Time to change our expectations for the Seahawks

It may sound strange to hear a football coach talking about how much he likes his team moments after a double-digit loss, but that’s exactly what Pete Carroll did Sunday evening in New Orleans.

“I really like our team,” he said after the Seahawks’ 34-19 loss to the Saints. “I really like the way they’re fighting, I like the way their mindset is.”

And why shouldn’t Carroll like his team?

Even with a modest 5-5 record, it’s time to change the expectations placed on the Seahawks. No longer is Seattle a team that can win the NFC West this year; the Seahawks are a team that should win the NFC West.

With six games left on the schedule, the Seahawks are alone in first place in football’s worst division. They play four of those six games at Qwest Field and the team closest in the standings, St. Louis, has to come to Seattle at the end of the season. So we should no longer be asking if the Seahawks can make the playoffs; the discussion should instead be what a disappointment it would be if they don’t.

Are the Seahawks flawed? Absolutely.

Will they finish with 10 or 11 wins? Not likely.

However, the Seahawks are certainly good enough, warts and all, to win eight or nine games, which will probably be enough to earn them a return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus. The fact that we can discuss the Seahawks as a legitimate playoff contender this late in the season is a testament to the work done by Carroll and general manager John Schneider.

Before the season most people would have called a seven-win season progress given where the Seahawks were the past two years, but things have changed. Pete Carroll never wants his team to look at the past, whether the topic is something good (their lengthy win streak over St. Louis, which ended earlier this season) or something bad (their inability to win on the road before this year).

So if Carroll doesn’t want the past to be a factor when it comes to his team, it shouldn’t play a role in your expectations for the team. Forget the fact that the Seahawks won just four games in 2008 and five more last year. What they are as of mid-November is a team that sits in first place over a trio of very fallible teams.

Carroll knows this. While he stressed Monday the importance of not resorting to scoreboard watching each week, he is also aware of the opportunity that a weak division affords him down the stretch.

“We’re fortunate to be where we are right now,” he said. “We’re fortunate to be leading the division. But what they do at this point doesn’t have anything to do with it, it’s so much out of our control. But we have great control of this opportunity and we have to go in and capture that.

“We all know what’s going on but we sure don’t spend any time on it because it wouldn’t do us any good at all.”

The good news for the Seahawks — aside from a favorable schedule and a conference full of teams with losing records — is the fact that they still don’t feel like they’re playing up to their potential. Sure, Seattle has done different things well in different games, but with the exception of perhaps the win in Arizona, it hasn’t played a complete game. The most encouraging part of that is that the offense, which was so bad so often early in the season, has put up more than 900 yards in the past two games, including back-to-back 300-yard, zero-interception games for Matt Hasselbeck.

“Without question, I’m more optimistic about it,” Carroll said. “Being able to move the football, winning on third-down on offense, and feeling the ability to function where we can move the football from wherever we’re starting, and all of that. … So that’s something that hopefully will help us. It helps the whole kind of mentality and feeling about your club.”

If Hasselbeck and the offense can keep it up, the defense just needs to get close to where it was early in the season for the Seahawks to further separate themselves from the rest of the division.

“We’ve got to figure out how we can get all three phases going at the same time, and when we figure that out, we’ll be a dangerous team,” safety Lawyer Milloy said. “… We really haven’t done that yet. That’s the one positive going into the end of the year, still being on top of the division, having four of the last six games at home. If we can figure out (how to put it all together) before the season ends, then we’ll be a very dangerous team.”

It’s not that the Seahawks need to be anything close to perfect. They’re not there yet and won’t be this season. The Seahawks have, however, done enough through 10 games that anything less than a division championship would be a disappointment.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com. For more Seahawks coverage, check out the Seahawks blog at heraldnet.com/seahawksblog

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