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Seahawks hoping growth spurt continues against Falcons
ATLANTA – After the Seahawks dropped their season opener to the Cardinals in Arizona, you had to wonder how this team could ever make it to the postseason.
But here they are, on the eve of playing the Falcons in a divisional playoff game at the Georgia Dome on Sunday – with the winner advancing to next week’s NFC Championship game against the winner of Saturday night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and 49ers in San Francisco.
How is this possible? How did that team that lost to the Cardinals by four points manage to win 11 games, including five in a row to close the regular season, and then knock off a Redskins team that was riding a seven-game winning streak in last week’s wild-card game in Washington?
The simple answer? These Seahawks are not those Seahawks.
“I think about that first Arizona game and the team that’s getting ready to play the Falcons, it’s like night-and-day different,” said Chris Maragos, a backup safety and special teams standout. “There are some aspects, as far as what we’re doing, that are similar. But in terms of the overall collective unit, you really see how this team has grown.”
Said wide receiver Doug Baldwin, “How to put it into words? We knew what we were capable of early in the season, but we just really didn’t know how to put it together. It was frustrating for us as an offense. The defense was frustrated, too, because they were out there so long with the offense going three-and-out.
“It’s been a long time coming. But obviously when we’re clicking we’re clicking and it’s hard to stop.”
The key for the continuing growth has been consistency. The Seahawks’ five losses came by a combined 24 points, which was close to their average margin of defeat (21 points) in dropping nine games just two years ago in Pete Carroll’s first season as coach.
“When you see the level of consistency that we played with all season and you see just the maturity level of the guys, you’re just really seeing it all click together like a well-oiled machine,” Maragos said.
That’s another factor which makes this desert-to-dome journey even more impressive. The Seahawks are starting four rookies – quarterback Russell Wilson, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, defensive end Bruce Irvin and right guard J.R. Sweezy – and getting contributions from a half dozen others. The list of second-year starters includes the cornerback tandem of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, strong safety Kam Chancellor, linebacker K.J. Wright, defensive tackle Alan Branch and offensive linemen Breno Giacomini and Paul McQuistan.
In fact, the only holdover starters from the 2010 team that stunned the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in a wild-card playoff game are left tackle Russell Okung, wide receiver Golden Tate, running back Marshawn Lynch, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and free safety Earl Thomas.
“We had a lot of young guys, a lot of guys with not much experience,” Maragos said, looking back at the season-opening loss. “Now, with the experience and learning how to jell into a cohesive unit, you’re seeing it all come together. And really, you saw that in bits and pieces during the season. What we’re seeing now is the end product of that.”
The poster player for the vast improvement has been Wilson. Operating with training wheels on the offense early, the coaches have allowed the rookie QB to do more as he has displayed his ability to handle more. That’s how an offense that scored two touchdowns combined in the team’s first three losses was able to generate 15 during the back-to-back-to-back blowout victories over the Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and 49ers in December.
Wilson passed for four TDs in one game, and ran for three in another. And along with Marshawn Lynch, he has shoved the zone-read option into a productive wrinkle that opponents have yet to figure out how to iron out. During their six-game winning streak, the Seahawks have averaged 213.8 rushing yards.
“Russ has really matured a lot and figured out the game a lot,” Tate said. “As an offense, we’ve come light years from that first game against the Cardinals.”
Other factors in the steady improvement are guys buying into the “I’m In” mentality Carroll brought with him; a team-first-and-foremost approach; a commitment to getting better on a daily basis; and this notion that each week is a championship week.
“Unselfish, I think that’s the best word to describe all the guys on this team,” Maragos said. “Really, it’s been putting their own self aside and learning how to play together. That’s why we have such a good team.”
As for that each-week-is-a-championship-week philosophy, Maragos offered, “Guys have approached it just that way. Nobody talks about this, that or the next thing. Or possibilities, or anything like that. It’s been, ‘Let’s figure out a game plan. Let’s figure out what we need to do, how we need to do it and go out and execute.
“Guys are doing that, and it’s been absolutely phenomenal to see the results of it.”
Besides, as Carroll has been saying since he first walked through the door at Virginia Mason Athletic Center in January of 2010, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
And the Seahawks are hoping they’re not finished just yet.