MUNICH – When the first NFL regular-season game in Germany was set in May, there was little doubt who was the star attraction – Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Not that the Seahawks were a complete afterthought – their popularity in Germany helped play into their selection as the opponent, given they were already on Tampa Bay’s schedule as an away team for this season.
But the expected storyline seemed clear: Come see the greatest NFL quarterback in history help Tampa Bay take a step toward another hoped-for Super Bowl against a Seahawks team that doesn’t have Russell Wilson anymore but will at least be fun to have around.
But a funny thing happened on the road to Allianz Arena for Sunday’s 6:30 a.m. Seattle time kickoff.
With a game that has drawn massive media attention in Germany finally here, it is the Seahawks who find themselves in the playoff hunt and the Buccaneers trying mostly to find themselves – if somehow still leading the NFC South.
Not that the Las Vegas oddsmakers seem convinced.
Somewhat oddly, but probably because of Brady’s presence and skepticism about whether the Seahawks are for real, Tampa Bay is a 2.5-point favorite.
But as kickoff approaches, it is the Seahawks who are standing where many figured the Bucs would be at this time – at 6-3 and holding the third-best record in the NFC, riding a four-game winning streak.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is 4-5 and had lost three in a row and five of six before a Brady-led comeback last week against the Rams, scoring the winning TD with 9 seconds left to eke out a 16-13 win.
If not for the feebleness of the rest of the NFC South, the first-place Bucs would be on the outside looking in of the current playoff picture, holding the eighth-best record in the conference.
To Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, Seattle’s seemingly surprising position should serve as evidence that no one should assume anything about how a sports season may turn out.
“I think that’s a lesson for a lot of people who watch this stuff, that it isn’t always so obvious that players leave and you fall apart,” Carroll said. “It just didn’t happen. And we didn’t feel like it was going to happen. And that’s why we were in the mode to make something happen. With the big trade that we had to go through and all that, it was very, very challenging and very difficult and a tremendous amount of work to get there. But it sent a message out that most people on the outside couldn’t imagine that we could play good.
“But the guys in the locker room did. They didn’t feel like that. The coaches didn’t feel like that, and I certainly didn’t feel like that.”
Some could assume, of course, that is solely because Carroll’s life philosophy is to try to find the positive in everything.
But Carroll insisted Friday that he wasn’t just trying to look on the bright side when he entered the season thinking the Seahawks could defy the experts.
“There was more there,” he said. “It was the attitude and personality of this team that was so evident. It was so clear that these guys were jacked up; they were going to do whatever you wanted them to do. They were having fun with each other, they liked pushing each other and competing against one another. It was just like there was no hindrance at all to our progress, it looked like.
“But we still had to go out and do it, and it’s taken us a while, and we are just getting started. The last month we have played pretty good football. But that’s just the last month.”
Though Carroll is happy to praise his team – four consecutive victories by 10 points or more following a 2-3 start, something Seattle hasn’t done since 2014 – it also means the expectations have changed.
With a win, the Seahawks could enter their bye knowing they could come out of it at worst a game ahead of the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West.
The 49ers – at 4-4 the only other team in the NFC West without a losing record – had their bye last week. They host the Chargers on Sunday and play at Arizona a week from Monday. A Seattle win and a loss by the 49ers in either of those games, and the Seahawks would enter their final seven games with a two-game lead in the division (though the 49ers could win the tiebreaker, already holding a victory over Seattle in Week 2).
And that’s with winnable games following the bye, at home against the Raiders, at the struggling Rams and at home against Carolina before a possible NFC West showdown against the 49ers on Dec. 15.
But first Seattle must show it deserved top billing in Germany all along.
“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Carroll said. “But they (the players) have followed suit all the way. They’ve been true to who they are the whole time. And they never wavered when we weren’t doing well, which was a really great sign, too. But we’ve got a lot still to get done.”
More than maybe anyone besides themselves anticipated.
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