John McGrath

John McGrath: Seahawks better be ready for energized Cowboys

When the Seattle Seahawks’ schedule was released last spring, their Oct. 12 date against Dallas appeared as close to a lock as any game that awaited them in 2014.

Between the Hawks’ recent history of dominance at CenturyLink Field, and the suspicion bad things happen to good people there — thinking of you, Tony Romo, and the snap for the chip-shot field goal botched during the playoffs after the 2006 season — beating the Cowboys appeared to rank slightly ahead of tying shoelaces on the Seahawks’ degree-of-difficulty scale.

But the notion of Dallas as low-hanging fruit for the defending Super Bowl champs no longer applies.

The Seahawks, it seems, have developed a curious affinity for drama, preferring a nightmare on Elm Street to any stroll down Easy Street.

When we last saw them at CenturyLink Field, the Hawks began the fourth quarter with a 17-3 lead over the Denver Broncos. The lead still was substantial — eight points — during a final minute that found the Broncos, absent any timeouts, challenged to execute an 80-yard drive followed by a two-point conversion.

Denver answered both challenges, and though Seattle won in overtime, a precedent was set: Just when you think it’s safe to exhale, the Seahawks will make you hold your breath.

The pattern continued Monday night at Washington against the Redskins, who spotted the visitors 17 early points in a game that should have been a blowout. Again, the Hawks won, but their inability to shift into cruise control after taking a 17-0 lead made the victory more hollow than any East Coast road win ought to be.

Three Percy Harvin touchdowns called back on penalties? It’s gotten to the point that whenever the Seahawks score, I hear the voice of Emerald Downs track announcer Robert Geller, informing the crowd there’s been a steward’s inquiry and to hold all tickets.

Tuesday posed a tale of two cities. In Seattle, callers on the sports-talk stations were grumbling about the offensive line’s struggle to protect quarterback Russell Wilson, about the 60-yard pass the defense gave up to allow Washington back in the game, and, of course, about the 13 penalties.

All that grumbling raised a question, also addressed Tuesday: Are we spoiled? Have the Seahawks set the bar so high that a 27-17 victory, by a road team installed as seven-point favorites, is seen as a letdown?

In Dallas, meanwhile, the Cowboys were well beyond basking about how they beat Houston in overtime Sunday. The Cowboys’ focus already was on Seattle, and the Seahawks, and on a game shaping up as pivotal in the career of coach Jason Garrett.

The Cowboys began the season with modest expectations, thanks to a defense projected to be among the worst ever to line up in an NFL game. Dallas last year allowed the third-most yards in league history, and cutting ties with productive but expensive defensive ends DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher figured to auger more futility.

And when star middle linebacker Sean Lee suffered a serious knee injury during the first day of organized team activities in May, it was as if Dallas’ gradual deterioration from “America’s Team” to “America’s Punching Bag” was official.

But after a 28-17 defeat to San Francisco in the opener, the Cowboys’ defense realized its identity: A bunch of no-name players whose most conspicuous skill is attitude.

“I think most of them love football,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli told a Dallas radio station. “I think there’s some nice energy and you can tell it by how we practice — the pace — and you can tell it when you turn on our film: How guys are hustling to the ball and really hitting.

“That’s the thing we talk about: Outhit the opponent. That’s something that’s stressed. It doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. You just feel it.”

On the other side of the scrimmage line, the Cowboys have turned the ball over to DeMarco Murray, only the third NFL player to rush for more than 100 yards over the first five games of a season. The other two? Hall of Famers Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson.

Murray has essentially reinvented an offense that used to be in the hands — sometimes hot, often not — of Romo, the candid quarterback who’s never heard a question he couldn’t answer.

The combination of Marinelli’s high-energy defense, and an offense grounded by Murray, will enable the Cowboys to bring a four-game winning streak into Seattle. Their 4-1 record, through five games, is the team’s best start since 2008.

Note to Seahawks: Forget about the hollow-victory game at Washington, and turn your attention to the Cowboys. They’re for real.

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