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Jerry Sullivan: Seahawks are still a model franchise to envy

SEATTLE – Last week, when he was put on the spot, Rex Ryan called Monday night's meeting with the Seahawks a "must-win" game. Marv Levy once said there were no must-win football games. "World War II was a must-win," he said.

I've come around to Marv's point of view. I no longer refer to must-win Bills games unless they're facing elimination. If the Seattle game is an absolute necessity, what about Cincinnati after the bye, or lowly Jacksonville the week after?

Despite the drama of prime-time national TV, Monday's game might be the least vital of the Bills' remaining eight. It's their last crossover against an NFC West opponent, and it's the AFC games that matter in the playoff tiebreakers.

But while it's not a do-or-die situation, it would be an encouraging win for Ryan and the entire organization. It would be a significant moral victory because Seattle is one of the NFL's model franchises, a team that has been among the league's elite for five seasons under head coach Pete Carroll.

The Seahawks are one of two teams to win a playoff game in each of the last four seasons. The Bills lost to the other one a week ago. If not for one fatal goal-line decision a couple of seasons ago, they would have beaten the Patriots and won back-to-back Super Bowl titles.

They've taken Ryan's old-school model of winning football and won big with it, which should make them the envy of Bills fans. The Seahawks do everything Rex aspires to do – run the ball, play punishing defense and get dynamic, efficient quarterback play – except better and more consistently.

The Seahawks lead the NFL in rushing yards since the start of the 2011 season (the Bills are third). They've been No. 1 in scoring defense four years in a row, the first team in the Super Bowl era to do that. Russell Wilson became the fastest QB ever to 50 wins and has engineered 20 fourth-quarter and overtime comebacks. Paying attention, Tyrod?

CenturyLink Field is regarded as the loudest, most difficult road venue in the sport. The Seahawks are 81-34 at home since 2002, second to the Packers. They lead the league in false starts by opponents since '05. Overall, they have won 10 straight Monday night games and are 15-3-1 in prime time since Carroll arrived in 2010.

The question is, how much longer can they sustain it? Success is designed to be cyclical in the NFL, where free agency and the salary cap can whittle away at an elite roster. The Patriots, to Buffalo's everlasting chagrin, have been a stunning exception. The Seahawks are atop the NFC West at 4-2-1, but no sure thing to make the playoffs.

The Seahawks have lost some key players to free agency and retirement – most notably, star running back Marshawn Lynch. They've plunged to 28th in rushing, due to Lynch's absence and a series of injuries that have limited Wilson's ability to be a running threat as he has been in the past. They have one offensive TD in their last nine quarters.

But Carroll, at 65 the oldest head coach in the league, does not feel the Seahawks are entering an inevitable downward cycle.

"If you get caught up in what you accomplished, you certainly can get dragged down," Carroll said Thursday on a conference call. "Before you know it, you're not performing like you're capable. We are driven to try to figure out the answer to that kind of cycle people fall into.

"I know what you're talking about," he said. "I know it's true. We're trying to not be there. We're the other end of the spectrum if we can do it."

The Seahawks have a good chance to sustain their excellence because they haven't relied on big-ticket free agents or high draft choices during their six-plus year run under Carroll and General Manager John Schneider, who was hired one week after Carroll came to Seattle from USC in 2010.

They have 24 undrafted players on their roster, which is the most in the NFL and nearly half the team. Nine of them are starting. They have the league's ninth-youngest roster. Only two of their 22 starters were first-round draft choices – safety Earl Thomas and rookie right guard Germain Ifedi.

The exigencies of the cap are partly responsible, but it's nothing new for Seattle to win with young players and lightly regarded prospects who wound up being major contributors in the Emerald City.

"If you look back over the last five years, we've had the most undrafted players on our roster year in and year out," Carroll said. "So that's just how we do it. Last year, I think we had 26 undrafted guys and this year 24.

"We've built our football team around the core guys we started the program with five or six years ago," he said. "We've kept those guys here because we believe in playing young players. I did the exact same thing in college."

Carroll said Schneider shares his belief in playing young guys. Their success is based in their ability to identify young talent. It's a triumph of personnel evaluation, an ability to see possibilities in football players that other personnel departments cannot.

Nailing draft picks is the key. Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, their Pro Bowl defensive backs, were both fifth-round picks. K.J. Wright, the underrated veteran linebacker, was a fourth-rounder. Bobby Wagner, the Pro Bowl linebacker, was a second-rounder. They got Wilson in the third.

Star defensive linemen Michael Bennett (who is out with an injury) and Cliff Avril were undrafted free agents. So was their top receiver, Doug Baldwin, who tied for the NFL lead in receiving TDs last year with 14. All four of their wide receivers in the Super Bowl two years ago were undrafted.

Finding those low-priced gems makes it easier to pay your superstars. The Seahawks gave Wilson a four-year, $87.6 million deal after the second Super Bowl. At the time, it was the second-highest contract ever in the NFL. Wilson justified the deal by throwing 24 touchdown passes in his last seven games a year ago.

Young players get better under Carroll and his coaches, who have earned a reputation around the NFL for developing young talent.

"By the time we get to the halfway point of the season, our guys are playing like veterans," Carroll said. "We've been a pretty good finishing team over the years, and I think there's something to that."

The numbers bear him out. Over the last five seasons, the Seahawks have been 22-18 in the first half of seasons. In the second halves, they've gone 31-9. A year ago, they were 4-5, then went 6-1 over their last seven to sneak into the postseason.

You can go 4-5 and still make the playoffs, eh? That means the season isn't lost if the Bills lose Monday and drop to 4-5. It's not a must-win, after all. But beating Seattle at this stage of the season would be a promising sign.

The Bills, after all, are trying to travel the same road Seattle did over the last five years. If things go in cycles in the NFL, how come their cycle never trends upward? Well, look over the roster and ask yourself if the Bills have been nearly as good as Seattle at finding overlooked gems in the draft.

This is the kind of game the Bills would win if they were really trending up, like the Seahawks when Carroll and Schneider got things going. It's more likely to be a sobering case of them being beaten at their own game.

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