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Analysis: Can Seahawks Fend Off 49ers, Rest of Rivals to Win NFC West Crown?

Defying all expectations by sitting atop the NFC West after 10 games, the Seattle Seahawks only goal remains to lock up a division title by season's end. While there's plenty of reasons to believe Pete Carroll's squad can get it done, staying in front of San Francisco over the next seven weeks will be challenging.

Set to begin preparations for the Raiders coming out of their bye week, the Seahawks remain in first place in the NFC West with a legitimate chance to crash the playoff party when few people expected them to be competitive in 2022.

Led by a resurgent Geno Smith under center and an opportunistic defense tied for fourth in the NFL in turnovers created, Seattle currently sits half a game ahead of San Francisco. With seven games left to play and a rematch looming between the two teams at Lumen Field in Week 15, as pointed out by coach Pete Carroll, "everything is ahead" of them and they control their own destiny.

Looking at their prospects for holding onto the top spot in the division, here are five reasons why the Seahawks are built to hang on and clinch the west and five reasons why they could potentially struggle to outlast the 49ers.

Why Seattle WILL win NFC West

1. They have the best quarterback in the division.

Before the start of the season, few prognosticators would have ranked the Seahawks quarterback room anywhere except the cellar in the NFC West. But with Geno Smith dropping dimes each week and playing like a legitimate MVP candidate throwing to DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and his bevy of weapons, it's near-impossible to state a case for any other quarterback in the division ahead of him heading into the final seven games. After leading his team to a Lombardi Trophy in February, Matthew Stafford has battled through an elbow injury and now has been concussed twice in three weeks, casting doubts about his availability for a struggling Rams squad. Kyler Murray isn't healthy either and has not played up to his contract most of the year with the Cardinals also two games under .500. Jimmy Garoppolo has been solid replacing Trey Lance and returning under center for the 49ers, but he still has six less touchdowns and 500 passing yards less than Smith. At the most important position in sports, the Seahawks have the clear unlikely edge and should have the best quarterback on the field in most of their remaining games.

2. They have a young offensive line that should only improve down the stretch.

In terms of low expectations, an offensive line featuring two rookie starters in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas at tackle wasn't far below quarterback on the roster totem pole for the Seahawks heading into the regular season. Putting a new-look line with three new starters in front of a journeyman quarterback spelled recipe for disaster. And, yet, much as Smith has surprised, the front line has been more than serviceable through the first 10 weeks of the season, particularly in pass protection. As a unit, spearheaded by the leadership of center Austin Blythe and the immediate impact of Cross and Lucas protecting the edge, Seattle ranks fifth in ESPN's Pass Block Win Rate metric and 10th in Pro Football Focus' pass block grade rankings. If there's a clear area of development, the Seahawks have received marginal run blocking at times, ranking 22nd in Run Block Win rate and 17th in run blocking grade. But there have been flashes of brilliance opening up holes for Walker in that regard. As Cross and Lucas continue to grow with the rest of the line, run blocking should naturally improve in the final seven weeks, which would be a huge boost for an already good offense.

3. Recent success with the pass rush looks sustainable given personnel.

During their dreadful defensive start, the Seahawks only produced eight combined sacks as a team, struggling to get to the quarterback while also getting steamrolled in the run game. Once the coaching staff adjusted to let the front line play more aggressively with one-gapping techniques, however, everything changed. Playing a vital role in rapid improvements across the board defensively, Uchenna Nwosu and Shelby Harris led the way as Seattle racked up 19 sacks during a four-game winning streak. Some of that boiled down to playing banged up offensive lines, including Arizona twice without star center Rodney Hudson. Still, Clint Hurtt's defense opened the year with lofty aspirations rushing the passer thanks to an experienced, athletic group of tackles and edge rushers and the schematic adjustments finally allowed that talent to flourish. With Darrell Taylor and Poona Ford playing better as of late, this group should be able to bounce back from a tough outing versus Tom Brady and the Bucs to turn in a strong second half harassing passers.

4. A talented secondary will be further bolstered by reinforcements.

If there's another reason to believe Seattle's defensive line can continue feasting on opposing quarterbacks, a young, burgeoning secondary has quickly become the backbone of Hurtt's defense. Still in just his third year playing cornerback, Tariq Woolen has picked off five passes in his first 10 NFL games, more than any other player at his position so far. Improving as a tackler and contributing in a myriad of ways, he's a front runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year for a reason. Across from him, Mike Jackson doesn't have the interception totals, but he has only allowed one touchdown and broke up seven passes in coverage while giving up a completion percentage under 60 percent. He's also been a stout tackler. In the slot, rookie Coby Bryant has had issues at times in coverage, but he's forced four fumbles and grown up quickly in a position he didn't play in college at Cincinnati. That group will be further fortified with the return of a healthy Tre Brown, who could push Jackson or Bryant for immediate playing time after impressing in five games last season. If those youngsters keep improving and Quandre Diggs rediscovers his Pro Bowl form alongside an emerging star in Ryan Neal, the defense should only get better in the final two months.

5. A favorable schedule features five games in front of the boisterous 12s.

Over the past several seasons, Seattle's once-vaunted home field advantage hasn't paid the same dividends for the team it once did. But starting with a parade of boos towards Russell Wilson in his homecoming in the season opener, the deafening roar has returned to Lumen Field and the venue has returned to its proper place among the NFL's toughest for opposing teams. That's a huge deal in a tight NFC West race because fans will now have a chance to truly make a difference with San Francisco flying north for a Thursday night game next month and four home games in the final five weeks. If the 12s bring their A game and maybe help trigger a seismometer a time or two along the way, that dramatically helps the Seahawks odds of stacking a bunch of wins and staying atop the division.

Why Seattle WON'T win NFC West

1. The Geno Smith revival tour collides with a December stumbling block.

As well as Smith has played through the first 10 games of the season, doubters will continue to wait for the veteran to fall back to Earth and resemble the quarterback who lost a starting job with the Jets years ago and spent more than half a decade as a backup. If he suffers from a significant drop off in accuracy, sees a spike in turnovers, or simply isn't as effective leading his team to points down the stretch, Seattle may struggle to win games with an average defense and a running game that has been great at times while lacking consistency. While the Seahawks don't expect that to happen, it is worth noting he has not played in more than five games in a season since 2014 and it's not out of the question his play could taper off a bit as the season drags into December.

2. Several first-year starters crash into the feared "rookie wall" in the closing month.

To this point, the Seahawks have depended on contributions from rookies more than any other team in the league and they have achieved great success doing so. But after playing 14 or 15 games at most at the college level, the final month can be treacherous for first-year players and they can hit a proverbial wall experiencing the tail end of the grind that is an NFL season. This could especially be the case for Cross, Lucas, and Woolen, who have been starters since Day 1 and already logged over 600 snaps apiece through 10 games. That's closing in on the number of snaps both Lucas and Cross had in their final college seasons and already exceeded the most snaps Woolen ever played in a college season. Since replacing Penny, Walker has averaged nearly 20 carries per game over the past five weeks and monitoring his workload should be a priority as well. Coach Pete Carroll doesn't seem overly worried about the play of Seattle's rookies tailing off and felt the bye came at a perfect time to combat such an issue, but admitted coaches are keeping a close eye on them to ensure they aren't showing signs of being overloaded.

3. Injuries at key positions take a toll on a roster with depth limitations.

Like every other team in the league, the Seahawks have had to push forward with several quality players going down to injury in the first half of the season, including safety Jamal Adams and running back Rashaad Penny. Neither of those players is expected to return this season, but Ken Walker III and Ryan Neal have stepped up as their replacements and played at a high level, allowing the team to not miss a beat without them. Injury luck is a huge part of the equation when it comes to which teams make deep playoff runs and while Seattle has overcome injuries such as the ones to Adams and Penny, if a few more key players go down in the final seven weeks, depth could become a real problem that threatens chances of hanging on to capture a division title or even clinch a playoff spot.

4. A leaky run defense continues to be exploited with gap-heavy offensive schemes.

As part of their wholesale defensive improvements starting in Week 6, the Seahawks turned the corner stuffing the run, allowing 62 or fewer rushing yards to non-quarterbacks during a four-game winning streak. But starting up front, the unit regressed two weeks ago allowing the Buccaneers' 32nd ranked rushing offense to rack up 161 yards on the ground, putting their struggles with run fits and missed tackles back to the forefront as a potential Achilles heel. In the first five games, Seattle yielded 170 rushing yards per game, letting opponents gash them at will. While it seems unlikely the defense will return to that form in the second half, the loss in Munich showed opponents can still control games against them with the ground game and that doesn't bode well with games against San Francisco and Kansas City still on the schedule if they can't figure things out.

5. Good fortune on special teams runs out, leading to crucial mistakes in close games.

After a dismal preseason, Seattle has by and large had one of the better, more consistent special teams units in the league. Coach Larry Izzo's group ranks sixth in DVOA per Football Outsiders, lead by a near-perfect performance from kicker Jason Myers, who has made all but one of his field goal attempts and gone five for five from 50-plus yards this year. The team also ranks first in DVOA for kickoffs thanks to a cast of talented cover guys such as Nick Bellore and undrafted rookie Joey Blount. Myers' efficiency and the effectiveness on kick and punt coverage units has helped the Seahawks a great deal, but if there's any regression in the kicking game or injuries strike the cover units, that would present a substantial problem for a team that will likely need to be able to finish close games to stay in first place.

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