If the Seahawks end up securing a playoff berth for the sixth time in six seasons, it will require an MVP-caliber effort from quarterback Russell Wilson.
Pete Carroll’s best Seattle teams have been built around ball control on offense and an intimidating secondary on defense – signature traits no longer applicable in 2017.
Absent a reliably productive running back, the rushing attack ranks 22nd among the league’s 32 teams. While the deterioration of the 13th-ranked pass defense is not as evident, opposing quarterbacks no longer are left with only a prayer as they execute quick-strike throws late in the fourth quarter.
That the Seahawks are alive and kicking heading into their Monday night game against the Falcons is a tribute to Wilson, vying to become the franchise’s first Offensive Player of the Year since running back Shaun Alexander in 2004.
“He’s doing great. He’s on his game,” Carroll said Thursday afternoon. “He’s been able to find running space when he needs to. He’s made a ton of big plays. He’s moving well. His numbers are really sharp.
“But I think he can do better. We’re getting on him every week, asking him to see things he may not have seen before.”
Among the things Wilson hasn’t seen before is a front-loaded NFC playoff race that finds the defending NFC West champions profiling as a potential sixth seed. The Eagles are 8-1. The Rams, Vikings and Saints are 7-2. The Panthers are 7-3.
The Seahawks are 6-3, respectable but slightly deceiving. Of their six victories, five have been achieved against teams with losing records. The exception was a 16-10 win over the Rams that hinged on a final-drive pass Los Angeles receiver Cooper Kupp dropped in the end zone.
The Rams will get a chance for revenge when they visit CenturyLink Field on Dec. 17, one of five games on a December schedule shaping up as a gauntlet. There are home dates against the Eagles, Rams, and Cardinals (collective record: 19-8) and a pair of tough road assignments against the Jaguars (6-3) and Cowboys (5-4).
It’s conceivable the Seahawks offense could develop into something more balanced than a gifted athlete dodging sacks and heaving the ball. It’s conceivable, too, that the likes of Jeremy Lane, Byron Maxwell and Bradley McDougald will serve as competent replacements for injured Legion of Boom fixtures Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.
But “conceivable” and “likely” are not synonyms. Earning a playoff berth will be a challenge for the banged-up Seahawks. Earning a playoff berth with substantial perks – a first-round bye and home-field advantage – will be surprising to the point of shocking.
Carroll was asked on Thursday if the injuries that have put such starters as running back Chris Carson, defensive tackle Cliff Avril and Sherman out for the season is taking a toll on team chemistry.
“It kind of depends what you’re talking about when you talk chemistry,” he said. “This team has worked well together in terms of consistency and production, but we can do better.
“That’s still out there for us. As we turn the corner into the second half, this is the time. It’s now or never. This is when we’ve got to get rolling. We’ve always tried to excel in November and kick it into high gear in December. This is that time. Everything’s out there for us. We know that.”
Which brings us back to Wilson, whose .702 winning percentage is third-highest among active quarterbacks, behind only the Patriots’ Tom Brady (.779) and the Cowboys’ Zak Prescott (.720).
If there’s a Wilson, there’s a way. He’s thrown 19 touchdown passes, or two fewer than he delivered in 2016, when he set franchise records for completions and yards.
He’s also averaging 5.7 yards per rushing attempt. With 390 yards through nine games, Wilson already has surpassed his 2016 total of 259.
The quarterback’s revival as a running threat is not a mystery. He limped through last season, starting 15 of 16 games at something less than 100 percent after suffering a high ankle sprain in the opener and an MCL sprain two weeks later.
Wilson, who turns 29 on Nov. 29, is in the peak-performance phase of his six-year career. Carroll is pushing for the quarterback to “keep working to find a way to make things more efficient and more effective. That’s the only way he wants to be anyway.
“He’s having a really, really good season.”
Anybody deserves to take those words as a compliment. But in order for the Seahawks to fulfill their playoff aspirations, a “really, really good” Russell Wilson won’t cut it.
He needs to be great.