RENTON, Wash. -- The Seattle Seahawks weren't playing terrible defense 10 games into the season, but it wasn't close to the same dominating unit of a year ago and they knew it.
The defense was third overall in total yards after a 24-20 loss at Kansas City left the Seahawks 6-4. Many wondered if Seattle could make the playoffs, much less win the NFC West.
Since that cold day in K.C., the Seahawks defense has been on a six-game run to glory, becoming the first NFL defense in more than four decades to lead the league in fewest points allowed for the third consecutive season.
It has been a remarkable stretch that produced historic numbers and placed the team right where it wants to be -- with home-field advantage for the playoffs and a shot at repeating as Super Bowl champs.
The Seahawks enter Saturday's playoff game against the Carolina Panthers on a six-game winning streak, riding a defensive surge that overwhelmed opponents.
Look how things changed over the final six games of the regular season: How did the Seahawks go from being an OK defense after 10 games to a unit that is being compared to the best of all time?
Three things made the difference:
1. Key players got healthy: After missing five games with a nasty turf-toe injury that required him to wear a cast, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner returned and played the best football of his career in the last six games.
"We've got a lot guys like Bobby who are like erasers out there," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "He has such an instinctual game. He plays what he sees on top of the immense talent and speed that he has. That makes for a fantastic football player."
The same is true for strong safety Kam Chancellor, who finally was able to play without significant pain from offseason hip surgery, two sore ankles and a pulled groin that hampered him significantly in the first half of the year.
2. Backups stepped up: It really showed in the trenches after nose tackle Brandon Mebane, who was having his best season, was lost for the year after the ninth game because of a torn hamstring.
But a wily old pro and an up-an-coming newbie stepped in and made the defense better. Kevin Williams, a six-time Pro Bowl player for Minnesota whom the Seahawks signed last summer, accepted the nose tackle role and showed he isn't over the hill just yet.
And Jordan Hill showed he could be everything the Seahawks hoped he would be when they made him a second-round pick last year out of Penn State. Hill has 5.5 sacks in the past six games, and topped it off with an interception in the season finale.
"He really caught on late in the year to become more effective," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Hill, who is out for the season now with a calf and knee injury. "He took over that role that [Clinton] McDonald did last year and wound up with same five and a half sacks [McDonald had], which was pretty cool. It worked out. He's really become a good part of the four-man rush."
3. Attitude: The Seattle defense, renowned for its physical play last year, had lost its edge. They found that swagger over the last six games by playing for each other with reckless abandon.
"This was an emotional change," Carroll said. "You can look at all the X's and O's and all the other stuff, but this was an emotional shift that took place. All of the credit in the world goes to the leadership on this team. The guys knew we had to make a shift and they proactively got it done. They just changed it. You saw a team fighting its way to perform close to its best. It's really been the elevation of the defense."
The Seahawks have given up only 39 total points in the past six games and no points in the fourth quarter.
"I don't think I've been part of a group as connected as I am with these guys," linebacker Bruce Irvin said. "It's a brotherhood around here. We're playing better than we did all of last year. Guys are putting their egos to the side, buying in and playing for one another. You don't find that around the league. We're back where we want to be and we just have to keep going."