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'Biggest waste of time': Limiting hype key to Pete Carroll's prime-time success

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RENTON, Wash. -- Four days before the Seattle Seahawks' most important game of the season -- a Monday night matchup with the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers -- Pete Carroll began his mid-week press conference with a changeup.

"Shoot, this is a big week," Carroll said in his opening remarks. "It's such a big week."

Carroll's delivery was earnest enough, but no one familiar with how he operates needed to see the look on his face to think a punchline might be coming. It was.

"The Harlem Globetrotters are in town."

The crux of Carroll's joke is that the Seahawks never speak in terms of "big games" -- not even a nationally televised showdown with an undefeated division rival. Carroll actively tries to get his players to avoid thinking of one game as any more important than another because of how counterproductive that mindset can be.

The Seahawks will tell you it's no coincidence that they've been so tough to beat in prime time.

Their overtime win over the 49ers in Week 10 improved what was already the NFL's best winning percentage in prime-time games since Carroll arrived in 2010. The Seahawks are a combined 28-5-1 (.838) in Thursday night, Sunday night and Monday night games in that span. They’ve outscored opponents by a whopping 891-518 in those 34 regular-season games.

With a win Monday night over the Minnesota Vikings at CenturyLink Field (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Seahawks will break a tie for the second-most prime-time wins in that span behind New England’s 35.

Just don't expect them to turn up their intensity in practice this week or search for some extra gear once the lights come on and the whole country is watching. Carroll learned a lesson nearly two decades ago about the danger of making a big deal out of a so-called big game.

It was in 2001, his first season at USC. Carroll had heard all about the Trojans' rivalry with Notre Dame, one of the most storied in college football. The annual meeting was at Notre Dame that year, so when the Trojans arrived in South Bend, Carroll pulled out all the literal stops. They visited what was then the College Football Hall of Fame, then took in all of the famous landmarks on the Notre Dame campus.

"I had been told in the buildup to that game that this is the biggest thing in the world," Carroll said. "You're going to hear the bells ringing when you walk through the arches of the stadium to see the scoreboard and all of the stuff. You're going to hear all of the echoes. I made the biggest deal out of that game ... We went to the Grotto [of Our Lady of Lourdes] and we went to the Touchdown Jesus and the whole thing.

"We got our butt kicked. We just got our butt kicked."

USC lost 27-16.

"It was the biggest waste of time I have ever encountered," he said. "I thought, 'I'm never letting that happen again.' That's when the mentality kicked in. It wasn't all at once, but that was when the mentality kicked in that no longer are we going to make a game any different than any other one."

Carroll won his next eight games over Notre Dame before taking the Seahawks job in 2010. He had that lesson from 2001 in mind during a trip back to South Bend a few years later.

"They decided to wear the green jerseys," he recalled about the 2007 game. "They had had Joe Montana come in and talk to the crowd the night before. A guy [posing] as Jesus talked to the crowd and got them ready, and I just tried to make our guys believe that Joe wasn't playing and Jesus wasn't going to be on the field that day and we had a chance even though they were wearing the green jerseys. It was a really fun thing to kind of grow through and learn about. It was pretty crazy."

USC won 38-0.

The language Carroll now uses is that every week is a "championship opportunity." If his players treat each game like it's their Super Bowl, they only have to maintain their level of preparation and focus instead of trying to step things up when a big game arrives.

"When you put so much into a game, you feel like you have to do something crazy because there's more people watching," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "Your family is watching, more people's eyes are on you, so you can sometimes do something that you wouldn't normally do or try hard because you want to be seen. That could mess up your game that day, and that could mess up the team, and that could come back to hurt you."

The Seahawks (9-2) enter Week 13 with a 97.5% chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. FPI's current projections have the 49ers (10-1) as almost twice as likely to win the NFC West at 66% to 34%. But the Seahawks, by virtue of their head-to-head win over San Francisco, would take the division lead with a win over the Vikings and a 49ers loss to the Ravens Sunday in Baltimore.

On the flip side, they could find themselves two games behind the 49ers with four to play.

So, yeah, the Seahawks have a big game ahead of them Monday night. You just won't hear any of them talk about it like that.