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Originally published Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 9:55 PM

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Jerry Brewer

Seahawks no longer can be labeled soft

Seahawks now winning the physical battle with other teams

Seattle Times staff columnist

The Arizona Cardinals' recent dominance of the Seahawks carries the subtlety of an elbow to the neck.

You remember that play. More than any other, it symbolizes the rugged manner in which the Cardinals dethroned those helpless holdovers from past Seattle glory.

Last November, Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett shoved his forearm into quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's throat, and Arizona whipped Seattle again, for the fourth consecutive time, and you wondered when the Seahawks would be tough enough to reclaim control of the NFC West Division.

And less than a year later, in a pivotal early-season matchup Sunday, the Cardinals tried to scare the audacity right out of the resurgent Seahawks once again. After Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington sacked Hasselbeck in the first quarter, teammate Joey Porter stepped over the quarterback, hit him and knocked Hasselbeck to the turf once more.

Hasselbeck rose and screamed at the Cardinals defenders. It triggered trash-talking and physical play between the Seattle offensive line and the Arizona defense that would last until Seahawks coach Pete Carroll admonished his players for going too far in the third quarter. It was just one play, but it declared what the Seahawks would soon prove.

They're not soft anymore.

If you're searching for another reason this team has a 4-2 record, if you're wondering why they're suddenly back in first place in the NFC West, then you should examine their toughness.

The Seahawks won a disjointed game on a rainy afternoon at Qwest Field because they're better suited to play a physical style now. Their defense withstood the challenge of the Cardinals' massive offensive line. Their offense produced 144 rushing yards against a bad Arizona run defense, and though Hasselbeck was erratic, he connected 11 times with wide receiver Mike Williams, who made tough catch after tough catch to give the offense some balance.

This 22-10 victory was also a testament to stellar special-teams play and the five turnovers the Seahawks forced. OK, two of those takeaways came as a result of Arizona muffing a punt and a kickoff return, but the Seahawks were ballhawks on this day. They capitalized on every mistake Arizona made.

If not for poor red-zone efficiency, the Seahawks would've probably won by three touchdowns. Even though they weren't sharp, they controlled the entire game. It's too early to crown the Seahawks as NFC West champs again, but now that they're in a good position, they're dangerous. Don't expect the Cardinals to steal their lunch money any time soon.

"They tried to be bullies or whatever," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "We've got a different team. Things change."

Credit Milloy for some of that. Credit the work converted defensive tackle Red Bryant is doing at end. Credit the return of middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu from injury, the emergence of Williams and the arrival of running back Marshawn Lynch. They've all been major contributors to restoring an edge to this team.

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The Seahawks still need to be more physical on the offensive line, but the entire team is bigger, stronger and grittier than it has been in a while. It would be incorrect to call Seattle a finesse team these days.

Less than a year ago, former coach Jim Mora was calling for his team to be dirtbags. In this game, Carroll yelled for the Seahawks to play cleaner.

It happened after guard Mike Gibson was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty after an Olindo Mare field goal to make the score 16-0. Carroll screamed at Gibson for the mistake, and then he screamed at the entire offensive line, telling those players to focus.

"There was too much jawing going on out there," Carroll said after the game. "We were wasting a bunch of energy. That's totally out of our realm of focus. That's not what we're dealing with. It's not how we want to play. We don't do that."

After the lecture, the Seahawks channeled their intensity properly and helped the offense put together back-to-back drives of 14 and 12 plays. Both resulted in Mare field goals and iced the game.

The Seahawks didn't need to fight back to stand up to Arizona. They simply fought smarter.

"Our team was built through competition," Milloy said. "It started in the offseason. The 53 guys in here, we know we belong. We earned it. Our roster is still changing, but the one thing that's a constant is effort. A lot of times, effort gets you through the tough times."

Clearly, that was the case Sunday. The Seahawks will need to be a more fluid team in the future, but this is the kind of game that separates a real football team from an impostor. It was all about who wanted it more, and the Seahawks thrive in those situations now.

"Things change," Milloy said again, shrugging.

Tough guys don't have to say much.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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