Seahawks' historic D makes sure road to Super Bowl is through Seattle again

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SEATTLE -- Thirty minutes after the Seahawks' latest victory, a 20-6 triumph over St. Louis, defensive end Cliff Avril stood at his locker. He didn’t celebrate. He didn’t boast. He didn’t want to place this defense in any historical context, even if the numbers it has produced over the past two seasons do that for him.

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That said, it was also impossible to ignore the last six weeks, the six Seahawks’ victories, the two touchdowns allowed by Avril’s defense in those games, how only one opponent (Philadelphia) even managed to score in double digits. Sunday’s contest was just the latest example, one game in a larger pattern, an NFC West-clinching win over St. Louis secured by a defense as dominant as any in recent memory.

Avril didn’t want to touch that subject. He didn’t want to compare this Seahawks defense with the Ravens of 2000 or the Bears of 1985 or any number of defenses considered among the greatest of all-time. But he can appreciate how hard it is for any unit to be not only that stingy but that stingy most weeks for the majority of two seasons. That’s how a defense enters the all-time discussion, one bruising, lopsided victory at a time.

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NFL football is about peaking in the playoffs; not peaking for a season, or seasons. Players leave for more money elsewhere. They get injured. Their play drops off. The Seahawks experienced all that, plugged in new teammates, paid their cornerstones big money, faced a harder schedule, dealt with an early bye and finished this season the same way they finished last season -- led by a defense that separates them from other NFC contenders and makes them the favorites to return to the Super Bowl and become the first champion in 10 years to successfully defend their title.

“It’s extremely hard,” Avril said. “It’s actually the hardest thing to do in the NFL, to be consistent, to play that well from week-to-week.”

Fellow lineman Michael Bennett interrupted. “And keep your money,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways to lose that. Women, cars … ” His voice trailed off into laughter.

There are also a lot of ways for a defense to lose its mojo, to fall from great to good or worse. The Seahawks lost defensive linemen Chris Clemons and Red Bryant and cornerback Brandon Browner to free agency. They lost linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Kam Chancellor to injuries. They lost a game on Oct. 19 to the Rams in St. Louis to fall to 3-3 and what seemed like a dynasty felt more like a travesty instead.

No one panicked. Same as this Sunday. All the Seahawks had to do was beat the Rams to secure everything they had wanted at the season’s outset and everything they had achieved last year -- the NFC West crown, a first-round playoff bye, home-field advantage throughout. But the Rams scratched out a 6-0 halftime lead. The Seahawks had gained more yards and held the ball longer and converted more third downs. But they were undone by the kinds of plays that lose football games: a fourth-down conversion that failed, a Marshawn Lynch fumble and a Russell Wilson interception, not to mention two fumbles that Wilson recovered. No one worried. “Cool,” Wagner said of the vibe at halftime. “Chillin’. About to go out there and win.”

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On their first offensive possession of the second half, the Rams moved backward. Kevin Williams sacked quarterback Shaun Hill. Bennett dropped receiver Tavon Austin for a loss. The drive netted minus-six yards, a harbinger for what came next.

The Rams mounted their first serious drive of the game on their next possession. They moved the ball into Seahawks’ territory as the third quarter ended. But on the first play of the fourth quarter, Hill dropped back and tried to throw the ball away, in front of running back Tre Mason near the line. Instead, Jordan Hill, a 6-1, 303-pound defensive tackle, hauled in an interception with hands as soft as satin sheets.

Hill didn’t play football until high school. He played basketball and baseball, where he spent time at first base and in left field. Those sports helped Hill develop the hands of a much smaller man, one that made his case on Sunday to be elevated onto the hands’ team. Cornerback Richard Sherman even said the Legion of Boom, or what the Seahawks call their secondary, planned to induct Hill as an honorary member, their largest colleague yet. “I didn’t do anything,” Hill said. “I just saw somebody coming. I picked it up as soon as I could.”

If that play swung the game, Bruce Irvin’s interception and 49-yard touchdown return sealed it. As did safety Earl Thomas streaking down field to catch Benny Cunningham one yard from the end zone, where he fumbled for a touchback.

An hour later, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll stood before reporters at his news conference. He sounded almost giddy when asked about the defense finishing first in the NFL in fewest points allowed for the third straight year. “That’s fricken’ awesome,” he said. “That’s a big-time accomplishment. That’s a big, big deal.”

Then he added: “There’s a bunch of knuckleheads in that group and they’ve figured out a way to play together in really historic fashion.”

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In victory, the Seahawks defense made certain the road to the Super Bowl will run through Seattle this January, same as it did last January. For someone, anyone -- the Packers, the Cowboys, the Cardinals -- to dethrone the defending champs, they will need to score, and against the NFL’s best unit, in one of the loudest stadiums in sports. That’s why the Cowboys, who won at CenturyLink Field in October, make the most sense as the team to tab for a potential upset. They can run the ball and control time of possession and do to the Seahawks what the Seahawks do to everybody else. But they don’t have the Seahawks' defense. No one does.

After the game ended, Wilson sat at his locker. He took a selfie with his quarterbacks coach, Carl Smith, who he affectionately calls Tater. Then Tater started to dance and Wilson placed an NFC West champions hat atop his head and said “what a win.”

Tater smiled. Wilson smiled back.

“What a defense,” he said.