10-1 Seahawks believe the best is still ahead

RENTON, Wash. (AP) - Earl Thomas heard the criticism. The Seattle Seahawks weren't performing like an elite team. They were playing down to the level of their competition. As they kept winning the impression became they were unsatisfying victories.

He understands. For those two games in late October and early November when the Seahawks were in survival mode against St. Louis and Tampa Bay, they weren't playing to a level they expect.

"I just think the attention to detail wasn't there, the mind frame wasn't there, the aggression wasn't there," Thomas said. "But you can tell now. It's like piranhas out there. It's very exciting to be a part of."

Seattle arrived at its bye as the best team not just in the NFC but the entire NFL, a distinction the franchise has never held this late in the season. The Seahawks are 10-1, have already clinched a second consecutive season with double-digit victories for the first time in team history. They've positioned themselves to make the path through the NFC playoffs go through the Pacific Northwest, as long as they don't falter.

There's pride in what the Seahawks have accomplished thus far. But there's no satisfaction yet.

"We've been able to endure the adversity and the obstacles that we had to face earlier in the season with the injuries," Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. "Our defense stuck in and gave us opportunities to win games late in games. Now we're getting healthy and it's going to be a fun ride."

Even as they field one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, there is a maturity about this Seahawks team that was absent a year ago. Seattle used a late-season charge to finish 11-5 and reach the second-round of the playoffs before falling to Atlanta in the divisional round. It's a maturity built out of understanding that just being acceptable is no longer good enough for a team with such lofty expectations.

That accountability was challenged for those two weeks when the Seahawks were pushed to the final yard and final play in an ugly 14-9 win in St. Louis. Then they fell behind 21-0 at home to Tampa Bay before rallying for a 27-24 victory in overtime.

The meetings inside Seattle's practice facility the following week were brutally honest, even though they were 8-1 at the time.

"I think we need to keep that humble mind frame and that brotherly (attitude). I think when we play for our brothers that's when we play our best ball," Thomas said. "That's what we got back to. I think we got lost in that little two-game stretch, but we got it fixed. We didn't stay in the dumps."

What followed was exactly the response coach Pete Carroll was hoping to see. Looking to get even against the Falcons after last season's playoff exit, the Seahawks put together their most complete game of the season in a 33-10 rout of Atlanta.

Then came last Sunday's 41-20 win over Minnesota - the Seahawks' 13th straight at home. Seattle welcomed back starting offensive tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini for the first time since September and saw the debut of wide receiver Percy Harvin.

"Finishing strong" is one of Carroll's strongest messages. He wants his teams playing their best at the end, and it's been proven the last two seasons. In 2011, Seattle went 5-3 over its final eight games, losing two of those by a combined five points. Last season, the offense ignited in the final month, scoring 58 and 50 points in consecutive weeks as part of a five-game win streak to close the regular season.

The return of so many important players this far into the season, and Seattle's overall good health, has the Seahawks believing another late run is possible. This time, though, it's not one they expect to stop early in the postseason.

"We've sensed that since we saw them all come back on the field, really. It is exciting for us; we know we can get better," Carroll said. "That's really what this is about right now, we have to keep getting better. Our guys know that that's out there for us. We have a lot of work to do to finish this thing off right."

First up on Seattle's agenda over the final five weeks is getting a leg up in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC. They can stake a major claim to that coming out of the bye when they host New Orleans in a huge Monday night matchup Dec. 2. That's followed by a quick trip to San Francisco, where Seattle has not won since 2008.

Win those two games and the Seahawks can come close to wrapping up the NFC West and claiming home field for the postseason at the same time.

But don't expect the Seahawks to look at the big picture and think about how each game impacts playoff scenarios. As Carroll said after beating Minnesota, they've accomplished nothing yet in the grand scheme of their expectations.

"That 1-and-0 mentality is alive for us," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "We just need to keep that going. I think the way we practice and the way we prepare really separates us from everybody else, and we have to make sure that we keep doing that."