When the Eagles visited Seattle last November, Seahawks running back C.J. Prosise greeted them with a 72-yard touchdown run on his team's first possession.
That was just the first punch in the mouth on a stumbling, humbling afternoon for the Eagles. They were a struggling team with an injury-plagued offensive line and a rookie quarterback, testing itself against a group that had gone to the Super Bowl two of the previous three years. Seattle won, 26-15, and looked vaguely bored in doing so, the Eagles scoring in the waning minutes to make the final tally seem more respectable. (Carson Wentz hit Dorial Green-Beckham for the TD. Remember Dorial Green-Beckham?)
The Eagles have reason to hope much will be different this Sunday, when a return trip to Seattle kicks off an extended West Coast stay – they will practice in California in preparation for their Dec. 10 game at the Los Angeles Rams.
Both teams are changed, a year later. The Eagles, 5-4 on their way to 7-9 when they flew West last year, are 10-1. They haven't given up any 72-yard touchdown runs; in fact, they proved resoundingly against the Bears last Sunday that they are the NFL's top run defense. And this season, Seattle's rushing attack is led by quarterback Russell Wilson (65 carries, 401 yards). The Seahawks don't have a 40-plus-yard run. Prosise has 11 carries for 23 yards.
The Seahawks, 7-2 as they welcomed the Eagles last year, finished 10-5-1 and won a wild-card game before losing in the next round to Atlanta. This year, they are 7-4 but they are widely viewed as a declining team, even if that decline isn't extreme. The Eagles are 5.5-point favorites; it's the first time a visitor has opened as the favorite at Seattle's raucous CenturyLink Field since 2012. (Atlanta closed as a one-point favorite in Week 11 after Seattle opened up laying 3.)
The 2017 Seahawks have lost at home to Washington and the Falcons, in addition to suffering setbacks at Green Bay (when Aaron Rodgers was healthy) and at Tennessee. Though the Seattle defense still ranks eighth in the NFL (ninth in points per game, at 19.3), Richard Sherman (Achilles), Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor (both with neck injuries) are out for the season.
Offensively, Seattle is 20th in rushing, seventh in passing, pretty much the opposite of how the Seahawks used to rank back when Marshawn Lynch was wreaking havoc.
"I feel like they're a different team this year," Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said Tuesday. "They're more so relying on their quarterback. He's been making plays and extending plays. I think it's a little bit different this year; I feel like last year they ran the ball a little bit more than they do right now."
So while this is again a litmus test for the Eagles, it might be a less formidable one than last year's, which they failed, on a day when Allen Barbre filled in at three offensive-line positions, Nelson Agholor suffered the meltdown that got him benched, and Doug Pederson's plan to lean on his running game went up in flames when Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles both left with injuries.
Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday that having played at CenturyLink last season is a big boost for Wentz and the other returning Eagles. Wentz finished 23 for 45 for 218 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions last year at Seattle. Wentz has not had to throw 45 passes in a game this season since the Week 2 loss at Kansas City (46), in which Pederson momentarily switched brains with Andy Reid on the other sideline.
"I'm sure for Carson and the other guys who hadn't been out there to play before, it's the reputation of going out to play in Seattle. And then to go out there and say, 'OK, we can handle this,' " Reich said. "We didn't win the game, and hats off to them, they're a good football team and they're tough to beat in their home stadium. We have a lot of respect for them. But we have a lot of confidence in the players that we have. And I think last year's experience there showed that we can handle the noise and not have 100 offsides penalties, and it kind of contributes to more confidence going back this year."
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was asked how his defense, currently ranked sixth in the NFL, is different from the group he took to Seattle last year.
"There's a couple things I appreciate with our group. They're very good communicators. We make very few missed assignments. As a result, people have a hard time moving the ball consistently on us," Schwartz said. "We don't give up very many big plays. We had a couple games early in the season where we leaked and had some big plays … particularly in the recent past, we've done a good job of eliminating those, and it's made it hard to score on us.
"They're professionals. They do a good job of preparing week in and week out. It's a good tackling defense. … And I think that has a lot to do with not giving up big plays, also. You combine that with we're a pretty good third-down team, and it makes it hard for teams to drive and score.
"Sometimes you're better at man, sometimes you're better at zone. Sometimes you need to blitz, sometimes you don't. But these guys have had the flexibility to play it however we've needed it."
There's an undercurrent of the Eagles, having won each of their last four games by at least 23 points, wanting to test themselves against a probable NFC playoff team, something that last happened when they won, 28-23, at Carolina back on Oct. 12.
"It's definitely going to be probably the best game we can have to be close to a playoff game, especially at this point in the season," Bradham said. "Late in the season, and it's an important game. We know what it is to go out there and play … about their '12th man.' How loud it gets out there. We got to keep our composure and be able to execute."