Are the Seahawks a playoff contender?

RENTON — Seattle Seahawks, playoff contender?

The closer we get to Seattle’s season opener in Arizona, the more people around the country, and not just the Northwest, seem to believe that is a real possibility.

Maybe it’s everyone getting caught up in the excitement surrounding rookie quarterback Russell Wilson. Or maybe Seattle’s preseason wins were so impressive that people’s opinions of the Seahawks shifted even though those games are usually viewed as meaningless.

Perhaps, people around the country are starting to see what those who have been paying attention have known for a while now. The Seahawks head into this season with one of the best defenses in the NFL, one that is good enough to win a lot of games even if the offense is only mediocre.

“The way our defense has been playing, we don’t even need our offense,” joked running back Marshawn Lynch.

Whatever it is, there has been an increasing number of people in the national media who not only have managed to remember that Seattle has an NFL team, but figured out that it just might be pretty darn good.

When Sports Illustrated put out its predictions for the season, four of the magazine’s nine writers picked Seattle to make the playoffs. Now that’s not exactly an overwhelming number, but when you consider that Seattle hasn’t had a winning season since 2007, and that it is in the same division as a team that won 13 games last year, and when you factor in the way national media often ignores this corner of the country — South Alaska as Matt Hasselbeck used to jokingly call it — four out of nine writers represents a major groundswell of belief in the Seahawks.

So, is it crazy for Seahawks fans to head into this season with high hopes? Crazy to believe that the Seahawks can go from four straight losing seasons to making the playoffs, and maybe even making some noise once they get there?

It really isn’t. No this team isn’t perfect — far from it, in fact. But by winning five of six at one point late last season, the Seahawks showed they had found something they can build from in 2012.

Seattle’s defense has the potential to be one of the very best in the NFL; not in the future, but right now, particularly if rookie Bruce Irvin and free agent signing Jason Jones help upgrade the pass rush. The running game, which improved tremendously as last season progressed, is good enough to keep Russell Wilson from having to do too much. So even if (or rather when) Wilson goes through a few inevitable rookie ups and downs, the Seahawks should be capable of being at least competent on offense. And again, with this defense, competent might just be enough.

So, while the Seahawks are far from being a sure thing, and while you could certainly end up disappointed if a few things go wrong — just ask the St. Louis Rams, the 2011 preseason favorites in the division who finished 2-14 — there is good reason for optimism.

But don’t take my word for it. Just ask the coaches and players, including those who have experienced playing on a Super Bowl team.

“I definitely see the start of something good,” said linebacker Leroy Hill, who was on NFC West championship teams in each of his first three seasons. “We’ve got a lot of talent across the board, on offense and defense.

“We should definitely make the playoffs at least. If we don’t make the playoffs, it’s going to be a disappointment, and you get us in there, anything can happen. I’ve got a lot of confidence in this team.”

At the beginning of training camp, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll talked about opening the year with high expectations. He knows this is no longer a building project as much as it is a young, talented team shaped by him and general manager John Schneider. A month’s work of practice and four preseason games has done nothing to lower Carroll’s expectations.

“Heck yeah they’re up there,” Carroll said. “We expect to play really well wherever we’re going, whoever we’re playing. We don’t have any other thought than that. We’re not trying to get by, we’re not hoping to just do OK. We expect to play well.”

And maybe I’ve just been overexposed to Carroll’s extreme optimism, but the more I see out of this team, the more I expect the same thing.

Like Hill and fellow veteran Marcus Trufant — who said, “We’ve just got to put it together, then it could be magical” — the younger players also sense that the Seahawks are capable of big things. Wilson, though a rookie, talks constantly of helping this team achieve greatness, and it’s clear he really believes that is possible. Safety Earl Thomas, one of the centerpieces of Carroll’s rebuilding project and one of the current regime’s first draft picks, is noticing a different vibe around this team than the one he joined in 2010, when the Seahawks would follow a four-win 2009 season with a 5-11 record.

“We’re very confident,” Thomas said. “You can just tell by how the building is, and even in Coach Carroll’s voice sometimes, you can tell that he feels very confident about us. When your head coach has that much pride in the team, that just makes everybody else want to play harder.

“This team has made great strides from my rookie year and even from last year.”

Just how great of strides remain to be seen, but with the season opener only days away, it is OK to believe in these Seahawks. As the rest of the country seems to be figuring out, they just might be on the cusp of something special.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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