Hawks must fix road woes

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SEATTLE — Barring extreme misfortune, the Seahawks probably won’t be more vulnerable than they are right now. They’re playing without All-Pro left tackle Russell Okung for the next two months. Defensive end Chris Clemons, their sacks leader the past three seasons, has just returned to the field. Speed rusher Bruce Irvin is serving a four-game suspension. And Percy Harvin, their new $67 million wide receiver, is recovering from hip surgery.

Still, they’re 3-0.

Still, they have a two-game lead already in the NFC West division.

Still, they have as many victories as the combined win tally of other five NFC teams that made the playoffs last season.

The Seahawks have taken an early lead at a time when they should be, at best, running with the pack. The four-month NFL regular season is too long to celebrate this progress, but it’s short enough to consider it significant. And true to the grind of the season, the success merely frames the importance of their next assignment.

The Seahawks will play their next two games on the road against two AFC playoff teams from a year ago, Houston and Indianapolis. They’re huge tests of the team’s competence level away from CenturyLink Field. And with the other NFC preseason contenders flailing, the next two games represent an opportunity for the Seahawks to widen this surprising gap – or, if they struggle, for the competition to stay close. In the Pete Carroll era, the Seahawks have a 9-16 road record, 10-18 if you count the playoffs.

On the eve of this season, I wrote that, considering their injury situation and early strength of schedule, the Seahawks would be in good shape if they started the year with a 3-2 record. Now, 3-2 would be a huge disappointment.

I can’t see the Seahawks losing consecutive games, even on the road, the way they’re playing. They’re too dialed in, and their depth — the reason they’ve performed so well despite some injury adversity — is too extraordinary. But if they don’t lose at least one of these road games, then you can start schedule-surfing to wonder when they’re actually going to lose a game.

Though the Seahawks have defied the slow-start notion and outscored their past two opponents 74-20, the belief still applies that better days are ahead. Without question, this football team will improve dramatically when some of those marquee players return and make an impact.

Yes, the entire NFC will get better. But despite some dominant moments, the Seahawks are just as unpolished right now, and they might have a greater rate of improvement because of the talent they have coming back.

“Yeah, I mean, we’re still climbing that mountain,” cornerback Walter Thurmond said.

Ask cornerback Richard Sherman about the early separation, and he shrugs. What’s an early lead mean? Only that the Seahawks must challenge themselves to lead wire to wire this season.

“I’m sure that we are going to try and make it more,” Sherman said of the lead. “It’s never enough.”

Then, he offered: “It’s always about what you are doing in November and December that really counts.”

Pete Carroll’s Seahawks teams generally have been better in the second half. The past two years, they are 12-4 in the second half. If you think they have a sense of mission currently, check back in two months.

For now, we know the Seahawks are sitting with the Denver Broncos on the top tier of the NFL. They’ve been the most impressive teams in the league thus far, and the more you watch both teams, you can’t help feeling they’re destined to meet in East Rutherford, N.J., in February. Of course, the parity-driven NFL has a way of destroying the hopes of early-season dreamers, but there’s plenty to love about both teams.

The Seahawks enter a stretch in which they’ll play four of five games on the road. We’re focusing on the task of Houston and Indianapolis, but road games against division foes Arizona and St. Louis loom, too. If the Seahawks are still undefeated after that Monday night game in St. Louis on Oct. 28, then you’re free to dream about an undefeated season that fans have predicted half-jokingly for months.

Let’s see what the road reveals, however. They’ll miss Okung the most away from CenturyLink Field. If they haven’t solved their penalty problems, they’ll feel the sting of those the most on the road. They’ll learn whether their passing game is sufficient and whether their defense truly is beyond the third-down issues of 2012.

The Seahawks look good for a limited team, but they know that’s not enough.

“We have a long ways to go,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “I think, offensively, we’re starting to come into our own now. We’re starting to get a rhythm. We have to continue that and not settle for just being 3-0. We want to win the whole thing.”

The whole thing is way up that mountain. But the Seahawks have the best view, an unobstructed one, right now.

This is no time to stop and take pictures, though. As Sherman said, no lead is big enough when you’re being chased.

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