Kam Chancellor held the football aloft, triumphant.
He had just recorded an interception in the first quarter of the Super Bowl, and his interception effectively squashed any hope of victory for the Denver Broncos.
It was the end of a magical 2013-14 playoff run for the Seattle Seahawks: they walloped the New Orleans Saints at home, Richard Sherman made the play of his life in the waning moments of the NFC Championship game (a.k.a The Real Super Bowl) against the San Francisco 49ers, and the Seahawks capped off their run with another exhibition of sheer dominance in the Super Bowl.
After returning most of the roster, the Seahawks look primed to do exactly the same in 2014: dominate the NFL in the regular season, get home field advantage at the ear-splitting CenturyLink Field, stomp their way through the postseason and then hold the Lombardi trophy aloft for the second consecutive season.
Or am I?
The NFC West, who many see as the best division in the NFL, will be tougher than ever this season. Four playoff-caliber teams will compete for (presumably) two playoff spots.
With vastly improved competition, do the Seahawks have what it takes to repeat as NFC West champions?
– THE 49ERS –
After injuries to Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, rookie running back Carlos Hyde looks primed for a productive year behind Frank Gore. But without NaVorro Bowman, I would rank the Niner defense as the worst in the NFC West (which is really a compliment with the sheer quality of defenses in this division).
I say they go 11-5.
– THE CARDINALS–
Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals can challenge San Francisco and Seattle for either the division title or the Wild Card spot (we all know one Wild Card spot will be from the NFC West).
The Cardinals boast a scary-talented secondary (though not as good as the Legion of Boom) with Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Antonio Cromartie. The power-speed backfield of second year backs Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington — who I believe has star talent — should be pretty good.
If Carson Palmer has a half-decent season, it’s not far fetched to say the Cardinals go 12-4.
– THE RAMS–
If the Rams had a real quarterback instead of the inconsistent, injury-prone Sam Bradford, they would also have a legit shot at the NFC West title.
Their front seven, featuring talent such as Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Alec Ogletree, Michael Brockers, and others, will be among the best in the league for the next several years, especially with the additions of Aaron Donald and Michael Sam in the draft this year. But with Sam Bradford under center, the Rams don’t have a shot at the playoffs.
But even with Bradford, they can still go 8-8, maybe even 9-7 if they steal some games against their division rivals.
– THE SEAHAWKS–
And then, of course, there’s the Seahawks.
They’ve transformed from the hunters to the hunted. They have the targets painted across their backs. Every team in the NFL wants the opportunity to beat the smack-talking, hard-hitting Legion of Boom and Company.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Seattle defense, the anchor of this team, will answer the bell. But again, I have questions about the offense.
There are legitimate concerns on the offensive line. Even though three starters return from last year, the 2013 Seahawk offensive line gave up a whopping 44 sacks last season. That’s an average of more than two per game. Russell Okung, the Seahawk left tackle, is coming off surgery. On top of that it’s looking like a rookie Justin Britt is going to start at right tackle.
Not a good sign for an already suspect offensive line.
The running game carried the offense last season, but Marshawn Lynch averaged a career-low in yards-per-carry at 4.1, and expect that number to decline even further with teams stacking eight or even nine men in the box, daring the Seahawks to air it out.
While the other teams in the NFC West boast wideouts like Boldin, Crabtree and Johnson (San Francisco), Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd (Arizona), and Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin (St Louis), the Seahawks have an explosive, but injury-prone Percy Harvin, a reliable but non-explosive Doug Baldwin, an explosive Jermaine Kearse who can disappear on occasion, and an explosive, but injury-prone Paul Richardson.
Despite this, the Seahawks will probably go 12-4 this season because of their elite, suffocating defense and will compete with Arizona for first place in the NFC West, probably the NFC as well.
Do the Seahawks have what it takes to repeat? Absolutely.
But they must know it’s not just the San Francisco 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks and the field in the NFC West. Arizona and St Louis are closing the gap, and they’re closing it fast.
So beware fellow Seahawks fans: this season will be no walk in the park.
But get excited for this season as well — it’s going to be one helluva race in the NFC West.