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Matt Calkins: Seahawks have little margin for error when it comes to making playoffs

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Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll smiles at the side judge right after being flagged for illegal participation in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, at Lumen Field in Seattle.

Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll smiles at the side judge right after being flagged for illegal participation in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, at Lumen Field in Seattle. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times/TNS)

SEATTLE — I wrote last week that success can prompt regret, using the Washington Huskies football team as Exhibit A. Despite having an improbable nine wins thus far — including one on the road against then-No. 6 Oregon — the string of victories had some players lamenting previous losses, particularly the 10-point defeat to Arizona State that cost them at any shot at a College Football Playoff berth.

Well, success can also prompt stress — and in this case, that applies to the Seahawks. Anxiety centered on this team's Week 12 result seemed improbable when this season — a supposed rebuild — began, but will be spiked this Sunday.

Ultimately, this is a good thing. Being relevant in the NFL always is. However, this storybook season in which all wins were supposed to be gravy has changed in narrative. It has gone from one where the Seahawks had no chance to one where the Seahawks have no margin for error.

The good news: At 6-4, the Seahawks have already surpassed the victory total most sportsbooks projected they would accumulate before the year began. You don't lose a nine-time Pro Bowler in Russell Wilson, replace him with a seven-year backup in Geno Smith and expect to stack the win column. This is even truer when you lose Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams at the start of the season, which seemed to contribute heavily to the Seahawks' worst-in-the-league defense through the first five games of 2022.

Perhaps as some sort of drunken dare on the gridiron in the sky, the football gods suddenly blessed the Seahawks on both sides of the ball and shot them to the top of the NFC West with four straight wins after their Week 5 loss to the Saints. Smith went from unheralded to Comeback Player of the Year favorite to NFC Offensive Player of the Month in October. He'd likely be in the MVP conversation if Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes hadn't distanced himself from everybody else in the race.

The defense went from disastrous to dominant — allowing just 16.5 points per contest over that four-game winning streak. The rookies — from offensive linemen Charles Cross and Abe Lucas, to defensive backs Tariq Woolen and Coby Bryant to running back Kenneth Walker III — have been among the most dynamic in the league. Woolen and Walker, in fact, may be the best first-year players in the NFL on their respective sides of the ball.

It's been a bonanza on par with the 2012 Seahawks in terms of finding success where nobody saw it coming. The only drawback is that now you get the feeling fans are fretting that it all might slip away.

If the playoffs were to start today, the Seahawks would barely slip in with the seven seed. The 49ers (6-4) — winners of their past three — have officially taken over as the NFC West's top seed because of their September win over Seattle. And the reason the Seahawks dipped was because of a 21-16 loss to Tampa Bay in Munich two Sundays ago — where all the fears folks have had about this team suddenly surfaced.

Smith put up respectable numbers — completing 23 of 33 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns — but most of the productivity came in the fourth quarter, which the Seahawks entered trailing 21-3. The rest of the game featured an ineffective signal caller struggling to make basic plays. And Seattle's run defense? Matador 101. Tampa Bay (5-5) entered the game with one of the league's worst rushing attacks in recent history, but managed 161 yards on the on the ground.

Asked how he assessed the Buccaneers' running game, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll answered: "It was a very short assessment. We didn't get going."

More than anything, Carroll recognized the missed chance to improve to 7-3 and inch closer to solidifying a playoff spot.

"It was frustrating to not get a win last week and to be in position to finish with a huge game out there would have been wonderful to acquire that opportunity, but we didn't do it," Carroll said.

No, they didn't do it. And now there is so much more to do to ensure they get into the tournament.

Sunday's matchup against the 3-7 Raiders may seem like a should win for the Seahawks, but there's a reason odds makers only have them as 3.5-point favorites on their home turf. People are still unconvinced. People still think the first half of the season was luck and that reality will catch up.

"Must win" is one of the most tired cliches in sports.

Seattle's season isn't over if it comes up short against Vegas. But if the Raiders get the victory, the Seahawks' odds of making the postseason would likely dip to under 50%. Fans wouldn't have minded that a few months ago. They'd sure mind now.

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