After the Seahawks finished off a 35-6 victory over the Baltimore Ravens to improve to 8-5, after a second straight dominant victory on the road, and after a fourth straight win and sixth in seven games, Michael Bennett was asked if, after so many early-season ups and downs, the Seahawks thought they could get back to playing at this level.
Bennett dismissed the question with an answer that was dripping with as much sarcasm as his beard was with sweat following four quarters of football on an unusually warm December afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Nah, we thought we were going to lose the rest of our games," Bennett said. "… My confidence was so low, sometimes I couldn't even look myself in the mirror."
All joking aside, the Seahawks once again showed with Sunday's performance that, just as they had in 2012 and again last season, they are capable of a strong finish despite some early bumps in the road. The Seahawks stumbled out of the gate this season, but after a 2-4 start, they are now into the closing stretch of the season playing their best and most balanced football of the season and are right in the middle of the playoff mix.
"It's the pretenders at the beginning of the season, and at the end of the season, it's the contenders," Bennett said. "Great teams play great football in December, and that's what you have to do to be a playoff-bound team."
The Seahawks still have plenty of work to do in order to get to the playoffs, let alone make any noise if they get there, but they head into their final three games, the next two of which are at home, feeling good about the way they are playing.
"It has been coming for some time," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We've been feeling it for over a month now, and you can see it and feel it… We've got to get cranked up and do it all over again, but it does feel right. We know what this feeling is like, and we're just going to try to get a little bit better this week."
Here are five takeaways from Sunday's victory:
1. Seattle's receivers are playing great football.
Doug Baldwin caught six passes on Sunday; three of them were touchdowns, and the other three allowed the Seahawks to convert on third down. Yet on such an efficient day in which he finished with 84 yards, Baldwin neither led his team in receptions (Jermaine Kearse did with seven), nor in receiving yards (Tyler Lockett with 104).
While Russell Wilson is deservedly receiving a lot of attention for his recent run of outstanding play—on Sunday he joined Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers as the only quarterbacks in league history to have four straight games with at least three touchdowns and no interceptions—the weapons around him are playing at an incredibly high level as well.
The Seahawks opened the game going to Kearse early, and he finished with seven catches for 74 yards, while Lockett continued to build on an outstanding rookie season, catching six passes for 104 yards and two scores, including one that covered 49 yards. And all Baldwin did was continue an incredible stretch of play that has seen him haul in eight touchdowns in the past three games, making him the first receiver in Seahawks history to have multiple touchdown catches in three straight games.
"Jermaine had a bunch of catches, and Tyler a couple of touchdowns, and then Doug just continues to rip," Carroll said. "It's really exciting to see those guys playing so smooth and so well together."
Baldwin, who is on pace to become the Seahawks' first 1,000-yard receiver since 2007, is now up to a 860 yards with 11 touchdowns, both career highs, with three games remaining on the schedule. In his last five games alone Baldwin has nine touchdowns, which is more than he had in any of his first four seasons.
"All the guys, I trust them all," Wilson said. "I think Doug's playing phenomenal football. Playing All-Pro type ball. He's making all those plays, that's the reality of it."
In the past suggesting postseason honors for a receiver in such a run-heavy offense would be laughable, but Baldwin's play this season, and in the past month in particular, makes him a viable candidate.
"I wish and I pray and I hope that he makes the Pro Bowl this year," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "He doesn't have to go play in it—hopefully we'll be in the Super Bowl—but hopefully he gets the respect he deserves. It's hard in this offense to be patient, to wait your turn, to wait for your chance, and he's been that, he has waited his turn. I'm happy he's finally being recognized, glad his talent is finally getting a chance to shine the way it deserves."
2. The defense took care of business once again.
Late in a game that was all but decided, the Ravens drove deep into Seahawks territory, but eventually turned the ball over on downs when a fourth-down pass fell incomplete. The Seahawks still would have won had the Ravens converted and eventually put the ball in the end zone, but getting that final stop was a big deal for the Seahawks defense, because it meant keeping the Ravens out of the end zone. This was the second game in a row, and sixth this season, in which an opposing offense failed to score a touchdown against Seattle's defense.
"For the defense to not give up a touchdown again, two weeks back-to-back, that's really special stuff," Carroll said. "Nothing rushing today, just a really good job, and that's what we set out to do."
As Carroll noted, the Seahawks were again strong against the run, holding the Ravens to 28 rushing yards on 14 carries, marking the fourth straight game Seattle has held an opponent under 60 rushing yards.
"I think we're playing some good ball right now for sure," defensive end Cliff Avril said. "But it wasn't that we weren't playing good ball, we just weren't finishing games early on. Now we're back to finishing games, we're back to playing four quarters, not letting off in the fourth quarter, and guys are having fun and making plays. If you can hold an NFL team to no touchdowns, that speaks volumes. So guys never want to let up."
And for at least some players, playing well in this particular building was meaningful as well.
"This is the home of defense," Bennett said. "(The Ravens) and Pittsburgh Steelers have been two of the best defenses ever in the NFL… So when you come here, you want to play great defense."
3. It was a "huge, huge" day on third down.
The Seahawks went 8 for 12 on third down Sunday, and that includes a "failed" conversion late in the game when Tarvaris Jackson took a knee on the final play of the game. After struggling on third down for much of the season, the Seahawks have gone 32 for 52 (61.5 percent) during their four-game winning streak.
"Huge, huge, it was awesome," Carroll said. "I think we were 8 for 12 or something like that, and we had to give one up on the last play. We're so tuned in to executing there. I thought third down was great play for us today. Taking advantage of the (down and distance) and having the appropriate stuff called to fit the situation was really well done by (offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell), and Russell executed the plan really well."
In some ways, improving on third down has helped the Seahawks clean up a lot of different areas of their play.
"It all goes together," Baldwin said. "Third-down efficiency, red-zone efficiency, when you put it all together and things like that are going your way, you're going to be successful. Every time we convert a third down, we're staying on the field, it gives us another chance to score points, and it also keeps our defense off the field and prevents the other team from scoring points. If we continue to do that at high level, we'll be very successful offensively."
4. The pass protection was outstanding.
Before praising the standout games of players like Wilson and Baldwin, Carroll couldn't help but first point out the play of his offensive line.
"I can't start without talking about the O-line," he said. "These guys protected all day long. Russell had a great opportunity to sit back there and do his stuff, and he took full advantage of it again and had another big game throwing the football.
"We've made so much improvement. To throw no sacks out there again, it's pretty obvious. I'm really fired up for all those guys."
The Seahawks gave up 31 sacks in their first seven games as their line tried to find its way, but after allowing zero sacks for the second time this season, that number is down to eight in the last six games. Wilson has been great, as have the weapons around him, but a big part in the recent success of Seattle's offense has been the line that has given Wilson ample time to operate in the pocket.
"I'm not surprised," left tackle Russell Okung said. "I knew if we stayed consistent and kept believing and kept tuning in one another and kept working hard, it would turn out like this…We take pride in protecting the quarterback. We don't want to get him hit, don't want to get him knocked on the ground, and today we were successful."
5. The Seahawks swung momentum with a turnover before halftime for the second straight week.
The lopsided scores in Seattle's last two games make it hard to say there was any single turning point, but in each of those games, a turnover late in the half, which the offense then turned into seven points, played a big role in the Seahawks taking control. Last week, Earl Thomas picked off a pass in Seattle territory and returned it 25 yards, and one play later Wilson hit Baldwin for a touchdown. Instead of the Vikings perhaps getting a score late in the half to make it 14-3 or 14-7, it was 21-0 just like that, and the Seahawks never looked back. In the first half of Sunday's game, the Ravens were down just four points late in the half when they fumbled deep in their own territory, and two plays later Wilson connected with Baldwin for a 14-yard score to make it 14-3.
"I love that," Carroll said. "We got the ball away from them, then we answered. We've been doing a really nice job answering the turnovers and making things happen. That's such a great opportunity in a game to capture the momentum of the turnover. The turnover is great, but if you do something with it, then you just compound the issue for the other guys. Our guys have done a great job with that."
Seahawks scored 29 or more points for the fourth-straight week, keeping the Ravens out of the endzone in a 35-6 win in Week 14.