The Seattle Seahawks, when they won an AFL-style, offensive gunfight against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, seemed to emerge with as many questions as answers.
Just two weeks earlier, the Seahawks blew a fourth-quarter lead to the Arizona Cardinals, something they never did, particularly at home, under the deafening decibels of the hometown crowd.
So when they went to Minnesota to play the the new darlings of the NFL, it appeared ripe for a Vikings coronation, and a reminder of how hard it is to maintain Seattle's two-year orbit atop the NFC.
Then the Seahawks vaporized the Vikings, crushing them from whistle to gun. They played without their All-Pro tight end, Jimmy Graham, without their all-world running back, Marshawn Lynch. They won without a definable star at any skill position.
Russell Wilson, who signed the expected, swollen contract before this season, is becoming a QB in full. Most of us figured his fat deal would preclude the payment of other essential players, thus ending the pseudo-dynasty that saw Seattle in the last two Super Bowls. And if not for a dubious call in last year's Super Bowl, Seattle would have entered the 2015 season as back-to-back champions.
But Wilson is playing well enough to mask myriad chasms on the team. Over his last three games, he's thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, averaged 293 passing yards and managed a QB rating well over 140. With QB play like that, they can live with Luke Willson at tight end and Thomas Rawls in the backfield. Theo Lockett and Doug Baldwin suddenly look like Jerry Rice and John Taylor.
And thus the onetime 3-5 Seahawks are looking like a contender. Only now they seem to rely on their newly pyrotechnic offense rather than their formerly ornery defense.
Wilson is in the kind of zone that can carry a club into January. Right now, the Seahawks hold the final seed in the NFC, and would play the Green Bay Packers in the first round, a rematch of the iconic NFC title game last year, when Green Bay blew a 16-0 lead in the second half.
It's all set up for Seattle. Three bowling pins are ahead of them, when they play the Ravens, Browns and Rams, who are a combined 10-26. Their final contest comes against the NFC West-leading Cardinals (10-2), in Arizona. Maybe the 7-5 Seahawks are too far back to dream of a division crown, but there's ample incentive to win every game the rest of the way.
When Wilson got his cash and Kam Chancellor held out for his, it felt like Seattle would fall prey to the cold calculus of the salary cap. Once a club reaches the top, every NFL team poaches their top-end talent. And soon the team-first code begins to crack under the financial anvil of free agency.
But it's not a new narrative for a team to flip its dependencies. In the 1970s, the Steelers won two Super Bowls on the backs of Mean Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. Then their second two rings were fitted for Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
Likewise, the Patriots won a Super Bowl or two on the defensive alacrity of Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, etc. Once the old salt faded, fled or retired, they leaned on Tom Brady, who was fast growing into a big-game monolith.
That's not to say Wilson is Brady. Or that Pete Carroll is Bill Belichick. But they're pretty formidable, close enough to make a Super Bowl redux seem realistic. If nothing else, Seattle has just enough talent and muscle memory to regain some of their dynastic form.
For whatever reason, the Graham experiment didn't pop the way we thought it would. But they will need Lynch to make a playoff run more palpable. Especially if the Seahawks' defense regresses to recent form, when the Cardinals scored 39 points and the Steelers dropped 30. Carson Palmer threw for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger torched Seattle's defense for 456 passing yards and a touchdown.
Granted, Teddy Bridgewater isn't Big Ben or Carson Palmer. But the Vikings are on the come, armed with a stingy defense, perhaps the best pure runner on the planet and a QB who seems mature well beyond his NFL years.
There are a few teams branded with the mystical, "You don't wanna play them right now" handle. Pittsburgh, after their nuclear destruction of the Colts last night, is quickly becoming one of them. So is Seattle, who, unlike the Steelers, can play both sides of the ball.
The Vikings were one of them. Then Seattle came to town, stomped them and reinserted themselves as essential NFL TV for the next month... if not beyond.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.
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