The big story, the one everyone wants to talk about nationally and locally is that wide receiver Deion Branch will start at flanker Sunday for the Seahawks – playing for the first time this season and nine months after tearing his ACL in the playoff loss at Green Bay that ended the 2007 NFL season.
But the implications of the Seahawks taking their 1-2 record into New Jersey at Giants Stadium are far more complicated than Branch starting, or slot receiver Bobby Engram playing in his first game since cracking his shoulder.
The Seahawks need this win to maintain touch in search of their fifth consecutive NFC West title, to psychologically leapfrog a slew of NFC teams, and regain their swagger on both sides of the football to become a factor in the NFC.
"We had a good week of practice," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said before the team headed for the airport. "We have some of the guys back, which is good. Part of it, the people on the team that have been playing can't get the mindset, 'OK, we can relax because we have these guys back.' No, everyone has to keep stepping it up and get better at every position."
Certainly, the additions of Branch and Engram will help quarterback Matt Hasselbeck from a confidence standpoint. Engram will obviously be the slot receiver, but Holmgren neglected to confirm whether Keary Colbert or Billy McMullen – both new to the team over the past few weeks – would start at split end. He did say Koren Robinson will be a game-time decision as his knee continues to heal, and that rookie receiver Michael Bumpus would return punts.
But a lot of the success the Seahawks will seek on Sunday will come from establishing the running game early with Julius Jones, coming off back-to-back 100-yard games, and the ability of the defense to keep a lid on the Giants (3-0) versatile running game and Super Bowl MVP quarterback Eli Manning.
"Well they're awfully good," Holmgren said. "They're undefeated, they're the Super Bowl champs. They're very balanced. You could say a lot of good things about them, but the thing that jumps out at you, I think, is that all areas of the football team are contributing. They're pretty solid on offense and defense, and their special teams have played well."
Essentially, it's up to the Seahawks to take them out of their comfort zone on both sides of the line. The Giants have become much more of a blitzing team the past couple of seasons since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo came over from Philadelphia, bringing with him the more complicated schemes from Jim Johnson. They also have great natural pass rushers, primarily Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, and a terrific secondary.
That's a big part of the reason why it helps Hasselbeck to have familiar targets back, even if they have a ways to go to reach game shape. For the Seahawks offense to be successful, they have to find their tempo; mixing in runs and sharp passing routes. Having Branch and Engram helps, plus there is growing familiarity with McMullen and Colbert.
"They are very good and well coached," said Hasselbeck, who was coached at Boston College by Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "They had a lot of success last year. They won the Super Bowl … in large part because of their defense. They're a tough and rugged defense. Their middle linebacker has great instincts. It will be a challenge mentally and physically but we have played them before. I think both sides have a good sense of each other."
"This week is a lot easier than previous weeks. These are guys I know, these are guys who have played before. The guys who have been here the Billy McMullen's and the Kerry Colbert's they are further along this week because they have been here a little bit longer."
Also on the docket is not turning the ball over, while forcing the Giants into turnovers. Ultimately, this is the opportunity to step up on the road against the defending champs – team that has been a lukewarm 3-5 at home the past two seasons – and re-establish themselves as contenders.
…Even if it is just the fourth game of the season.
"We have played better in each ballgame we've played and let's continue it," Holmgren said. "There's no magic to playing games on the road other than you have to be at your best and do the things you have to do to win a football game normally. You have to throw, catch it, block, that kind of stuff it boils down to."
This and That
Holmgren said he may hold out Koren Robinson to save him for the big picture and not aggravate the knee that has swelled on and off. "The best I can read it is that if I, in my haste to push him out there, and in our need to push him out there, that we'd really make a very minor injury a big injury," Holmgren said. "I don't want to do that." … Running back Mo Morris, like Robinson, is a game-time decision, as he continues to hope his knee injured in the first game at Buffalo, calms down. If he doesn't play, T.J. Duckett will see more action spelling Jones. … After missing the first three games at right tackle, Sean Locklear will start in place of Ray Willis, who cemented his role on the line at tackle – and perhaps even at right guard – with physical play in Locklear's absence. … This is the first of three road games in four weeks, with the Hawks playing host to the Green Bay Packers at Qwest Field next Sunday, only to travel to Tampa Bay and San Francisco the following two weeks – followed by the Philadelphia Eagles coming to Seattle on Nov. 2.