Well into this Russell Wilson says of his surging Seahawks (9-4), who won for the sixth time in seven games today 24-14 over the previously high-flying Eagles: "I definitely feel like our identity is showing up. We are high in confidence -- because of the work we put in."
That work is paying off huge time right now.
I was struck in the visiting locker room at Lincoln Financial Field here in Philadelphia tonight by the undeniable belief in there that the Seahawks are all the way back. Back to their dominant, 2013-champion selves at exactly the right time in the season.
We'll see if that plays out, with Seattle still a game out of first place in the NFC West with three games left in the regular season.
The first is next weekend at home against the free-falling 49ers, who lost 24-13 today at Oakland to fall to 7-6. The Seahawks are already 9 1/2-10-point favorites at home in some Las Vegas books. The game after that is shaping up as the NFC West championship game, Dec. 21 at Arizona (10-3).
“This is the way we want to play,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “We gave the ball up one time today on a phenomenal hit by their guy (on Lynch after a third-quarter catch), but we are taking care of the ball in great fashion. The defense continues to find the football a few times a game, which is huge. When you play the defense that we’re playing – and we ran for 188 yards again – that’s how we play.
“It hasn’t been that way all season long. But it has seemed to come together here. We’re going to see if we can ride this.”
Then he smiled.
“It’s not how you start,” he said. “It’s how you finish.”
Here's one thing the Seahawks have flourished with the last two games that they are likely to stay with Sunday against the 49ers.
Byron Maxwell looked better than a nickel. More like a quarter or half-dollar. And Carroll and Dan Quinn look like sages.
On Friday Carroll had talked about how much he and Quinn, his defensive coordinator, like usual starting cornerback Maxwell inside as the fill-in fifth – “nickel” – defensive back with Jeremy Lane injured.
Sunday with Lane still out with a gluteus injury, Maxwell showed why the Seahawks love him there.
Maxwell made five plays to stop the Eagles on third downs and end drives. Two of those were passes he knocked away from Eagles slot receiver Jordan Matthews in the first half. Three others came on immediate tackles after catches over the middle.
Maxwell’s instant tackle of wide receiver Riley Cooper two yards short of the first down with 1:48 left in the first half of a tie game forced Philadelphia to punt. The Seahawks converted that ensuing chance into Steven Hauschka’s field goal the end of the half, and they never relinquished that lead.
“I love it (at nickel),” the rangy, 6-foot-1 Maxwell said to the only reporter talking to him following the game – me -- while two dozen crowded around teammate Richard Sherman’s locker a few feet to his left.
“You get to be freer to make more plays inside. You get to run around more.”
Carroll likes Maxwell’s size, long arms and speed against opposing slot receivers.
Matthews probably wasn’t as thrilled. He had just two catches for 23 yards, after 54 catches in 12 games before he ran into Maxwell.
“For one, it’s a good matchup,” Carroll said. “Matthews got us once (for 17 yards in the first half), but it was a good matchup we thought going in, so we had some good chances with him.”
The Seahawks’ new arrangement includes Tharold Simon at Maxwell’s usual spot at cornerback opposite Sherman when Maxwell moves inside. Simon had his first career interception in his eighth career game, covering Cooper 40 yards downfield on a post pattern that Mark Sanchez overthrew by four yards.
Sherman sees this as a win-win, Maxwell inside and the emerging Simon outside. It’s an arrangement the Seahawks might be tempted to continue to use even when Lane – injured most of this season – fully returns from his gluteus-muscle injury. Especially next weekend against the same 49ers the Maxwell-at-nickel move helped throttle last week in Seattle’s 19-3 win in California.
“I've said before I thought Tharold Simon was going to be one of the better corners in this football league. And he's starting to finally figure it out a little bit,” Sherman said. “He's starting to come into his own. I'm really proud of him. He played a great game tonight."
Carroll had joked on Friday whether he should trade jabs with Mark Sanchez, his quarterback at USC through the 2009 Rose Bowl they won together. The Seahawks defense hit Sanchez for him Sunday. It sacked Sanchez three times and limited him to a mere 98 yards passing on 10 completions in 20 attempts.
Philadelphia was the No. 4 offense in the NFL entering Sunday, with 31 points and 416 yards per game. The Eagles had season lows of two touchdowns and 139 yards against Seattle and the Maxwell-Simon set-up. That is the lowest yardage total in Chip Kelly’s head coaching career, back to before he was leading the Oregon Ducks.
“Our guys covered very well. We made it hard on Mark,” Carroll said. “There was not a lot of space out there to throw the football.”