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O’Neil: After season of worry, defense wins Seahawks their first division title since 2016

The Seahawks' defense capped off a big turnaround by winning the division in Week 16. (Getty)

It was fitting that it happened at home. After all, it was on this field three years ago that the Seahawks surrendered 42 points to the Los Angeles Rams in a blowout loss that announced a changing of the guard atop the NFC West.

Seahawks beat Rams | Instant Reaction | Quick hits: D is legit

On Sunday, Seattle took the division back with a defensive effort that showed just how far this team has come this season. More specifically, it showed how far this defense has come. Seahawks 20, Rams 9.

That’s right, the defense that was historically bad for the first half of the regular season didn’t give up a touchdown to the Rams and their whiz-kid coach Sean McVay. Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff had more than a little to do with that. He was absolutely brutal, but the Seahawks’ defense deserves credit not just for what happened on Sunday, but for a second-half turnaround this season that is nothing short of unbelievable.

Seattle did not win the division in spite of its defense but because of it. This defense has held five straight opponents to fewer than 20 points, and Sunday was the most impressive of the bunch coming against a Rams team that had nine wins and an opportunity to take control of the division.

The Seahawks turned in a turn-back-the-clock performance, low-scoring and hard fought. Each team settled for a pair of field goals in the first half. Neither team made it inside the opponent’s 20-yard line in the first half.

At halftime, the Rams’ coach told FOX sideline reporter Erin Andrews they needed to stop making mistakes. Pete Carroll told her he liked how his team was playing. This was vintage Seahawks football, and for the first eight games of this season, it seemed like a style that Seattle was incapable of playing.

Seattle allowed more than 20 points in each of its first eight games. It gave up 30 or more points in four of those games. Each of the first four quarterbacks Seattle faced threw for more than 300 yards. Two of them surpassed 400 yards passing. When the Seahawks gave up 44 points in a 10-point loss in Buffalo, it was the most given up in a game in Carroll’s 11 seasons as head coach.

The improvement started the following week in Los Angeles, but you’ll be forgiven if you didn’t notice. The Rams scored on their first three possessions of the game, led by four points at halftime and drove 93 yards for a third-quarter touchdown that gave them all the points they needed. That was the only time the Rams scored on their final six possessions that game, the start of a steady improvement that led to Sunday’s statement.

Count me among the people who doubted this defense. I didn’t think it capable of this kind of performance in this big of a game. Sure, the Seahawks had been good for the past month, but that had been against quarterbacks like Sam Darnold and Carson Wentz, Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins. This was the Rams, whose scheme has proven particularly troubling, and that was even true when Seattle had a better defense.

Well, on Sunday the Seahawks showed that this defense IS better. It’s not just about the caliber of competition. The addition of Carlos Dunlap at defensive end, the return of cornerback Shaquill Griffin from injury and the emergence of cornerback D.J. Reed have all played a significant role in aiding the improvement. Free safety Quandre Diggs has played his way to the Pro Bowl, and his second-quarter interception on Sunday was the game’s only turnover.

And then there’s strong safety Jamal Adams, who made the single biggest play for Seattle’s defense on Sunday. No, it wasn’t the interception he nearly made in the first half, making a great read in coverage and diving in front of the receiver, nearly catching the ball despite playing with two broken fingers. It wasn’t any of his near-miss pass rushes, either.

In the third quarter, the Rams were poised to cut into a seven-point deficit. They had the ball second-and-5 from the Seattle 7-yard line and handed the ball to Darrell Henderson on a stretch run off left tackle. Adams was rushing off the right edge, and it didn’t seem possible he could get there. In that way, it was similar to the feeling about Seattle’s defense after the first half of the season. There was just too much ground to be made up.

And yet there was Adams, timing the snap perfectly, coming unblocked off the right tackle and then running down Henderson, who was not only running away from Adams but had a good 5-yard head start.

Technically, the play resulted in a 5-yard gain and a first down for the Rams. In practical terms, it saved a sure touchdown and set the stage for a dramatic goal-line stand in which Los Angeles ran the ball four times, needing a total of just 2 yards, and were stopped short on every try.

That was as close as the Rams ever got to the end zone on Sunday, and even then, Seattle found a way to stand its ground. After a season in which everyone worried this defense might cost the Seahawks a title, that was the side of the ball that won the division for them.

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