IKI BARBER had just spent four quarters and almost an entire overtime getting pulverized and pounded, carrying 32 times for 124 yards in the New York Giants' 26-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, and all he wanted was a warm shower and a few minutes of peace. Instead he was asked to discuss a subject--the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks--whose very mention made him wince with pain.
"Oh, man, that's a tough team," Barber said of the Seahawks, who had pulled out a 24-21 OT victory over the Giants two weeks earlier. "Their defense reminds me of the Eagles' from three years ago--they're aggressive, and everyone flies to the ball and wreaks havoc. After we played them, it was the most beat up I've been this season."
Yet in the next breath Barber, the only back to crack the 100-yard rushing barrier against Seattle in 2005, spoke excitedly of a possible playoff rematch against the team that appears to be the class of the NFC. For as impressive as the 11-2 Seahawks have been in winning nine consecutive games to clinch the NFC West and take a two-game lead in the race for home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs, there remains a healthy degree of skepticism among their rivals. Seattle, after all, has been bounced in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two years and has gone 21 years since its last postseason victory, the NFL's longest drought.
In other words, don't assume the Seahawks' Dec. 24 game against the Indianapolis Colts in Seattle will be a Super Bowl preview. "I don't think there's a clear-cut favorite in the NFC," says Dallas Cowboys wideout Keyshawn Johnson, whose team suffered a 13-10 defeat at Seattle on Oct. 23. "I wouldn't say any one [contender] is better than the other."
Added Eagles linebacker Dhani Jones, whose team suffered a 42-0 home loss to Seattle on Dec. 5, "People are already saying the Seahawks and Colts are going to be the ones, but to be a Super Bowl team you have to have that something extra. Last year the Steelers thought they had it, and it turned out they didn't. Seattle's been good for a while, but whether this year's team is any better, we'll have to see."
Defensively, the Seahawks' improvement can be attributed to recent high-profile draft picks (including rookie middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and second-year strong safety Michael Boulware) and less-heralded veteran contributors (defensive linemen Bryce Fisher and Rocky Bernard, in particular). On offense, tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchison lead a formidable line, and coach Mike Holmgren and his assistants have freed up quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to counter overloaded defensive fronts by calling run audibles.
"Matt has done a phenomenal job of giving Shaun [Alexander] a chance to run at the weakness of the defense," says Cleveland Browns quarterback Trent Dilfer, who played for Seattle from 2001 through '04. "That offensive line isn't just the best in the NFL, it might be the best the league has seen since the Washington Redskins had the Hogs in the '80s. The team in general has great chemistry. They are legit."
With his team having lost to Indianapolis, 28-3, in October and to Seattle, 41-3, on Sunday, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Derek Smith said of the Seahawks, "They're as good as Indy. They probably execute better than anybody."
Yet on the opposite coast several members of the Giants--mindful that they were defeated in Seattle only because kicker Jay Feely missed three potential game-winning field goals--said they'd relish another crack at Seattle. "They're a good football team," wideout Plaxico Burress said, "but I don't think they're anybody we can't beat."
PETER READ MILLER (TOP); ROBERT BECK
CHANGE IS GOOD Hasselbeck (top) has been given freer rein to audible at the line, and less-heralded veterans like Bernard have bolstered the defense.