Sports

Seahawks primed for playoff run

Another year, another division title; this is the mantra heard from Seahawk fans throughout the Pacific Northwest. And who can blame them? Since 2003, the Seahawks have amassed four consecutive division titles, five consecutive trips to the playoffs and a Super Bowl appearance. In that period of time, only the Colts and Patriots have won more games.

The pundits once again are saying the wolves are at the door in the NFC West and the Seahawks' reign will come to an end. This is merely formality; the Seahawks have a talented young nucleus, excellent coaching and should be Super Bowl contenders once again.



The incumbents

The Seahawks are entering this season with most of the starting offense and defense intact. Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is coming off a season in which he set franchise records for passing attempts and completions. This was more a symptom of a poor running game but it showed he can handle a heavy workload. If he can stay healthy, look for another strong season from him. Left tackle Walter Jones returns to add to his Hall of Fame resume. He is on the downside of an amazing career but still remains a force in pass protection.

The starting receivers, Deion Branch and Bobby Engram, most likely will begin the season on the injured list. Branch is recovering from ACL surgery and Engram sustained a cracked shoulder in the preseason. The sooner these two can return to the field, the better. They both have proved themselves effective targets and though there is depth behind them, it is young and unproven.

The defense returns all 11 starters from last year, unless first-round draft pick Lawrence Jackson can supplant Darryl Tapp on the right side of the defensive line. All-Pro defensive end Patrick Kerney will man the left side after leading the NFC in sacks during the 2007 season. Age and injuries eventually will catch up to him - he has yet to play in preseason due to a variety of ailments - but when he is healthy, he is a dominant pass rusher.

All three starting linebackers return and easily can be considered the best unit in the NFL. Julian Peterson has been a Pro-Bowler for both of his years in Seahawk uniform and there is no sign of him slowing down. Leroy Hill is entering a contract year so expect him to have another productive season despite playing in the shadow of Peterson and Lofa Tatupu.

Tatupu just signed a large contract extension and will man the middle of the Seahawk defense for years to come. He is an elite player at his position and has the potential to be an all-time great.

Cornerback Marcus Trufant appears to have reached the potential he showed earlier in his career and should remain an elite player for several more years. Third-year man Kelly Jennings will man the other cornerback position. He also has great potential and should take a huge leap forward this year.



The new guys

Free agency and the draft have allowed the Seahawks to bring in some fresh talent this offseason. The running game has seen many improvements, starting with veteran guard Mike Wahle.

Wahle was a salary cap casualty in Carolina and is the next man to attempt to fill the void left by the departure of All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson. Wahle, a two-time Pro Bowler, isn't the player Hutchinson is but is no slouch, either. He should bolster an offensive line that has been on life support since the 2005 season.

Three new running backs will battle holdover Maurice Morris for carries. Julius Jones is currently the favorite to start, with T.J. Duckett picking up goal line and short yardage carries. Rookie Justin Forsett has been electric in preseason and also figures to get a share of the carries. Expect a committee approach here, with all four backs getting onto the field when needed.

Rookie John Carlson should be the new starting tight end. He has shown good hands and route running ability in practice and needs only to be consistent, not spectacular, to help Seahawk fans forget the names Jerramy Stevens and Marcus Pollard.

New to the defense is rookie Lawrence Jackson. He has impressed the coaching staff with his knowledge and athletic ability and already is being considered to start at defensive end. Rookie defensive tackle Red Bryant is a mountain of a man who is right now more potential than ability.

Free agent signing Olindo Mare and rookie Brandon Coutu are currently battling for the kicking job left vacant by Josh Brown. Mare has the stronger leg but Coutu has shown impressive accuracy in the preseason. This one might come down to a coin flip.



The competition

The NFC West is widely considered the weakest division in the NFL. In the past few years, no team other than Seattle has done anything to prove otherwise. It appears this stigma will remain for at least one more year.

The St. Louis Rams are coming off a dreadful two-win campaign that saw them inflicted with an unprecedented number of injuries on their offensive line. With stud running back Steven Jackson recently ending his holdout and Pro Bowl wide receiver Torry Holt returning, the Rams should be able to score points this year. Unfortunately for them, their defense will remain a weakness and they will struggle to stay out of the cellar.

Every season is the beginning of a new day for the Arizona Cardinals. They have been a sleeper pick for the playoffs for quite some time. The Cardinals have an impressive core of talent and a young coaching regime that appears to have them heading in the right direction. Kurt Warner, a steady hand at quarterback, goes alongside two Pro Bowl receivers and an aggressive defense to make the Cardinals the most immediate threat to the Seahawks. But they still don't seem ready to challenge for the NFC West crown.

San Francisco surprised Seattle by beating them twice in the 2006 season. Heading into 2007, they were expected to make a run at the playoffs and possibly take the division. One year later and after two beatings at the hands of Seattle, they are arguably the worst team in the league. Problems on both sides of the ball have plagued the 49ers, and there is much uncertainty at the quarterback position. They made some big acquisitions in the offseason but don't be fooled, this team poses no threat in the near future.



The outlook

With the announcement that this year is the farewell tour for coach Mike Holmgren, anything less than a Super Bowl run can be considered a disappointment for the Seahawks. The pieces are in place for a high level of success in 2008. An elite offense and a young and talented defense make the Seahawks as good a choice as any to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. This time, however, don't expect Holmgren to leave without the ultimate prize.



John Dorgan is a freelance writer from Sequim. He can be reached via e-mail at

dorganica@gmail.com.

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