Lefko: The 3 big challenges Seahawks must navigate in second half

Nov 10, 2022, 10:56 AM | Updated: Jan 23, 2023, 3:37 pm

Seahawks Kenneth Walker III...

Seahawks RB Kenneth Walker III celebrates a touchdown against the Giants on Oct. 30, 2022. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images)

The Seahawks are 6-3. It is still a strange sentence to type after nine weeks, but they have so thoroughly exceeded any external expectations and re-framed the conversation around contending for a playoff berth.

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Here are the key factors that will shape that race in the second half of the NFL season.

The schedule

An unfamiliar environment awaits on Sunday, with the Seahawks in Germany for a game against the Buccaneers and the greatest quarterback to ever play in the NFL. The schedule gets noticeably tougher over these final eight games, and it’s not ideal that a trip so disruptive to the normal week-to-week routine comes at a time when the Seahawks have found a good rhythm in the midst of four straight wins. Yet, it can also be a bonding experience, further solidifying a group together as they build toward the rest of the season.

Either way, it is a massively important game. Tom Brady has been thoroughly pedestrian this season but he doesn’t turn the ball over (just one interception all year), and last Sunday showed that he can still lead a comeback like few others can as the Bucs found a way to stun the Rams. This Seahawks-Bucs game has important tiebreaker implications should either team slip from the precarious perch atop their respective divisions. The Seahawks have already lost to three NFC teams, and conference record is the second tiebreaker used when it comes to determining wild card teams (head-to-head records are first).

The schedule doesn’t get any easier after the bye week. Short weeks, tough road trips, and a division nemesis await. December will be the month that defines the Seahawks season: a road game at the Rams, home vs. the Panthers, and then a short week for a Thursday night game against a 49ers team that shut down the Seahawks earlier this season and now features Christian McCaffrey as an offensive option. Oh wait, don’t forget that the month ends with a road game at Kansas City and that Patrick Mahomes has a 17-2 record in December.

Take care of the games around that – the Bucs on Sunday and the Raiders on Nov. 27 after the bye – and the difficulty of that month can be mitigated. A 2-2 split during December is likely enough to maintain a playoff berth, even with a much-improved Jets team waiting to kick off January and then the Rams looming again to end the year.

The rookie wall

Here lies the great unknown: Will the Seahawks rookies hit a wall and fade down the stretch? The immediate production and significant contributions of this draft class has been one of the biggest surprises of the season and a key reason why the Seahawks are 6-3 and atop the NFC West. These rookies are about to hit a point where they have never previously reached during a season, though.

A college season is 12 games, 13 if your team is good, and 14-15 if your team is really good. Defensive back Coby Bryant was the only one of the Seahawks rookies to play in 14 games last year, and that 14th game, the College Football Playoff semifinal, came after nearly a month off (Dec. 4 to Dec. 31). Now add three more games to that schedule and shorten that month break to just one week.

Every player is different so there would be no accurate year-to-year correlation to try and compare a previous rookie to this current crop, and there are a number of factors at work, including the position you play. However, it is much easier to extrapolate with a running back, and Kenneth Walker III has emerged as the workhorse and definitive lead back for the Seahawks. The team has not lost since he has been the starter in a large part due to Walker’s ability to close out games.

A starting role does mean a heavier workload, and the carries are nearing Walker’s career highs from college, which he set last year at Michigan State:

• 2021: 12 games, 263 carries
• 2022: Eight games, 111 carries

In the four games prior to becoming the starter, Walker had just 23 total carries. In his four starts, he has 88 carries, an average of 22 per game (including a season-high 26 last week). Project that out over the course of eight more games and you get 287 carries. It’s not unmanageable, and this is where the minimal usage early on comes back to help, but it would also be seven straight weeks of that workload at a position that is notoriously punishing and unforgiving to players.

A crowded NFC

There are no dominant teams in the NFC. The Eagles are undefeated and the Vikings have one loss, but neither of the two have separated themselves from the rest of the conference nor displayed anything close to what the Bills and Chiefs have shown when those AFC teams are at their best.

This is good yet tricky for the Seahawks. What the conference lacks in elite teams, it makes up for in mediocre teams that are hanging around the playoff race. At 6-3, the Seahawks lead their division yet are just one loss ahead of the 49ers and two in front of the Rams. If the Seahawks lose on Dec. 15 to San Francisco, the road to winning the division becomes infinitely more challenging because the 49ers would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. A win evens up the season series and would give the Niners their first NFC West loss, which is the second tiebreaker used to decide standings within a division.

Should the Seahawks slip into the realm of the wild card contenders, the scoreboard watching comes into effect. The Falcons are currently 4-5 and in the first spot out of the playoffs. A general awareness must be paid to them down the stretch due to the Week 3 loss to Atlanta.

Those are the challenges and potential pitfalls that loom for the Seahawks. Eight games is virtually half a season, an eternity in the NFL, for teams to rise and fall in the standings. There is much still to be decided and plenty of unknowns that await, but the Seahawks have put themselves in an ideal spot to claim an unlikely playoff berth.

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