Seahawks catching fire, but loss of Richard Sherman could slow them down

SEATTLE -- In their last three games, the Seattle Seahawks have outscored their opponents by a combined score of 150-30, and after beating up on relatively tame opponents in the Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills, it was as definitive a statement as the team could possibly make to welcome the San Francisco 49ers into CenturyLink Field and do the same thing to the reigning NFC West champions.

That the 10-5 Seahawks were actually able to pull off that feat shows how far they've come. In thrashing the 10-4-1 49ers, 42-13, Seattle not only put together its first 10-win season since its only Super Bowl year of 2005 -- it also continued to put the rest of the NFL on notice that this is a surprising team build through depth, and containing a number of young stars.

Chief among those rising players is cornerback Richard Sherman, the second-year defensive wunderkind from Stanford who has transformed into one of the best pass defenders in the league. Among starting [not primarily slot] cornerbacks, only Chicago's Tim Jennings has allowed a lower opponent passer rating than Sherman's 48.4, per Pro Football Focus. And against the 49ers, he made play after play -- returning a blocked field goal  for a 90-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and intercepting 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the first play of the fourth quarter on a pass intended for Randy Moss.

In Seattle's biggest games, Sherman has frequently been the team's best defender. And with Sunday night's win, the Seahawks clinched a playoff berth -- a Seattle win over St. Louis and a San Francisco loss to Arizona in Week 17 could actually give them the division.

Unfortunately for the Seahawks, Sherman might not be on the field to help any of that happen. On Friday, Sherman traveled to the league offices in New York City to appeal a four-game suspension for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy that was handed down in late November. While teammate Brandon Browner started serving his suspension right away, Sherman wanted to fight his. Though both players were suspended after testing positive for Adderall, Sherman saw his case a little differently.

In his Friday appeal, Sherman attested that the cup with his urine specimen leaked, which forced the person collecting the sample to use a second cup underneath the first one. Thus, Sherman argued, the presence of the second cup (the seal on which was broken) violated the chain of custody requirements for a fair test.

Sherman expects to hear from the league next week, and the chances of beating the suspension are slim. With Browner out of the picture, and cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Marcus Trufant hurt, other, lesser-known players had to step up. Beginning with Jeremy Lane, who started at right cornerback opposite Sherman for much of the game, the Seahawks were able to keep the "Next Man Up" mantra going.

That works when you're playing landlocked offenses like Arizona's, Buffalo's, or San Francisco's in a hostile environment. But when playing teams like the Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins, or Green Bay Packers away from the friendly confines of the Pacific Northwest -- as the Seahawks will almost certainly have to do if they go up the playoff ladder -- going up against more high-octane passing offenses without their best defensive player could really put the defense in a pinch.

"I won't be disappointed at all, to tell you the truth," Sherman said after the 49ers game, when asked how he'd feel if he lost his appeal. "It is what it is. It will be a decision by the league, and I'm sure my teammates will go out there and show up like we always do. The next man will step up and do a great job, and I'm not worried at all."

Sherman seemed more disappointed in the NFL's appeal process -- which, like many of its disciplinary processes, puts the full burden on the player and doesn't always provide an equitable playing field.

"It's not that weird," Sherman said of the process. "I'm from the inner city -- I'm from a bad place. Adversity is something you have all of your life, and it's just something you have to meet head-on. I've done it my whole life, and this is just another opportunity."

Losing practice days didn't affect Sherman, due to the wonders of modern technology.

"I need the practice and I need to see the looks, but our coaches did a great job of sending me the tape and everything I needed. I was able to get prepared on the road [with an iPad]. They send it to your iPad every week, so everything they had, I had."

What will the Seahawks have in their secondary? They'll find out this week.

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