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THE BELIEF Playing in a weak division will help the Seahawks make the path to the Super Bowl go through their noisy house again. Though Seattle lost the game's best guard, Steve Hutchinson, in a costly free-agent gambit, premier left tackle Walter Jones and a combination of guard replacements- Pork Chop Womack and Chris Spencer, most likely-will continue to pave the rushing lanes for reigning NFL MVP Shaun Alexander. And pricey free agent Julian Peterson completes a terrific set of linebackers boasting Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill, who combined for 111/2 sacks as rookies last year.
THE REALITY This season will be a referendum on the importance of a guard to an NFL offense. With Hutchinson and Jones forming the league's most potent left-side wall, Seattle had a league-high 29 touchdowns on the ground, was second with 153.6 rushing yards per game and tied for second with 4.7 yards per carry. The oft-injured Womack and converted center Spencer will try to fill Hutchinson's shoes, but the offense will miss his brain too. Hutchinson often suggested plays for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to request from coach Mike Holmgren. Says Hasselbeck, "His calls were always smart."
Luckily for the Seahawks, Alexander has a devil-may-care attitude and doesn't sweat such things. One day in training camp, running a sideline route under coverage by Tatupu, Alexander turned on the jets and started laughing, loudly. He gathered in Hasselbeck's long spiral and was still chuckling as he scored. "We just don't know who'll line up at left guard," says Alexander, who'd smile even if you told him it would be the equipment man. "But it's not unrealistic to think we can run the ball as well as we did last year."
Don't count on it. Seattle's ploy-putting the transition tag on Hutchinson rather than the franchise tag, which would have made it more costly for another team to sign him-was penny-wise and pound-foolish. The Seahawks had the cap room to keep both of their big free agents, Hutchinson and Alexander (whom they signed to a $62 million contract in March), and you just don't lose a top player in his prime.
The off-season was kinder to the defense. Punishing safety Ken Hamlin recovered from a head injury suffered in a nightclub fight last October, and Peterson signed a seven-year, $54 million contract. "It's like we got two major free agents, because Ken has come back healthy," says Holmgren. "Our defense was fast last year, and now it should be much faster." Though Peterson didn't become the all-world pass rusher the 49ers hoped he would, he should make Seattle's front seven, which combined for a league-high 43 sacks last year, even more formidable. "Offenses game-plan for Julian because he's so hard to single block," says Tatupu. "Now, with LeRoy and Julian both coming off the edge, how are you going to figure who to concentrate on?"
And Qwest Field should indeed help confound the visiting teams. Says Holmgren, "After we beat Carolina in the NFC Championship Game, I went out to dinner with [wife] Kathy downtown, and the ma�tre d' and our waiter were totally hoarse. They'd been at the game and yelled themselves silly." Whether they'll be doing that again come January depends on the outcome of the Hutchinson referendum.
10 at Detroit