One win from one win: Seahawks advance to play 49ers in NFC title game

Otto Greule Jr

Seattle supposedly played a game this weekend, but we all know that there's only one thing on our agenda right now. (And it's not Shia LaBeouf's career status.)

The Seahawks 23-15 win over the New Orleans Saints is already an afterthought, and I dare say that roughly 48 hours later, nobody wants to hear about it anymore. Like so many previous playoff wins over the Washington Redskins, the only thing reminiscent about Saturday's 8-point win will be how we never reminisce about it. A week of pent-up anticipation, followed by two hours of "I think we're doing good?" to 10 minutes of rage to Marshawn Lynch doin' it and doin' it and doin' it well, and then the game was over.

Not to downplay the Saints' accomplishments this season, of which there are many, but there were three things on display this weekend when it came to the Seattle Seahawks:

- A dominating defense performance that held Jimmy Graham to one catch for eight yards. In their two meetings combined, Graham had four catches for 50 yards. Darren Sproles was held to 34 total yards on Saturday. In his two games against the Seahawks, Drew Brees completed just over 58% of his passes for 5.62 yards per attempt and two touchdowns.

Brees had at least two touchdowns in 11 of his 16 games in the regular season.

The defense shut out New Orleans for three quarters before lending way to those 15 points. Still, the Seahawks haven't allowed more than 20 points since November 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a string of eight games in a row. The only thing that's standing in the way of this Seattle defense and going from "great" to "legendary" status is... well, you know what it is.

But if people are going to one day refer to the "2013 Seahawks" in the same vein as the "2002 Bucs," "2000 Ravens," or "1985 Bears" then they'll have to keep it up for two more games. Seattle held New Orleans to 22 points in two games, a team that averaged 25.9 points per game in the regular season. This really might be the greatest secondary of the modern era and thank goodness for that because the offense was a one-man machine, bringing me to part two of what was on display this weekend.

- The Seahawks probably wouldn't have gotten it done yesterday without Marshawn Lynch. Certainly not without someone running the ball effectively, and that's been a common theme throughout the playoffs so far. Even watching the Denver Broncos beat the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, it was clear that Denver also needs to succeed with a running game.

Or LeGarrette Blount scoring four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts and Frank Gore far out-dueling DeAngelo Williams in the early game on Sunday.

Lynch had 140 yards rushing, the second-most he's had all season behind the 145 he put up against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10. In fact, that was the last time he hit triple digits at all. It's hard to say that it was a "down year" for someone that rushed for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the dominance of Lynch seemed to come in much tighter spaces. You could see "full beast" in pockets of bodies battling for a yard or two, but nothing like we had become accustomed to in the last three years.

Until Saturday.

In a game where Russell Wilson was ineffective and Percy Harvin's time to shine was short-lived, Seattle needed someone to carry them on offense. They couldn't put all of the pressure on the defense and they had to sustain longer drives or they'd risk Brees tiring out our players, as best he could. Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Zach Miller weren't getting the job done either.

Lynch gained one yard total on his first three carries. Then six. Then seven. Then 15 and a touchdown. Then 4, 3, 7, 7, 18, 1, 5, and so on. Lynch mingled in some bad runs (-5) with some good runs, but then his 31-yarder to essentially end the game, as it was four years ago against the Saints, showed why we hold this guy to be so valuable.

There were many people saying things this weekend like "Where's your 'passing league' now?" but a few games won't change that this is a passing league now. Depending on what your definition of "is" is, or "league" is, or "passing" is, the truth is that teams in general are leaning more and more on passing the ball, breaking passing records, and throwing it more and more often per game. The reason that we've got the final four that we've got has nothing to do with it not being a passing league.

It's because in a passing league, the teams that should be the most successful are the ones that can: A) stop the pass and B) run the ball effectively, thereby slowing the game down and forcing the opponent to win a slowed-down version of their passing game. Or in the case of the Broncos, just be the best of the best at passing the ball effectively, but how much longer can that last?

The Patriots were more of a rushing offense than a passing offense this season (Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount combined to rush for over 1,500 yards) and they were 14th in pass defense DVOA.

The Broncos are interesting perhaps because Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball also combined to rush for over 1,500 yards, though Denver's pass defense isn't great. Peyton Manning can be the great equalizer, but once again his playoff performances leaves us in want. Was that the best you could do against the 31st-ranked pass defense?

The outcome of the AFC title game is left as anyone's guess.

Of course, the 49ers and Seahawks are as similar as you could be, and likely the winner of the NFC Championship game is the favorite to win the Super Bowl. San Francisco is one of the top running teams in the league and one of the top defenses in the league, against both the rush and the pass. It's no surprise to have seen them make it this far.

Wilson versus Kaepernick is one thing that'll take center stage over the next week, but Gore versus Lynch could prove to be even more important. The team that can run the ball more effectively in the first quarter should be the team that doesn't only control the tempo better, but the team that's setting themselves up for greater success over the duration of the game by forcing the opponent to step up in the box a little bit more.

Which brings me to the third thing that was on display this weekend.

- Seahawks versus 49ers is happening. We did it.

One thing I noticed is that there is a very popular article over at Niners Nation today that's talking about how ticket sales are restricted in California. It's much more popular than the article that came later, clarifying that the Seattle Seahawks aren't just "a bunch of scared, classless jerks" but that it is quite common for teams to restrict the states to which they sell their tickets. The Broncos are doing the exact same thing. In fact, one might even say that the 49ers could have done it, if they had only had the ability to be better than the Seahawks during the regular season.

But they weren't, sooooo.....

So why is the Niners Nation self-proclaimed "non-story" such a big story? Because it does give the fans an opportunity to say nasty things about the Seattle organization... and turn their whole page green. (Thanks for that.)

The San Francisco-Seattle rivalry that has developed over the last two to three years, is as bitter as anything I've ever personally seen as a fan of professional sports. (I think being told to go fuck myself for wearing a Cougar shirt in Seattle sums up that the college rivalry is still... unrivaled.) I'm not sure if the majority of fans care more about what's going on as far as the game is concerned or whether they'd rather just win so that they can shove it in the face of the opposing fanbase for the next year or so, at least.

Will an "X's and O's" article be nearly as popular as an article specifically designed for trolling, with over 1,500 comments in less than a day?

I so wish that the Seahawks had been able to hold that lead against the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round last year. Besides the obvious reasons, even if we had lost to the 49ers the following week in San Francisco, at least we'd be following suit in setting the stage for what could be the best current rivalry in sports. The Niners have made three straight conference championship games, and I applaud them for that. If I step outside of myself as a fan of the Seahawks and look at the NFL simply as a fan of football, it's impressive to see what Jim Harbaugh and staff have done over the last three years.

Massively impressive, when you consider how we've redefined "dynasty" over the last 20 years of professional football in a league of free agency, salary caps, and NFL draft talent evaluation. Because of how impressive it is, it will be that much more satisfying if the Seahawks can squeeze the life out of them like an anaconda wrapped around Jon Voight and a bad accent.

I want the 49ers to walk out of there with their heads held low. I want them to think about the choices they've made over the last year and question every one of them. I want them full of regret and sadness and melancholy. I hope it is the worst day of their lives, because I know that for me personally, if we lose, it will be mine.

That's what happens when you have stakes this high. If you want to feel a true thrill, you have to be willing to risk everything. Beating the... who did we beat on Saturday? Beating whoever it was that we beat the other day, was a relief because we didn't immediately blow it and embarrass ourselves after a hugely-successful regular season.

But now the true test begins.

As a gambler, I won $110 in my first night of playing poker in a casino. I went back the next night and won $90. I went back the next night, and lost $400.

Gambling is about constantly raising the stakes and it doesn't matter if you're an 18-year-old kid at the casino the first time or Phil Ivey (a famous poker player, depending on what your definition of "famous" is) there's usually one commonality between every true gaming addict: We risk everything.

The Carolina Panthers could have won on Sunday and been headed to Seattle for the NFC title game again, and that would have been fine. I still think that the Panthers provide a tougher test than San Francisco does, but the matchup itself would have been as non-descript as most playoff games. (Quick: Who did the Chargers play in the first round this year? Who did the Patriots lose to in the playoffs last year? Who played in the NFC title game in 2011? It's rarely memorable.)

But we're not getting "a rematch of the 2005 title game," as best it could have been billed. We're getting the game. We're raising the stakes to their highest point. While a game against Carolina would have had us all looking ahead to the Super Bowl, a game against the Niners instead has me thinking "Super what?" until this game is over. We have to win this game. They know that they have to win this game.

Manning versus Brady <-torch-> Wilson versus Kaepernick.

And maybe raising the stakes this high for the game before the game will keep all the players fully aware of a "win one game" mentality. My apologies for dismissing the divisional round so readily and immediately moving on to the next round, but this is, quite literally, the second-biggest game we've ever played in.

If we win, however, it will immediately become just the third-biggest -- and the rivalry continues to grow.

A couple quick bullets for your points gun:

- I don't think that Wilson or Carroll feel the slightest amount of pressure that you or I might. Carroll prepared for many big games at the college level, including five Rose Bowls and two national championships. He won seven of his last eight bowl games with USC.

Wilson doesn't feel anything, let alone pressure. If Wilson does start to feel something, it will be an incredible advancement in the field of artificial intelligence.

- I'm not worried about Wilson just because he hasn't been as amazing as expected over his last five games. We put him on such a high pedestal that it would take quite a bit at this point to impress us, except for one a play-to-play basis, and there's still plenty of times where I say to myself, "Damn!" and not just when I'm eating a burger that has strength.

From Week 7-13, a stretch of six games, Wilson completed 68.7% of his passes for 236 yards per game, 9.65 Y/A, 14 touchdowns, two interceptions, 162 rushing yards, one touchdown, and a pass rating of 125.6.

So, in a period stretching into December, just over a month ago, Wilson was basically the best quarterback we've ever seen for the Seahawks. And now we're going to dismiss that because he's been average against some pretty good-to-great defenses? I fully expect that Wilson could be contained on Sunday against San Francisco because they are a great defense.

I also fully expect the same for Colin Kaepernick.

This is a game where the defenses will be on display and the best thing that either quarterback can do is protect the football. Wilson has thrown five interceptions over his last 12 games, Kaepernick has thrown five interceptions over his last 15 games. This game is going to be tight and it will be surprising if either quarterback "goes off."

- Harvin's injury wasn't a product of being injury prone, it was a product of playing in the NFL and it was incredibly unlucky. As a fan, it now makes you nervous and suspicious of every moment that Harvin plays in, but I once felt that way about Sidney Rice too, until I didn't.

(And then I did again, of course, but Rice played all of 2012 while taking some pretty significant hits.)

Let's hope that Harvin's reports this week are positive, and if they aren't, let's hope that we can win and give him two more weeks to get better.

- The Seahawks punted on their first five drives of the second half, none of which went for 20 yards or more, and still won against one of the top offenses in the NFL. This defense is really, truly incredible.

But historic? I'll tell you in a week or three.

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