Playmaking defense, passing game keys to streaking Seahawks

SEATTLE --Veteran NFL offensive linemen count anti-inflammatory medication and the occasional pain-killing shot as necessary evils.

Seattle's Walter Jones stands as an exception. The seven-time Pro Bowl tackle hasn't missed a game to injury in 11 NFL seasons even though a kidney condition prevents him from taking much more than Tylenol.

Unable to tame increasingly cranky shoulders, the nearly 34-year-old Jones is gutting it out. He's had to adjust, but he's not conceding anything --and neither is Seattle. The team that rode Shaun Alexander's running to Super Bowl XL has remade itself in time for a playoff run; the Seahawks' record currently sits at 9-4, on the strength of five consecutive victories.

"When you switch gears, if you have success, the guys gain confidence in what you're doing and then you kind of get better," coach Mike Holmgren said after Seattle clinched a fourth consecutive NFC West title with a 42-21 victory over Arizona in Week 14.

For Seattle, the smart question six weeks ago was whether the 59-year-old Holmgren, already having pondered retirement in early 2006, would have a compelling reason to stick around beyond this season.

The Seahawks were middling along with a 4-4 record, and in search of an offensive identity. Three losses in four games had exposed them as only marginally better than their weak divisional brethren.
An unproductive ground game was dragging down the offense. Patrick Kerney, with 3½ sacks through eight games, was looking like another example of the trouble teams find when they get desperate in free agency.

Fortunes turn quickly in the NFL.

Seattle's winning streak has energized the Seahawks and their coach. The relevant question now is whether Seattle can affect the broader NFC picture.

The answer is a resounding maybe.

Seattle's current winning streak has come against teams with a 22-36 record versus other opponents this season. The offense lacks balance, the pass-protection schemes can be unreliable and the kicking game has become an adventure without a consistent long snapper. Seattle signed 37-year-old Jeff Robinson, who had been out of football since 2005, to handle snapping duties this week.

Despite such imperfections, the Seahawks could be dangerous because their quarterback is hot and their defense can pressure the passer, force turnovers and cover on the back end. Any team that beats Dallas (13-1) or Green Bay (12-2) in a road playoff game figures to require those traits. A running game also might help, but the Cowboys in particular appear vulnerable to spread passing teams.

Matt Hasselbeck has flourished since Seattle stopped trying to run the ball on its own terms. The Seahawks are a pass-first team with the personnel to make it work. It starts with the quarterback.

Hasselbeck, 32, is on pace for to reach 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns for the first time in his nine-year NFL career. On Sunday, Hasselbeck became the first quarterback since 2003 to toss four touchdown passes against Arizona. He's heating up at the right time and his receiving options should improve.

Starting flanker Deion Branch might not regain top form until a foot injury has time to heal during the offseason, but he's back on the field and contributing. Starting split end D.J. Hackett, a difficult matchup for smaller corners, is close to returning from ankle problems.

Nate Burleson leads Seattle in receiving touchdowns with six, but 34-year-old Bobby Engram is the receiver Hasselbeck trusts the most. Engram, having overcome thyroid issues that threatened his career last season, improbably has two more receptions (76) than Dallas' Terrell Owens.

As for those Cowboys: No NFC team has defeated them since the Seahawks eliminated Dallas from the playoffs last season.

The Cowboys are much better now, as are the Seahawks, particularly on defense. Seattle's secondary, since revamped, featured former loan officer Pete Hunter in a prominent role when the teams played in January.

Seattle also won in its most recent game against second-seeded Green Bay. Hasselbeck tossed three touchdown passes to beat the Packers last season, joining Tom Brady and Tony Romo as the only quarterbacks to throw three or more against Green Bay in the Packers' last 31 games.

If anyone has a shot at upsetting Dallas or Green Bay in the conference playoffs, it's probably the team with the NFC's best record since 2003. Only New England (63) and Indianapolis (61) own more regular-season victories than the Seahawks (50) over the last five seasons. Seattle also has ample playoff experience.

"These guys play together and there is something special happening in terms of the chemistry," general manager Tim Ruskell said. "That was the hallmark for the 2005 [Super Bowl] team."

Ruskell, hired in early 2005, set out to place at least one strong leader at every position.

One of his first moves was drafting middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who appears headed for a third Pro Bowl in as many seasons. Seattle added Branch, another strong leader, last season.

Veteran safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell, signed in free agency this year, have helped cornerback Marcus Trufant enjoy a breakout season. Communication in the secondary has improved dramatically; teams are no longer beating Seattle with deep passes over the heads of confused safeties.

With reliable safety help, Trufant has the freedom to play more aggressively. His seven interceptions rank second in the league while matching his total for the previous three seasons. The 11th player chosen in the 2003 draft might be a product of a healthier environment.

Tatupu, Grant and Russell constantly are competing to see who can study the most game video. Each qualifies as the quarterback of a defense that had none before Ruskell's arrival.

Tatupu picked off three passes during a victory at Philadelphia two weeks ago. Trufant matched him against Arizona.

Up front, Kerney's addition has dramatically altered the line, particularly now that he isn't rushing from the inside on passing downs.

The Seahawks gambled when they committed $19.5 million in guarantees to a 30-year-old defensive end coming off pectoral surgery and two down seasons. But Kerney already has more sacks this season -- a league-leading 13½ -- than he collected in his final 25 games with Atlanta. He has three three-sack games in the past month after managing one in 130 previous regular-season games.

With Julian Peterson also commanding attention from opposing pass-protectors, Kerney has surpassed the career-high sack total he set with the Falcons in 2004.

"If anything, he is even stronger than what I remember from '04," said Ruskell, the Falcons' assistant GM in 2003 and 2004.

Seattle's new defensive dynamic reminds Ruskell of the years he spent with Tampa Bay.
Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch provided front-to-back leadership for those defenses. They created a healthy culture.

"Those guys police themselves and they become the benchmark for how hard you have to work," Ruskell said. "If you have a leader in every meeting room, then the work is going to get done and the professionalism is going to take hold."

The Seahawks remain relatively unproven, having played the easiest schedule in the league this season. Three more struggling teams -- Carolina, Baltimore and Atlanta -- stand between Seattle and a 12-4 record. After that, anything becomes possible, particularly in the NFC.

"We're on a roll now," Trufant said. "Hopefully we can keep it going."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.