Even my ribs hurt after that game. It's been a while since I've watched a game where the narrative so heavily outweighed the stats. This was two ferocious teams playing ferociously, without abatement, for 60 sinus-crushing minutes. And it was awesome. I say that not just as a Seahawks fan but as a football fan.
There was no backdown in either squad today and that is a huge credit to the Rams. They came in as two-score dogs, with no playoff implications, against arguably the best team in the NFL, and traded haymakers with the 'Hawks at every opportunity. There is, however, a distinction between being willing to fight and knowing when to fight and as the game progressed, the difference between the two teams, in this regard at least, became apparent.
You see, the Rams are in the process of developing a mindset that the Seahawks have already established: a take-shit-from-nobody mentality that pervades every step taken on the field of play. When you're used to carrying that mantle, it's evident in everything you do. When you're still getting adjusted to it, you don't know when to hit the off switch. It's the difference between setting the tone and getting four personal fouls plus an ejection in a 20-second span. The Rams were credited with 12 penalties for 87 yards but were actually flagged for 17 penalties by my count for what would have been about 160 yards had three of the fouls not been offset and the three personal fouls actually cost 45 yards instead of 12 due to half-the-distance field positioning. At one particularly feisty point, Marshawn Lynch was constrained red-rover style as he grabbed his helmet and attempted to sprint on the field -- when the 'Hawks were on defense.
The Seahawks, for their part, were at least equally involved in just about every scrap that broke out today but were able to toe the line to the tune of seven penalties for 65 yards. Sure, a 22-yard discrepancy doesn't seem like much but context is everything: St. Louis' penalties gave Seattle five first downs on a day when their defense was keeping the Seahawks offense in neutral. This game was like watching two fighters in the octagon but Seattle's experience in these types of games is what made the difference between being Chris Weidman's shin and being Anderson Silva's.
From the get go, St Louis came out trying to prove a point. They sure as hell weren't scared. They bodied up against Seattle at every turn, turfing Seahawks whenever the opportunity presented itself. Their primary target was clearly Golden Tate (though I can't imagine why), as they seized every opportunity to hit him. Near the play, away from the play, when he had the ball, when he didn't; Tate was public enemy number one and the Rams punched, chipped, and flat out leveled him on a number of occasions. It did not have the desired effect.
Instead of buckling, or shying away, or cutting short his routes, or doing any of the other things that intimidated receivers do, Tate turned in the finest performance of his burgeoning career: 8 catches for 129 yards and an F-U touchdown when the game was out of reach. I imagine it would be frustrating enough to get beaten like that if Tate were built like Andre Johnson, but when you spend three hours hammering the hell out of a player that looks like a Rescue Ranger only to have him do you the way Tate did the Rams, it's gotta be about the most infuriating thing in the world. Tate finished the year with 13 catches for 222 yards and three of Seattle's four offensive TDs in the two games against the Rams this year.
I'd be remiss if I went any further without paying homage to the ubermensch they call Robert Quinn. The brightest star in the brilliant constellation of the Rams' front seven, Quinn wreaked the kind of havoc on Russells Okung and Wilson that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about. After dismantling the Seahawks in their first matchup this year (5 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 5 QB hits), Quinn continued his rampage in the Emerald City, tacking on another sack, two more TFLs, and roughly 64 QB pressures. He made Okung, who, to be fair, was a bit hobbled, look like an over-matched rookie. Chris Long, Alec Ogletree, James Laurinaitis, and Michael Brockers are all excellent young players who will leave an impact on the NFC West over the next few years, but it's Quinn that has legitimate Hall of Fame potential. He was the only thing keeping the Rams in the game during a first half that saw them net 54 yards and run exactly zero plays in Seattle's territory.
Those 54 yards were not, as it may appear at first blush, the result of simple incompetence on the Rams' part, rather, it's a reflection of what a middling offense looks like on the road against a defense playing at a legendary level. The Seahawks defense snagged two more interceptions today (and would have had three if the entire Legion of Boom didn't simultaneously knock themselves out trying to catch a Kellen Clemens quacker in the endzone), giving them a staggering 11 interceptions in a 10-quarter span, against just one touchdown. They held the Rams to 3.2 yards per play, including a flaccid 13 rushing yards on 18 carries. Bobby Wagner rebounded from an early injury to lead the way with 12 tackles, backed by Kam Chancellor with eight tackles and at least two homicides. The defensive line provided relentless pressure with Michael Bennett, Clinton McDonald, Brandon Mebane* and the rest harassing Clemens all afternoon, forcing hurried throws and busted plays with regularity.
*If I've been guilty of one thing this year, it's flagrant public nudity. If I'm guilty of two things, it's flagrant public nudity and a criminal lack of appreciation for Brandon Mebane in these articles. Seattle is so lucky to have him.
To his credit, the beleaguered Clemens (who has really played well since taking over for Sam Bradford) turned in some decent numbers against the NFL's best defense, completing 70% of his 30 pass attempts for a frugal 157 yards and a touchdown to go with his two picks. Without his usual help from breakout rookie Zac Stacy (15 yards on 15 carries), however, the St. Louis passing game never had time to complete anything that took more than two and a half seconds to develop, rendering even their one dimension even more, um... one-dimensional.
The biggest concern for just about every Seahawks fans coming into this game was the offense and, for the first half at least, those concerns continued to be justified. The Rams' defense has, of late, made a lot of trouble for just about everybody but pointing to opponent for your struggles only goes so far. For the first 30 minutes of the game, the Seahawks offense could manage only a handful of first downs and a couple of field goals, taking a 13-0 lead into the break with Malcolm Smith's pick-six as the team's only teeder. It looked like the same story we'd been reading for the last month or so, with the only chunk yardage coming on Wilson improvs and the occasional second-level run from Marshawn Lynch.
In the second half, however, Seattle began to click a little bit. Maybe they started executing better or maybe someone reminded Darrell Bevell that quick slants are not only legal, but preferable when your QB has no time to go through his reads. The result was a shit ton of Golden Tate and a steady diet of clock-squeezing drives that shortened the game favorably. Marshawn Lynch looked to have found his groove again, too, as he was able to make the first defender miss with some consistency en route to 97 yards and a touchdown of his own on 23 carries.All told, the Seahawks' O mustered a meager 4.3 yards per play.
Wilson, for his part, played better than his numbers show. He completed 15 of 23 attempts for 172 yards and the aforementioned touchdown with no interceptions; nothing eye-popping but impressive when you consider that he may have been able to actually go through his progressions three or four times all day. I suppose the next step would be to stop making him have to run for his life before going through his progressions. How 'bout it, science?
It wasn't the offensive performance we were all hoping to see before starting the playoff journey, but we'd be remiss if we only focused on the shortcomings in a vacuum. This defense is the best in the NFL by nearly every traditional and metric standard available and is complimented by a field-flipping special teams unit, luxuries that afford for some tire spinning on the offensive side of the ball. That's not to say the offense couldn't stand to improve but it's also real easy to stop seeing the forest for the trees. The Seattle Seahawks just finished the season with the best record in the NFL. The road to the Super Bowl will go through the greatest home-field advantage the league has ever seen. If y'all wanna focus on the negatives, it's not my place to tell you otherwise, but there are a lot more good things going for this team than bad. Besides, there have been a lot of Lombardi Trophies raised by offenses worse than this one.
*Jon Ryan stopped punting like he was standing in goulash and straight up murdered the football today. His six punts averaged 53 yards, and netted an average of 44.2. Unfortunately, his Howitzer leg out-kicked his coverage for the first time all year and the resultant 57 return yards cost the Seahawks the NFL record for fewest punt return yards allowed. Still, this is the best special teams squad I can ever remember watching.
*Russell Wilson when targeting Golden Tate: 8/9, 129 yards, 1 TD (Passer Efficiency of 155.8)
*Russell Wilson when targeting everyone else: 7/14, 43 yards, 0 TDs (Passer Efficiency of 56.5)
*Nice to see Steven Hauschka bounce back after costing me a $500 fantasy 'ship with his 26-yard clanker last week. No, seriously, that kick was the difference. Personal loss aside, I'm going into these playoffs with full confidence in him.
*Seattle was 4-13 on third down. Not horrific, but that's gonna have to improve. The Rams were only 2-11
*The 49ers, Packers, Panthers, and Saints have all won today, and the Eagles are up a couple of scores on the Cowboys. The NFC playoff picture currently looks like this:
#1 - Seattle (Bye)
#2 - Carolina (Bye)
#3 Philadelphia/Dallas vs #6 New Orleans (in PHI/DAL)
#4 Green Bay vs #5 San Francisco (in GB)
*The Seahawks will host the lowest advancing seed in the second round.
*Damn, the NFC's got some teams that can flat out ball.
Now the fun really begins. The Seahawks had, if we're to be honest with ourselves, the season we were all hoping they would before it started. Fits of frustration now and again? Sure. But you'll never root for a team that plays flawlessly. I truly believe that the Seahawks at their best will beat any other team at their best. What more could you want entering the playoffs?