone — and Tedric Thompson and company are going to have to stay on top of the Chargers’ three excellent receivers (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Tyrell Williams).

“This is a really difficult challenge with a great quarterback,” Carroll said. “I can’t say enough about how good this guy is. He’s having a great year. He’s almost completing 70 percent of his passes, and they’re doing it in a nice, balanced offense, too, because they’re running the ball well. Their running backs are averaging over five yards a carry, and it just makes it really hard. Very similar to what we saw last week (in Detroit) in a really experienced quarterback and a good running game.”

The defense can be confident in the knowledge that it has a good backstop in Russell Wilson and company. The NFL’s No. 2 rushing team (161 yards per game) since Week 3 should be able to run against the Chargers’ middling run defense (run by former Seattle DC Gus Bradley and including longtime Seahawk Brandon Mebane). And Wilson, almost the forgotten QB in this matchup, should be able to continue his efficient and explosive passing (nine TD passes, one interception over the past three games) against the league’s No. 18 defense (by DVOA), which has given up the fifth-most explosive passes.

It would be a surprise if the winner of this game were not in the high 20s or low 30s. The Chargers are coming off a 20-19 win over Tennessee, but they have scored under 26 only one other time — a 35-23 loss to the Rams in Week 3. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have averaged 28.7 points the past three games, including a 33-31 loss to the Rams.

As strong as the Chargers (5-2) might be, the Hawks might be even better across the board — especially at home. If Seattle’s defense can shut down Rivers, it could be an easy win; if Rivers puts up points, as expected, Wilson & Co. look very capable of winning a shootout.

That’s kind of how all of November looks for Seattle. While the defense faces the top offenses in the league, Wilson and company face middling defenses. The rest of the season, they have a beatable slate — the eighth-easiest offensive schedule overall, sixth-easiest for the running game.

So, even if the defense has trouble against Rivers or any of the other looming star QBs, Wilson and company should give Seattle a great chance to win any of those games. History sides with Seattle, too: Since 2012, Wilson’s Hawks are tied for the NFL lead with 38 wins in November, December and January. And they are playing most of these games at home this time (six of the final nine).

Don’t forget the weather factor either. Unlike that scorching 2014 game, the Hawks are in their cool, rainy element for most of the rest of the season.

“Yeah, that was a tough day,” Carroll said of the loss in triple-digit heat in San Diego. “That was a really hot day down there. That was as hot as any place we’ve played. That was a hard day down there on the players.

“We’re playing in our element (Sunday). We’re … ready if it rains on Sunday. They don’t get much of that down in L.A.”

Even if the Hawks merely split the next four, they are good enough to win four of the final five (Minnesota and Kansas City are the only tough opponents, and both play in Seattle) to finish with 10 wins. If they can beat the Chargers and Packers in Seattle and win at Carolina (where they usually do), that would set them up for 11 wins and define them as the No. 3 team in the NFC behind the Rams and Saints. A four-game sweep, including a win over the Rams next week, would cement them as Super Bowl contenders.

Wilson has compared this season to his rookie year in 2012, with few outsiders expecting the Hawks to do much and the Hawks surprising a lot of people.

We’re not surprised the Hawks are 4-3 (more disappointed, as we felt Seattle would be 5-2 right now). As camp opened, we wrote: “This is far from the 2010-11 squad. Think more along the lines of the 2012 crew that came a few seconds short of the NFC title game and a possible trip to the Super Bowl.”

With four tough-looking games upcoming, the Hawks still have plenty of doubters, so this is their time to prove they are quietly ascending as they did in 2012.

“Yeah, we have not felt the burden of expectations coming from outside in,” Carroll said. “I would hope we wouldn’t feel it anyway, but it isn’t there. It’s really on these guys, and they’ve worked to be really, really good. They’ve worked and planned and prepared to be a really good team, so we’ll see what happens. We’ve got a long haul here before we figure that out.”

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