The Seahawks are now three quarters of the way through the 2016 season and heading into the closing stretch of games, or as head coach Pete Carroll would put it, they're now in finishing mode.
"I'm really fired up, here it is, it's finally finish time," Carroll said. "I know what to think and expect and how our guys have latched onto it in the past. I think the clarity of our thought about finishing is something that has really helped us focus well and take on the challenges and whatever comes down the pike at you. It's been a good part of our style of play."
But before looking ahead to that finish, a look back at who stood out, what went well and what didn't during the third quarter of the season in which the Seahawks won three of four games to improve to 8-3-1.
MVP: Safety Kam Chancellor
Given the importance of the position he plays, as well as how well he plays it, you can always make a case for quarterback Russell Wilson when it comes to team MVP, which is why he usually does get that nod when we hand out quarterly honors. And based off of Wilson's standout performance in New England, what he has added to the running game in recent weeks, and his general strong play other than in the Tampa Bay loss when the entire offense struggled, you could make a good argument for Wilson again this quarter. But we're going to change things up this quarter, in part because the defense has been the more consistent unit these past four games. New England scored 24 points on Seattle, but that's a great offense, led by one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, and the Patriots were playing at home, so allowing 24 points is actually a pretty strong performance. Since then, the Seahawks have allowed only 36 points in the past three games despite playing without Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett for two of those games, and without All-Pro safety Earl Thomas for all of one game and parts of the other two.
And a big reason for Seattle's strong defensive play has been the return of Chancellor, who missed four games with a groin injury before coming back to face New England, and who since his return has recorded 31 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble and five passes defensed.
"He has been huge," Carroll said. "As we documented about his leadership, he still led us when he's off the field, but it's much more powerful when you're making the plays and making the hits, and he has been a significant factor. He looks to be at his best. He looks like this is the best he's ever been. He looks the quickest, he's healthy, he has been just as dynamic with the hits and the plays he's made. He just seems to be like all of that is firing on a great cylinder right now and he's doing well. It's great to see."
Best offensive player: Center Justin Britt
It may have taken Britt missing his first game this season to fully appreciate just how good he has been in his first season at center. That's no knock on Joey Hunt, who did a lot of good things in his first career start, but chemistry is so important for offensive line play, so Britt's absence in the Tampa Bay loss was a big factor in Seattle's offense taking a step backwards after three straight encouraging performances in victories.
"It's the most intricate spot in this game, what's going on with the connection of those players," Carroll said. "The identification and the guy who can clear that up for the five guys so they're all on the same page can come from the center, which it does in our system. He's the captain of that, it begins there. The confidence that comes from everybody knowing everybody's on the same page, we're connected, the language and the fluid connection that makes you think quickly and clearly and allow you to function at a high level. All of that is really the chemistry that comes from that place. We've seen how hard it is to be connected when you're a new group and we've seen that more than we'd like to admit over the years. It takes a while, and here we are, going into the fourth quarter of the season, I think it's going to be a factor that you're going to see continue to be a strength of ours as we move forward."
It's the nature of the position that an offensive lineman doesn't always get singled out for his play, but Britt's play this season after moving from guard to center has quietly been one of the biggest success stories of Seattle's 2016 season.
Defensive player most deserving of more national attention: Linebacker K.J. Wright
His teammates and coaches have long appreciated what Wright brings to the Seahawks defense, but sometimes Seattle's star-power on defense causes Wright to fly under the radar when it comes to casual football fans or national media. But this season more than ever, Wright very much deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Seattle's Pro Bowl defensive players like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Michael Bennett and Chancellor.
On any given day, it's hard to say who is playing best in Seattle's defense, which actually can work against those players when it comes to individual honors, but even if Wright is sometimes overlooked because he doesn't put up big sack totals like outside linebackers in 3-4 defenses, he is without a doubt a huge part of Seattle's defensive success.
"I think what I like the most is he's such a natural, instinctive football player," Carroll said. "He really diagnoses well and gets it. He can be in a lot of different situations, he's really comfortable on the edge, but he's most comfortable behind the line of scrimmage. There's nothing that he doesn't do well. He's a good run defender, he's a good block protection guy, he has good range, he rushes well, he has good hands, can make plays on the ball. He's a very adept football player and it's really showing up. He and Bobby are playing great."
Best special teams player: Cornerback Neiko Thorpe
A recent hamstring injury to DeShawn Shead allowed Thorpe to see his first playing time on defense, but he has been a big contributor all season on special teams, particularly standing out on kick and punt coverage. Thorpe currently leads the Seahawks with eight special teams tackles, and is almost always the first player down the field on punt coverage.
"He's a really good all-round football player, which has been demonstrated by his special teams work," Carroll said last month. "He has been a fantastic special teams contributor for us."
Best rookie: Tackle George Fant
Fant hasn't been perfect since taking over the starting left tackle job earlier this season, but considering how limited of a football background he has, what he has been able to do this season is remarkable. Like almost everyone on offense, Fant struggled against Tampa Bay, but otherwise he has continued to improve from week to week, making him one of the most unlikely success stories of this season.
Overall the Seahawks have a lot of rookies contributing and who could make a big difference down the stretch. Running back C.J. Prosise had a spectacular game during the third quarter of the season, but is now dealing with an injury; first-round pick Germain Ifedi is coming off of what might have been his best performance of the season, as is tight end Nick Vannett; and defensive tackle Jarran Reed remains a big part of Seattle's defensive line rotation. No one rookie has stood out continuously like Thomas Rawls and Tyler Lockett did for stretches of last season, but this group has the depth and talent to make help the Seahawks going forward.
Best play: Tyler Lockett's 75-yard touchdown run vs. Carolina.
There have been a lot of big plays to choose from of late, whether it was Prosise's 72-yard touchdown run or Rawls' 45-yard score or Doug Baldwin's touchdown pass to Wilson or any number of big goal-line stops by the defense, but it's hard to top Lockett's touchdown run against the Panthers if for no other reason than the pure speed that was on display.
"That sideline run he had, I don't think I've ever seen anybody run faster on the football field," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "That was unbelievable. I'm so happy for him. He struggled through those injuries, and for him to be back doing what he's doing, it's unbelievable. I'm extremely happy for his success right now."
Best display of sportsmanship: Earl Thomas and Rob Gronkowski show serious mutual respect.
One of the big highlights from Seattle's win in New England was the violent but clean hit Thomas put on Gronkowski early in the game. Unfortunately Gronkowski ended up injured on the play, but both took to social media in the following days to express mutual respect for each other's games.
Best reminder that even the best teams can have a bad day at the office: Seattle's Week 12 loss at Tampa Bay.
Most encouraging trend: The improved running game.
Whether it was Thomas Rawls' absence, Russell Wilson's injuries, or a new offensive line coming together, the Seahawks run game didn't look like a Seahawks run game at times early this season. And while the Seahawks did most of their damage against the Patriots in the passing game, the past three games—yes, even that Tampa loss—have featured strong rushing performances. In their last three games, the Seahawks rushed for 152 yards, 127 yards, then a season-high 240 yards last week, averaging better than 5 yards per attempt in each game, including 8.3 per carry against the Panthers.
"We always feel like when we get the run game, that's who we are and that's what our philosophy is, and everything for us really comes off of it," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "It helps us to play a different way. When we do a hard play fake or put the ball in front of Thomas (Rawls), the defense has to react. If he's running and getting 4 to 9 yards a clip, they're going to react. That helps to give us some other shots, it helps with protections because they're playing the run and then, 'Oh it's a pass,' so they have to react to the pass after that rather than just pinning their ears back on drop-back pass. We feel like it's a huge part of who we are and getting the run game going is very important."
Trend to improve upon: Red zone struggles.
As well as the Seahawks have played on offense in recent games—again, the loss in Tampa notwithstanding—they would like to clean things up when they get into the red zone. While the Seahawks dominated Carolina, putting up season highs in yards, rushing yards, first downs and points, they still left points on the field, going 2 for 6 in the red zone. Seattle was also 3 for 7 in an otherwise impressive offensive performance in New England, and 1 for 3 against the Eagles.
Team photographer Rod Mar shares exclusive behind-the-scenes images from the Seahawks' 40-7 Week 13 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday Night Football at CenturyLink Field.