The Seahawks travel to New England this weekend for a Sunday night showdown with the New England Patriots, who are once again one of the best teams in the NFL. The 7-1 Patriots have won four straight games, all by double-digit margins, since quarterback Tom Brady returned from a four-game suspension. The Seahawks, meanwhile, are 5-2-1 coming off of a Monday night win against Buffalo, and with their roster getting healthier, they feel like they're on the verge of taking their play to another level in the second half of the season.
"It's exciting to be making the turn, be in a pretty good position, and we haven't found our best football yet," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of his team's first half of the season. "We have a lot to still accomplish and it's going to be extremely challenging, we like this finish mode. It's something that we take a lot of pride in, I'm counting on these guys to really execute and play great football down the stretch. We'll see where that leaves us at the end."
Here are three key matchups that could make the difference when the Seahawks play at New England Sunday night:
1. Tom Brady vs. the Seahawks defense.
Yes, when it comes to Brady, it's the entire defense that needs to be on its game to slow down one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. At 39-years-old, Brady playing as well as he ever has, completing 73.1 percent of his passes while posting a 133.9 passer rating, both of which would be career highs if he could keep that up for the season. Brady has also thrown 12 touchdowns in four games, and has yet to throw an interception.
"He looks great," Carroll said of Brady. "He's on fire. He hasn't thrown an interception yet, he's completed 70-something percent of his passes, he's on fire. He has even taken off and run a couple times just to show that he can and he looks good moving around. You see no wear at all, he's fresh and ready to go."
Not only does facing a Brady-led offense challenge defensive backs and linebackers who have to cover New England's receivers and tight ends; it's also hard for the pass rush because Brady is so effective at getting rid of the ball quickly.
"That's the thing, they get the ball out really quick," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "That's their offense. Intermediate passing game, trying to get the ball into the hands of their receivers that are really good, run and catch... Those shallow crosses, out in the flats, things like that. That's the game."
Added defensive end Cliff Avril: "Everything is timing with them. He's getting the ball out as soon as guys are breaking their routes off, so they just have a great chemistry and great timing for their offense."
Seattle's defense knows it will have its hands full, but the Seahawks also are confident in their ability to match up with any offense. Avril, Frank Clark and others have shown the Seahawks can get the passer even with Pro-Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett sidelined by a knee injury; linebacker K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner have the athleticism and versatility to match up with almost anyone; and the secondary, which will get Pro-Bowl safety Kam Chancellor back this week, is as talented and physical as any in the league.
Further complicating things for any defense facing Brady and the Patriots is the way they are willing to drastically change what they do on offense from week to week. One week, the Patriots may pound the ball and have a big game rushing if they see a vulnerability in an opposing defense, while another week Brady may throw 40-plus passes. It's a challenge facing an offense that versatile, but one a talented Seahawks defense believes it can handle.
"It is hard to plan for, but it's exciting," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "It makes it fun. This is a game where you really have to study film and really lock in on all the things they're doing. It challenges you, and I like a challenge."
2. Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin vs. Patriots CB Malcolm Butler.
Doug Baldwin leads the Seahawks with 44 catches for 570 yards, putting him on pace for a second-straight 1,000 yard season, and with the Seahawks getting back to a more explosive passing game last week, Baldwin reminded everyone early in the game just how dangerous he can be, hauling in a 50-yard reception to set up a touchdown. Baldwin finished Monday's win over the Bills with six catches for 89 yards, and he would have had even better numbers if not for a pair of pass interference penalties committed on deep-passes intended for him, the second of which took away an almost certain touchdown when he was grabbed as he ran by a badly-beaten defensive back.
The Patriots might decide to counter Baldwin by putting Pro Bowl corner Malcolm Butler on Seattle's best receiver, something New England has done at times this season with Butler.
"He's a tremendous football player," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said of Butler. "He's quick he's fast, he's instinctive, he makes a lot of great plays, so I have tons of respect for the player that he is."
But Baldwin vs. Butler isn't just a matchup between two of the best players on the field, it's also one that helps illustrate why the Seahawks and Patriots are as good as they are. The Seahawks have built one of the best teams in the league while relying heavily on undrafted players, including Baldwin, Bennett, Jermaine Kearse, DeShawn Shead and Thomas Rawls, and the Patriots have a long history under Bill Belichick of turning undrafted players into big contributors, including Stephen Neal, Kyle Arrington, Randall Gay and Ryan Wendell, and most recently Butler, who went from undrafted, to Super Bowl hero as a rookie, to Pro Bowler last season. It's one thing to talk about competition; it's something else to actually let it happen at every level of the roster, and that's something the Patriots and Seahawks have done well over the year.
"We don't really care where they come from," Belichick said. "It's really just about competition and whoever the players are that earn their spot on the roster or earn their playing time; they earn it. How they get here doesn't matter. It's more what they do when they get here. Sometimes those guys are maybe a little bit lower profile coming in, but if they're able to out-compete the other players on the field, then they'll get a roster spot or they'll get playing time. The way it's happened the players have earned it. We try to create a competitive situation and just let the players decide how it works out. We can't really control it or don't try to. We let the competition bring out the best in everyone."
And Baldwin vs. Butler is just one of several big matchups in the passing game. Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham has been outstanding this season, and is coming off of a two-touchdown performance against the Bills, while the Patriots counter with the two-tight-end attack of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett that can be a matchup nightmare, making the return of Chancellor and the play of Seattle's linebackers even more important.
3. The turnover battle.
As mentioned earlier, Brady has yet to throw an interception this season, and in fact none of the three Patriots quarterbacks to play this year have been intercepted over the course of 249 pass attempts. The Seahawks meanwhile, have thrown only three interceptions, with one of those coming from backup Trevone Boykin, and each team has turned the ball over only six times in eight games, tied for second fewest in the league behind Buffalo and Minnesota, who each have five turnovers.
In a game between two very talented teams, even one turnover could be massive, but those will be hard to come by against two quarterback who are great at taking care of the ball. Including this season, Brady has been intercepted only 35 times since 2012, while Wilson has thrown 36 since coming into the league that year.
"It's so important," Carroll said of having quarterbacks who take care of the ball. "You're seeing one of the great illustrations of why programs can stay winning. Without that, it just doesn't happen. You've got to have a great dedication and respect for the ball, you have to do that. We're trying to exemplify that better than anybody's ever done it over a long period of time. You keep cranking out that emphasis, and Russell leads the charge. He's got the ball in his hands on every snap on offense. They are great at it too. All of the factors, if you want to get down to one, I would say that would be the most key and crucial factor to both our teams and why we win some games and keep making it challenging every year."