Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks in NFC driver’s seat entering bye


The time had come to speak to his players about the task at hand, as Pete Carroll does virtually every Saturday night during the NFL season, but the Seattle Seahawks’ relentlessly upbeat coach called an indulgent and understandable audible.

Descending a staircase at the team hotel to find the nearest television set, Carroll took a walk down memory lane: He watched the USC Trojans, a program he rebuilt into a national power before leaving amid a cloud of impending NCAA sanctions, recapture a bit of the old magic by closing out a thrilling upset of No. 4 Stanford.

“I loved it,” Carroll said Sunday night, a couple of hours after the Seahawks had rolled to a 41-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at CenturyLink Field, improving their NFL-best record to 10-1. “Our meeting started late because I wanted to get to see that guy kick the winning field goal. I was just really excited for Coach (Ed Orgeron) and everyone else. It was awesome.”

If ever a coach was going to be forgiven for a delay of game infraction, it was this one on this night. While Seahawks Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin (who lost a bet to Carroll) might not have been thrilled with their alma mater’s defeat, Carroll’s enthusiasm sets the tone for the franchise, and his popularity among his players rivals that of Batkid among San Franciscans.

In his fourth season in Seattle, Carroll has assembled an NFL team of his dreams — a chillingly efficient, potent, unflappable and well-rounded outfit that appears to be nowhere close to peaking. In dispatching the Vikings on Sunday, the Seahawks welcomed back three offensive line starters (center Max Unger and tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini) and rolled out, at long last, their prized offseason acquisition: electrifying playmaker Percy Harvin.

Harvin, acquired last March in a blockbuster trade with the Vikings, underwent hip surgery Aug. 1 and began the season on the physically unable to perform list before returning to practice last month. He only touched the ball twice in his debut, but that was enough to send a resounding message to the NFC’s other Super Bowl contenders.

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First, Harvin, on a third-and-10 play in the second quarter, reached out with one arm and made a sublime, leaping catch of a Russell Wilson pass for a 17-yard gain, setting up a Marshawn Lynch touchdown. Later in the quarter, Harvin ripped off a 58-yard kickoff return, putting the Seahawks in position to take a 24-13 lead on Wilson’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Baldwin.

Naturally, as he drove home with family members following the Seahawks’ sixth consecutive victory, Carroll was preoccupied not with the excitement of the present or the promise of the future, but with the one that got away.

“We were kicking ourselves about that Indy game,” Carroll said, referring to the Seahawks’ 34-28 road defeat to the Colts on Oct. 6, a game in which Seattle squandered leads of 12-0 and 25-17. “We started off so great, but then we gave up a couple of deep balls and they blocked a field goal. It’s a shame, because we had a real opportunity there.”

Yet even for those of us who regarded the Seahawks as Super Bowl favorites going into the season, it’s hard not to be impressed with where Carroll’s team stands as it heads into its bye week.

Thanks to the best start in franchise history, Seattle has a 1½-game lead over the New Orleans Saints — a team it will host in a Dec. 2 Monday night game — in the race for the NFC’s top playoff seed. That’s especially significant given that the Seahawks, with 13 consecutive victories at CenturyLink (a stadium in which Wilson has never lost), might possess the league’s most formidable home-field advantage, though the Saints arguably rank a close second.

And for all the drama in recent months between the Seahawks and their chief NFC West rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, the division race is practically over: With their loss to the Saints on Sunday, the Niners (6-4) dropped into a second-place tie with the Arizona Cardinals (6-4) and fell 3½ games behind Seattle, a team that has owned San Francisco in the past two meetings.

The Niners and Seahawks have a Dec. 8 date in San Francisco, while the Cardinals visit CenturyLink on Dec. 22.

“The division thing is huge for us,” Carroll said. “We hope we can close this thing out and roll from there.”

A whole lot can happen between now and February, of course, but no one can accuse Carroll — a master at convincing his players to treat each game as equally important — of not playing the long game. The coach has, in the words of star cornerback Sherman, been “super conservative” with Harvin, finally succumbing to the receiver’s extensive lobbying effort to get back on the field, but only on a limited basis. Last week, Harvin made it clear that he felt ready to return to game action for the first time since last Nov. 4, when he suffered a season-ending ankle injury that sidelined him for the Vikings’ playoff run.

“Ohhhhhh yeah,” Carroll said, laughing. “We had a really good game plan in terms of getting him healthy, but it’s been really hard to be patient. He worked relentlessly to make it happen, and he looked great in practice, so we went for it.”

Now Carroll’s players will take a few days off before returning, he hopes, refreshed and ready for the stretch run. One of them, however, will have a little something hanging over his head, thanks to the outcome of Saturday night’s clash at the L.A. Coliseum.

“Doug Baldwin owes me a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie at The Cheesecake Factory,” Carroll said. “I want to hold off (on cashing in) as long as I can, so he can owe me a long time.”

In the meantime, Carroll can savor his team’s continued standing atop our query-driven food chain, while ailing counterpart John Fox can appreciate his Broncos’ ascent to the No. 2 spot (on the strength of Sunday night’s 27-17 victory over the Chiefs, who formerly occupied it) in absentia:
Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks in NFC driver’s seat entering bye –