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Five reasons the Seahawks can return to the Super Bowl

Going into Week 15, the Seattle Seahawks sit at 8-5 and are the fifth seed in the NFC playoff picture.

After a 2-4 start, there were a lot of questions about the direction of this season. But in the past month, they've looked like a contender. Here are five reasons why the Seahawks have a legitimate shot to return to the Super Bowl for the third straight season.

1. Russell Wilson is on fire. Let's start with the obvious. The biggest key to the Seahawks' turnaround is that Wilson is operating from the pocket better than ever before. In the past four weeks, he's 81-of-99 for 1,094 yards, 15 touchdowns and no interceptions when he stays in the pocket. That equates to a passer rating of 152.3. No other quarterback has been better than 122.1 in that span. Wilson's first three seasons in the NFL were impressive. But in his fourth, at the age of 27, he's reopened the conversation on what his ceiling is as an NFL player. Given that Wilson is still making plays with his legs, defenses are having all kinds of problems coming up with ways to attack him, and the Seahawks' offense has a diversity that makes it one of the most dangerous units in the league. In the past four weeks, the Seahawks' offense is averaging 35.25 points per game, second to only the Carolina Panthers.

2. The offensive line is improved. Ask any of the coaches what the difference has been, and they'll point to an offensive line that was much maligned earlier in the season. Since Week 8, Wilson has been sacked on 3.4 percent of his dropbacks, the fourth-best mark among quarterbacks. In the first seven weeks, that number was 11.7 percent (32nd). Wilson has done a better job of setting the protections and getting the Seahawks in the right look before the snap. The offensive line has built continuity and improved throughout. And the ball is coming out quicker when it has to. The Seahawks have cut down on the negative plays that were killing the rhythm on offense earlier in the season.

3. They are (relatively) healthy on defense. There has been plenty of talk this season about how the Seahawks' defense doesn't look the same as it has in previous seasons. And in certain instances, that's been completely fair. But consider this: Since Kam Chancellor returned in Week 3, the Seahawks are allowing 15.82 points per game. No defense in the NFL has allowed fewer points during that span. Chancellor suffered a tailbone injury during Sunday's win against the Baltimore Ravens, but it's not expected to be a long-term issue, according to head coach Pete Carroll. Cornerback DeShawn Shead and defensive lineman Michael Bennett got banged up Sunday, but both players are expected to be OK, Carroll said. The rest of the starters should be ready to go in Week 15 against the Cleveland Browns. Richard Sherman has played at a high level. Bennett and defensive end Cliff Avril cause disruption every week. And rookie Frank Clark is giving the pass-rush a boost. There will be question marks about whether they can handle high-powered passing attacks, but the defense is in good shape going down the stretch.

4. They know how to finish. Earlier in the season, this seemed like a question mark. The Seahawks held fourth-quarter leads in all five of their losses. But since the start of 2012, they are 20-4 after November, and that includes a pair of playoff losses when they didn't win the Super Bowl. Carroll's formula for finishing -- whether it's a psychological edge, how he structures practices or another factor -- has proven to be successful. In two December games this season, the Seahawks have outscored their opponents 73-13.

5. The path in the NFC is not daunting. The Seahawks control their destiny as it pertains to holding on to the No. 5 seed. Why is that important? Because it almost certainly means a first-round meeting against whichever team wins the NFC East and a game that Seattle would almost certainly be favored in. Advancing past the divisional round would likely require winning at Carolina or Arizona. The Seahawks held a lead on the Panthers with 35 seconds left before blowing it. And they also were ahead of the Cardinals at one point in the fourth quarter. Coming out of the conference without a first-round bye is difficult, but the Seahawks have made a habit of staying in every game. Remember, this is a team that has held a lead or been within one score in the fourth quarter in an NFL-record 83 consecutive games. The way they're playing right now, potentially winning three games on the road seems like a realistic possibility.

Numbers from this piece are courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, unless otherwise noted.