As the Seahawks return Saturday to the NFL playoffs from the same position as a year ago — No. 1 NFC seed, first-round bye, potentially two playoff games at home — it is reasonable to consider that they may be better than the team that won the Super Bowl, despite a 12-4 record that is one game in arrears.
A number of statistical measures point to incremental upticks — more yards gained, fewer yards given up, etc. — but one stands out that borders on the astonishing.
In the fourth quarter of the final six games of the regular season, Seahawks opponents have scored zero points. If fourth quarters were beaches, the Seahawks would have made a lie out of an ancient axiom, because they've proved you can sweep out the tide.
By way of comparison, in the final period of the last six games of 2013, they allowed 27 points — still good, particularly when the offense scored 41. But this year, it's 48-0.
That is a door slam felt two states away, and also unprecedented. The Seahawks are the only team in the era of the 16-game schedule (since 1978) to allow zero points in the fourth quarters of the final six games of a regular season. The stingiest fourth-quarter teams:
Coach Pete Carroll preaches relentlessly about finishing, meaning never let up. Apparently, his choir has heard, responding with a 200-decibel amen.
DT Michael Bennett made an intriguing point the other day. Totally unprovable, as most of Bennett's allegorical spasms are, but I see where he's going.
"Ninety percent of the NFL is scared to tackle," he said. "A lot of our guys are in that 10 percent [that want to tackle]."
Bennett has apparently discovered a layer of wussification just below the surface that is deeper and wider than any NFL geologist believed was possible. Or he was just wanting to piss off his contemporaries around the league. I vote for the latter.
Regardless of the motive, the fourth quarter shutouts attest to the fact that over the course of the game, the Seahawks' defense figures out and wears out opposing offenses.
The fact that three members of the defense — Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Bobby Wagner — were voted to the Associated Press All-Pro team testifies to the talent. But to manage through injuries, the Super Bowl hangover, some ego conflicts and supposedly the toughest schedule in the league, and still pitch a six-game shutout in fourth quarters brings home the notion that these are some ornery, 60-minute dudes.
TE Luke Willson celebrates with QB Russell Wilson after their game-winning touchdown pass allowed the Seahawks to prevail in Charlotte 13-9 Oct. 26. Photo: Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest
SS Kam Chancellor, a second-team All-Pro choice, buttressed Bennett's point when he was asked Thursday whether some players shy away from tackling Panthers quarterback Cam Newton who, at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, is a mobile obelisk.
"No," said Chancellor. "I don’t see that from anybody on our team. We embrace the contact. We want the contact."
No one in his presence offered rebuttal. When he says such things, there is a gravitas that makes the listener begin sliding one foot away from the speaker, preparing for a pivot.
Having said all that, the Panthers, despite the 8-8-1 record as champions of the NFL's Candy Striper Division, have demonstrated considerable moxie this season. It's true they have lost all three of the home games they played against the Seahawks in the past three years. But the total margin of defeat was 13 points.
And this season they have endured some bizarre distractions, including a two-vehicle crash in December that could have maimed Newton but cracked only a couple of vertebrae, and a fire Monday at the home of head coach Ron Rivera that caused an estimated $500,000 in damage, although no one was hurt. So the Panthers are unlikely to be bothered much by 68,000 people saying bad things about them.
They have no fear of the Seahawks. And they have already won a playoff game, beating at home a disheveled Arizona Cardinals team. So the notion of a walkover that some fans imagined does not seem to have a basis in fact. Additionally, the Seahawks a year ago in the divisional playoff game gave up 409 yards to the New Orleans Saints and were up only 16-8 in the fourth quarter before prevailing 23-15.
But the requirement Saturday is a win, not a doctoral dissertation on triumphalism. The defense is playing at a level better than a a year ago and ranks with the best in the history of the NFL.
So the forecast is Seahawks 19, Panthers 13, leaving a Sunday free to chortle at the Dallas Cowboys playing in Green Bay, where the kickoff temperature for the other NFC divisional game will be around 10 degrees, with tropical zephyrs off Lake Michigan taking the wind-chill down to aught or so.
As in, Seahawks opponents in the fourth quarter.