- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The buzz around the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL has been their practices. At Wednesday's session, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was on fire. Receivers were sharp. The team appeared to be peaking at the right time.
Thursday, the team practiced on edge. Players were extra feisty, with a couple of fights breaking out. A lot of times those things mean little. Teams that practice well during the week aren't guaranteed a great performance, but it means something if your coach is Mike Holmgren.
Holmgren won his only title with the Green Bay Packers in 1996 by getting his team to peak emotionally the week before the game and beat New England 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI. Brett Favre threw exceptionally well on his Wednesday practice that year, and the team had a great week of work.
The next year wasn't the same. The Packers, favored by a touchdown, were overconfident heading into Super Bowl XXXII against the Denver Broncos. Holmgren lamented all week that he was having trouble getting his team that edge.
He warned his players that the Broncos were better than they thought, but an opening touchdown drive by the Packers had the players coming off the field wondering what Holmgren was talking about. The Broncos won the Super Bowl and Holmgren went into a one-month funk.
From Holmgren's standpoint, he thinks he has his Seahawks team ready. Here are the keys to a Seattle victory.
1. QB Hasselbeck has to come out sharp. It's not as though he has to produce two touchdowns in his first two possessions, but Hasselbeck can't make major mistakes that lead to Steelers scores. If he can generate 10 points by the beginning of the second quarter, that could be the difference in the game. The Seahawks were the third-best team in football in opening drives, scoring 51 points on their initial possessions during the regular season.
This game will be different because the Steelers' 3-4 defense will take away his ability to audible to a lot of his favorite runs. Hasselbeck has to be particularly sharp because of Dick LeBeau's zone blitz schemes. Even the threat of a blitz can be mentally exhausting for a quarterback. No one can guess where the extra defender or two is coming.
Hasselbeck can't afford to have a bad first quarter. Sure, he can make one mistake. No one is perfect, and this game has a lot of pressure. The ball is slick, so it's harder to throw early in the game. But a good start by the Seahawks is the key to their potential success.
2. Linebackers Lofa Tatupu and LeRoy Hill can't play like rookies. Tatupa, who finished second to Shawne Merriman in voting for defensive rookie of the year, has an amazing knack for lining up his defenders in the right spot and making all the calls. His role is the most important on the defense, so he can't have a bad mental day.
Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt knows Tatupu is a rookie, so he might try a few things to confuse Tatupu. The Seahawks run primarily a Cover 2 scheme that sometimes has Tatupu dropping back into the deep middle zone in coverage. A goal for the Steelers is calling plays that will get Tatupu out of position. Hill also is playing the biggest game of his career. He can't look lost. Hill did a great job of sacking the quarterback on some blitz situations, but he can't run around with his head cut off and look lost.
3. The offensive line cannot afford to have frequent mental lapses. The Steelers have matchup advantages with defensive end Aaron Smith against second-year right tackle Sean Locklear, in his first season as a starter, and nose tackle Casey Hampton against center Robbie Tobeck. Hampton has the quickness and strength to overpower Tobeck.
Still, the Seahawks possess a strong line. The linemen play well together, and they can help each other with some doubleteams. The Steelers drove the Colts crazy with stunts that weren't picked up, forcing numerous breakdowns. It's going to be hard enough to win the individual battles, so being smart is going to be important. The Seahawks are considered the best offensive line in football. In Super Bowl XL, they will have to show it.
4. Receivers can't afford to drop passes, particularly Darrell Jackson. For the three years before this season, the Seahawks had more dropped passes than any team in football. Jackson and former Seahawks Koren Robinson alternated each year as the drop leaders. It became a frustration to the offense and broke continuity and confidence. Jackson improved his pass catching dramatically this season, but the more experienced hands of Joe Jurevicius and Bobby Engram carried the team while Jackson missed 10 games with a knee injury.
Being sure-handed with the pass catching, the Steelers' passing offense operated with confidence all season. Early drops could bring back bad memories and bad karma. The Seahawks can't afford those bad thoughts.
5. Seattle's run defense can't afford to let Willie Parker have a big day. Parker is fast and can burn a defense with his quickness. He's a big-play back who can break two or three 20-yard runs in a game. But against good defenses, he's pretty average. He's not very big and can't wear down a defense physically. Against top 11 defenses, Parker averaged only 49 yards a game during the regular season and only 44 yards a game during the playoffs.
What the Seahawks can't afford to do is let Parker have a 50-yard first half. The Steelers' strength is wearing a team down with their running attack. In November, they lost their confidence as a running team and had a three-game losing streak. But if the Seahawks allow Parker to be successful, coach Bill Cowher can bring in Jerome Bettis and pound the relatively light Seahawks defense. Stopping Parker is a key. The Seahawks finished with the fourth-best run defense in football. On Sunday, they can't break down.
Clayton's pick: Seahawks 21, Steelers 17
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
3hEric D. Williams
1dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo