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TAMPA, Fla. – Slugging it out for three hours in steamy Raymond James Stadium might send even the most well-conditioned athlete searching for intravenous relief. Yet there was Julian Peterson, the Seattle Seahawks' Pro Bowl linebacker, conversing in the post-game locker room as if he could have played two more quarters.

Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, another Pro Bowl choice for Seattle, felt spry enough to debate perceptions about a defense that finished 19th during the regular season.

To a man, Seattle's defensive players seemed fresher than they should have been following a 23-7 victory over the Bucs in the final regular-season game Sunday. These guys weren't dragging. But after examination of the stat sheet, the reason was obvious: Seattle's offense controlled the ball for a season-high 37 minutes, providing the defense with the protection it needed during last season's Super Bowl run. With three injured cornerbacks, including both starters, it's the formula Seattle must follow again Saturday in its wild-card game against the Dallas Cowboys at Qwest Field.

"Its good to see the offense click," Peterson said. "They were a little upset with the way they've been playing. I'd rather they hit their stride now than at the beginning of the year."

The Seahawks led the NFL in scoring last season with 28.3 points per game, but the mark dropped by more than a touchdown this season. They expected some growing pains in 2006 after losing Pro Bowl left guard Steve Hutchinson and clutch receiver Joe Jurevicius in free agency. They had to figure it might take time to work newly acquired receiver Deion Branch into the passing game. They even knew injuries could be a problem after an abbreviated offseason. They just never expected to lose so many of their best players for so long.

Bobby Engram, the team's leading receiver in 2005, missed nine games with a thyroid condition. Just as Engram was returning, the team lost leading receiver Darrell Jackson to turf toe. Jackson was leading the league in touchdown catches when he left in Week 15, but he's still out.

Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck missed four games in the heart of the season. MVP running back Shaun Alexander had never before missed a game to injury, but he missed six in '06.

Pro Bowl center Robbie Tobeck, felled by a hip infection after 88 consecutive regular-season starts, missed seven games and hasn't returned. Tight end Jerramy Stevens missed six games, then struggled to regain his form until recently.

Even guard Chris Gray's franchise-record streak of consecutive starts (121 games) wasn't safe. He missed the Tampa Bay game with a thigh injury, but should be back Saturday.

"Last year's team was a lot different because we knew across the board we were going to be better athletically than the teams we played," defensive end Bryce Fisher said. "And we knew which 11 guys were going to play snap in and snap out.

"This year, a lot of guys have had to step into roles they weren't expecting early in the year. It's a growing process for our team."

Now that most of the injured guys are back, the offense is showing signs of improvement.

Alexander has 232 yards rushing in his last two games, including 140 against San Diego's rugged defense, and Hasselbeck is coming off an efficient outing against the Bucs (17-of-29, 216 yards, one touchdown).

Engram is getting comfortable again. Fellow receiver D.J. Hackett could be an emerging star. And Branch, though quiet in recent weeks, has always played his best when the stakes were highest.

"We feel like the tide is starting to turn for us," Alexander said.

The one constant has been Josh Brown, who has made four game-winning field goals in the final minute.

But problems persist, and Seattle remains a flawed team in a conference filled with them.

The offensive line is on its eighth combination, seven more than it used last season. The defensive line lacks bulk. Strong safety Michael Boulware has been beaten deep in key situations. The cornerback situation could be in crisis.

And despite showing improvement late, Seattle lost three consecutive games before finally beating the heat – and the four-win Bucs – in Tampa.

The Seahawks need more of the offense that held up physically against San Diego and held the ball for the final 9:33 against the Bucs. The defending NFC champs will only go as far as their offense can take them.

Mike Sando covers the Seahawks and writes a blog for The News Tribune.

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