Seattle Soaring

Have the Seahawks recaptured the spirit of their 2005 run? After their fifth straight win, it's looking that way

NEARLY TWO years have passed since people expected the Seahawks to lose at home in the NFC Championship Game. If you think they've forgotten, you're wrong. This team walks around with a chip on its shoulder that makes Mount Rainier look like a molehill. Maybe it's for good reason.

Seattle won its fifth consecutive game and fourth straight NFC West title with a 42--21 thumping of the visiting Cardinals on Sunday, yet the team still is not prominently mentioned among the NFC's Super Bowl contenders. If people aren't talking about the 12--1 Cowboys and Tony Romo, the focus is on the 11--2 Packers and Brett Favre.

The Seahawks are hard to gauge because their 9--4 mark includes only one victory over a team with a winning record (Tampa Bay, in the season opener), and their schedule includes only three clubs playing better than .500. Has Seattle merely fattened its record against soft opposition, or is the club just finding its stride after stumbling to a 4--4 start?

Even Shaun Alexander wasn't sure last week. The veteran running back acknowledged the similarities between the 2007 team and the one that went to the Super Bowl—great camaraderie, little in the way of national recognition, tremendous skepticism in the media—but then he stopped short. "There has to be something else that gives it that oomph—some part of the game where you think, Oh, we know we got it. That's what we're trying to find," he said. "Then I'll know for sure that this has the same feel as '05."

The Seahawks appeared to find it against Arizona. The score was 24--0 practically before the Cardinals had a chance to remove their winter gear on the 35° afternoon. The victory may not have been complete—Seattle rushed for only 80 yards and failed to produce a clock-eating first down late in the fourth quarter—but it came close.

Matt Hasselbeck threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers without an interception. The Seahawks picked off five passes, including a franchise-record-tying three by cornerback Marcus Trufant. The front seven had five sacks, with Patrick Kerney, Seattle's big-money free-agent signee of '07, getting his third three-sack game in four weeks. He leads the league with 13 1/2.

There's a sense within the organization that the team has finally found its way. "We're building on something we established halfway through the season, and now we must continue to do that," coach Mike Holmgren said after the game on Sunday. The Seahawks spent the first eight games searching for an identity. They had been a run-first team for much of their nine years under Holmgren, but changes in the offensive line and injuries to Alexander left the ground game wheezing. So Holmgren turned to Hasselbeck.

During the current winning streak, the nine-year pro has 11 touchdown passes and three interceptions. He has always been a leader, but this season he's doing it with words as well as by example. Seahawks wide receivers will tell you that in practices Hasselbeck is demanding perfection from them and from himself. That means extra players-only film sessions for the quarterbacks and receivers on most weekdays—time spent discussing, say, why a wideout ran a route a particular way. If a play isn't run correctly or a route doesn't feel right, Hasselbeck works on it with the receiver.

"He holds us to a high standard," says Bobby Engram, who had a touchdown catch on Sunday. "If we're saying our legs are a little tired, he's like, 'Nah, you go get loose and ice your legs after practice.' Everything in this offense is predicated on timing and being in the right spot, and our practices are just as fast as the games sometimes."

Hasselbeck only slows things down in the film room or after practice, when he's trying to perfect a route. Wanting to get a better feel for how Deion Branch and Nate Burleson were running a post route in the red zone last Friday, Hasselbeck kept the two after practice and went over it with them. Two days later he found Branch on the same play, running the same route, for a 17-yard touchdown and a 24--0 lead.

"We talked it through after practice," Hasselbeck explained later. "I heard what he was being told by his position coach, and he heard what I was being told. We ran it a couple of times and hit it on air [practicing with no defenders].... In the game he was double-covered, but the safety had his back turned, and so because of our conversation, because we had run the route on air, I was confident [Branch] was going to try to split the double team. I just put it where either he catches it or nobody does. The first thing we said [afterward] was, 'Good thing we worked on it.'"

This season has been an about-face for Hasselbeck, who last year threw nearly as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns (18) and completed only 56.6% of his passes, his lowest mark since 2001. He struggled not only with injuries but also with getting to know the tendencies of newcomers Branch and Burleson. Now, Seattle is off and running—er, passing.

"You can't put a finger on [just one thing] Matt is doing within this offense," says Burleson. "Not just throwing touchdowns but also controlling the game, keeping everybody focused in the huddle, cracking jokes at the right time to get us to relax—just doing a great job of leading this team. He's our captain, he's the leader of the ship. Without him we don't sail."

ONLY AT SI.COM Jim Trotter's Inside the NFL

Trotter's Take

The Bills are suddenly in the wild-card hunt thanks to quarterback Trent Edwards, who's 5--1 as a starter following a win over Miami. Edwards (right) became the first rookie since the Pats' Jim Plunkett in '71 to throw three TD passes in the first half. He's completing 62.8% of his throws.... Ball-hawking D has keyed the Vikings' playoff run. Tackle Kevin Williams returned an INT 18 yards for a TD on Sunday, pushing Minnesota's league-leading total to eight defensive scores. If the Vikings earn a wild card, their stout defense and productive rushing attack could make for a playoff upset in the right matchup.... Looks like Denver won't have a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since '01. Travis Henry, the leading ground gainer with 653 yards, is banged up; Selvin Young has 569, including a career-high 156 on Sunday.

PHOTOJOE NICHOLSON/US PRESSWIRE (CELEBRATION)MATT'S ALL Engram (84), Branch (83) and Alexander (37) have seen the offense click with Hasselbeck (inset). PHOTOHOWARD SMITH/US PRESSWIRE (HASSELBECK)[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN SOKOLOWSKI/US PRESSWIRE (EDWARDS)