Seahawks face a serious challenge in New Orleans

The Seahawks are this weekend’s longshot. The largest underdog in the NFL, playing on the road at New Orleans against the defending Super Bowl champs.

This is more than a measuring stick, though. It is an opportunity.

“A game like this, it comes at a great time,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “We need these big challenges.”

It’s the kind of game that will let Seattle know where it stands after last Sunday’s victory in Arizona. A win that made it OK to believe in Seattle’s postseason possibilities again, to think that this first year under Carroll wouldn’t disintegrate after a pair of lopsided losses. It was a win that showed there is actually hope for this offense that was an albatross the first eight games.

Seattle put up 36 points in Arizona, more than it had in the previous three games combined. The Seahawks gained 490 yards, their highest game total in three years.

This was the same Seahawks offense that had gone 142 minutes without scoring a touchdown, couldn’t cross midfield in the second half of a loss in St. Louis and was held to a single score three times in the first half of the season.

That’s what made last week’s game so shocking. Was it an aberration or an indication of the future? Even the coach who sees the world sunny-side up wasn’t quite sure when he was asked if his offense has turned the corner.

“I don’t know that,” Carroll said. “We’ll have to wait and see. I’d like to think that.”

This next game is stiffer than just a test. The Saints are truly defending their Super Bowl title. New Orleans has allowed the fewest passing yards in the league and the fourth-fewest points. The Saints’ defense is one of the best in the league. Their offense was responsible for that Super Bowl season last season, but defense is the reason this team is 6-3. This group that thrived on turnovers a year ago — forcing 39 in 2009, second-most in the league — now has a secondary that is a primary strength.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, are just beginning to find their way. The running game has operated at more of a crawl, and Seattle has often struggled to find much of anything in the way of big plays in the passing game. At least they did until last week, when the Seahawks decided to trust in their pass protection and start firing the ball downfield.

“We’ve been talking about getting our athletes and getting our speed in space,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “Stretching the field horizontally and vertically, and I think we’re starting to do that more.”

Wide receiver Deon Butler caught a 63-yard touchdown pass, Seattle’s longest play from scrimmage in two years. Tight end Chris Baker caught a 44-yard pass. Receiver Mike Williams caught 11 passes.

And if the Seahawks could do that while still missing Russell Okung, the starting left tackle, is it fair to wonder what they might be capable of if he can play as hoped on Sunday?

“I’ve been on teams here where offensively we started to click at the right time,” Hasselbeck said, “and that’s going to be important again this season.

“I think we’ve got the ingredients for it. We’ve got to stay healthy and keep improving.”

After four years of offensive erosion, it is possible this team is on the rebound. It’s too soon to say, but last week’s game was the most encouraging sign in years, and now the question isn’t whether Seattle can manage any offense at all, but whether it can sustain that momentum.

“There’s a confidence factor that’s starting to build for us,” Hasselbeck said.