Thank God style points don't matter in the playoffs. This was as dichotomous of a game as I've seen the Seahawks play, with both the first/second halves and the offense/defense telling wildly different stories. The Seahawks O, despite the brief glimpses of Percy Harvin, remained mired in the same mud they've been inhabiting for the last month and a half. The defense, by contrast, immediately imposed itself on the game, castrating Drew Brees (34 yards) and the vaunted Saints offense (113) in the first half, before surrendering a porous 294 in the second half.
Let's start from the beginning. Before Seattle's first score. Before the opening kickoff. Even before Jimmy Graham got into a squabbling match with Seahawks defenders pre-game. I'm talking breakfast, when the man most responsible for Seattle's presence in the NFC Championship rolled up to Top Pot Doughnuts in his Lambo, wearing his Christian-camp sweatshirt:
That man finished today with 140 of the most important rushing yards in Seahawks history, given Seattle's new-found passing ineptitude. Pow(d)ered up for the game, Marshawn exploded on a surprisingly stout Saints defense, averaging 5.0 yards per carry after registering just 3.5 per rush over the previous month and a half. The victory started and ended with Lynch today, but we'll get back to that later.
In a contest battered by wind, hail, and rain, Seattle won the opening toss and elected to take the gusts at their back to begin. Steven Hauschka bombed a touchback and for the next 30 minutes, New Orleans looked wholly perplexed, with a multi-gloved Brees unable to throw the ball any better than your eight year old daughter and a running game whose best efforts were occasional second-level bursts. A quick, terrible punt (in which the snap inexplicably hit Saints punter Thomas Moorstead square in the fleur-de-lis) gave the Seahawks the ball on New Orleans' 40.
Two short runs put Seattle in a third-down situation outside of field goal range. With Percy Harvin finally on the field, Russell Wilson dialed up his newest weapon on a seam route. Unfortunately for Seattle (and Harvin's injury reputation), safety Rafael Bush leveled a massive hit on Percy, launching his mouthpiece and the ball five yards in different directions and sending Harvin to the lockerroom for concussion examinations. The hit did more than produce a collective grown from 'Hawks fans, it drew a 15-yard penalty that would eventually lead to a Hauschka field goal and an early lead for Seattle.
The Saints looked more prepared on their second drive, eating up 5:16 over a nine-play, 53-yard jaunt into Seahawks territory, setting up newly acquired Shayne Graham for a 44-yard field goal that the righteous breath of God blew just left of the goalposts. Despite being gashed repeatedly by the Saints run game(?), the Seahawks regained possession with a three-point lead and marched right back down the turf with a nice grab from Golden Tate and a number of nice gains on the ground. The drive eventually stalled around the Saints 30 and culminated with 49-yard Hauschka field goal attempt that split the uprights as cleanly as twins pulling on the wishbone of an anatomically-perfect turkey.
With the score 6-0 in favor of the NFC's #1 seed, Mark Ingram summarily fumbled a carry two plays later. The ball was recovered by Michael Bennett, who rewarded the viewing audience with the soft-core pornography we've all come to expect from his celebrations. It didn't take Seattle long to redeem the gift card for seven points, as Lynch slithered his way into the endzone to give Seattle a 13-0 lead and a clear path to a comfortable win. A third Hauschka FG only cemented that impression, and the two teams headed to their respective lockerrooms with Seattle flaunting a one-sided 16-0 lead.
At that point, Drew Brees was averaging an impotent 3.1 yards per attempt on 4-11 passing, and while Russell Wilson wasn't spectacular, his 7-9, 73, 0, 0 line was sufficient to shepherd the two-score lead into halftime. It was about that time, with Seattle having outscored the New Orleans 50-7 over their last six quarters, that I began to relax. The nervousness that had been shadowing me all fortnight began to melt away, secure in my belief that the Seahawks would be able to guide their dread ship gently into safe harbor. Lynch was running hard, the line was blocking well, and Wilson was doing enough to protect the lead and move the chains. Hell, even Harvin chipped in with 30 yards on three catches and a rush before the second big hit he suffered finished the concussion that the first hit started.
Then the Seahawks lost all gastro-intestinal control and spent the third quarter defecating in their sleep. Twenty-five yards on 12 plays. That's it. All of a sudden, the offense looked like a JV squad running scout team plays against the Varsity defense, sending all of the misgivings we've had about them rushing back into our brains like a thawing waterfall. Compounding the increasing tightness in our guts was a reborn Drew Brees, who entered the halftime cocoon a caterpillar but emerged as a splendorous butterfly, dotting his receivers all over the field with spirals that made me wonder if he wasn't some ringer that spent the first half playing with his off hand.
Remarkably, the Seahawks escaped their putrid third quarter with their 16-point lead in tact, but the cracks were beginning to show. The Seattle pass rush was still getting to Brees but instead of trying to pass through the maelstrom of Seahawks defenders enveloping him, the Saints' erstwhile QB began tucking the ball in long enough to find daylight and an open receiver. Even so, the Seattle D had opportunities. A dubious non-fumble call and a dropped Kam Chancellor pick allowed the Saints to remain within punching defense of a Seahawks team that probably should have been lapping them.
The advent of the fourth quarter saw the Saints in Seahawks territory, in rhythm and seemingly impervious to the noise generated by an increasingly worried crowd. Not long after the game clock resumed, Khiry Robinson found the endzone from a yard out for New Orleans' first score and an uncontested Mark Ingram two-point conversion chopped Seattle's lead in twain. With pressure mounting him like an untrained collie, Russell Wilson (who needs to cut his damn hair already) responded with his first(!) completion of the first half, a dubious accomplishment that only served to postpone a punt for a minute. It seemed, then, that the defense's margin for error was quickly approaching nil, as the offense looked incapable of scoring if called upon.
After the two teams traded punts on the next couple of possessions, Brees regained the helm with the opportunity to tie the game, or at least burrow further into the soft earth of Seattle's lead. 42 yards later, Shayne Graham had the chance to do just that but his second field goal attempt followed its predecessor like a lemming, sailing left and keeping the lead squarely at eight. With less than four minutes left and the wind going full Deadliest Catch, the Seahawks offense retook the field and... passed? The play looked doomed from the start and Wilson's throwaway left Seattle with second and ten and a stopped clock. After a bullish seven-yard carry by Lynch, Wilson took to the air again on 3rd and 3, despite being just 1-8 in the second half. Amid the tension and recent struggles, Wilson launched a ball deep down the left sideline towards Doug Baldwin (who led the league in leverage-gained/catch*). With the ball speeding towards him and draped in excellent coverage, Baldwin made a most improbable grab before being scalped by the Saints defender. After being completely invisible since early December, it was awesome to see Baldwin come up huge like that.
An official review upheld the completion, although the attempted decapitation somehow failed to draw a flag. No matter, the next play reminded us all how valuable Marshawn Lynch really is. Wilson handed off to Lynch on a stretch play left. The line blocked it immaculately, giving Lynch the edge and sending him careening up the left hash with murder on his mind. Unlike his clinching run in 2010, however, there was only one remaining Saints defender available to hold his dick. Instead of continuing his headlong sprint towards the promised land, Lynch slowed down and caved in the poor would-be tackler's sternum with an unregistered forearm and sauntered into the painted turf with a 31-yard touchdown that produced just as much relief as it did joy.
At 23-8, and with just 1:11 to go, the game seemed all but locked up. Undaunted, Brees (who ended up with a second half line of 20-32, 275) continued flinging the ball around the CLink. Then, looking deep down the seam for Robert Meachem, Brees floated a pass that fell two yards short of his target and into the waiting hands of Byron Thomas. I mean Earl Maxwell. I mean Robert Meachem. As the two Seahawks converged on the game-sealing interception, Byron Maxwell collided with Earl Thomas, who despite being composed of lightning bolts and wolverine DNA, was given the hands like waffle irons and tipped the ball up in the air, allowing Meachem to peel back and snag it. A few plays later, Marques Colston was cradling a touchdown pass in his arms and Seattle's lead was back to eight.
The Saints then missiled the onside kick at Golden Tate, who pounced on it with all the skill and care of a refrigerator falling on a live cat. The ricochet ended up in New Orleans' possession and life remained in the lungs of Who Dat nation. After an inconsequential completion got Jimmy Graham off the schnide (sp?), Brees found an open Colston down the right sideline with 13 seconds to go. All Colston needed to do was step out of bounds and the Saints would have two, maybe three shots at the endzone. Instead, Colston thought he was playing Ultimate Frisbee and threw the ball forwards towards a bewildered Saints guy who quizzically fell on it. It didn't matter, however, as Colston's snafu drew a ten second run-off that ended an altogether ugly second half.
~Russell Wilson was 9-18 for 103 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. He wasn't awful but he wasn't very good either. Yeah he was pressured and yeah he lost Harvin and yeah his receivers weren't getting consistent separation but he also missed a couple of looks that would've seemed inconceivable two months ago. The pass four feet behind an openly slanting Tate on third down was especially worrisome. Maybe it was the wind. Maybe it was the defense. Either way, I don't think that the version of Wilson we saw today will be sufficient against either the 49ers or the Panthers next week. I'm not bailing on Russell -- I still think he's one of the best young QBs the NFL has seen -- but it's been a long time since we've seen him be masterful.
~Tate, for his part, was basically a non-factor. Despite being targeted five times, he produced only one catch for 13 yards. Will probably need more from him next week, too. The talent is there, but he's had some Witness Protection games as well.
~Harvin had three catches for 21 yards and added nine more on a reverse. There was a palpable swelling
in my pants in the stadium when the ball was in his hands but, alas, he again couldn't finish the game. A lot of people are gonna say a lot of things about Percy Harvin's toughness this week. I don't know what to make of his other injuries but I will say this much, concussions have absolutely nothing to do with toughness. Harvin had six plays dialed up for him and was hit hard on three of them. The first and third were each enough to end anyone's season. Whatever opinion you had of Harvin coming in, I encourage you to keep today's head injury out of it. On the plus side, Seattle's investment in Harvin dropped from $7.25 million per touch to $2.42 million.
~The offensive line looked good for the most part. They opened up a number of lanes that Lynch hasn't seen in a long time. Their pass protection was adequate, I suppose, surrendering three sacks on 24 dropbacks but only allowing Wilson to be hit on two other occasions. Michael Bowie got his first career start at left guard and Seattle showed no hesitation to run it right behind him.
~In an era when it's popular to undervalue the importance of running backs, remember that Marshawn Lynch is the difference between prepping for the NFC Championship and scheduling a tee time. When all else was failing, the team leaned on Lynch and he validated that confidence with arguably his best game of the year. With the defense knowing he was getting it (literally 50% of Seattle's offensive plays were handoffs to Lynch), Marshawn delivered yard after painstaking yard, gaining the majority of his 140 after contact.
~The defense was awesome today. Sure, they gave up a couple of late touchdowns and only registered one sack and one turnover, but focusing on those things would be overlooking the main thrust of their performance. The first half was an exhibition of elite defensive performance and while they had a few lapses in the second half, much of that had to do with incredible individual plays from Brees, which will happen. They only had the one fumble recovery, but the refs whistled a second one dead and Seattle dropped two easy picks. They were where they were supposed to be far more often than not.
There's a lot more to cover, including great games from Brandon Mebane, Richard Sherman, and others but we're 2,300 words into this thing and we've got all week for the rest. For now, take solace in the fact that the Seahawks will be one of the final four teams in the NFL this season, that they are one win away from the Super Bowl, that they have as good a shot as anyone in the league to hoist Lombardi's ball in February.
One year ago, Russell Wilson was getting on board a plane after a heart-breaking, season-ending loss in Atlanta and told Pete Carroll, "we are gonna be so freaking good next year." Maybe they haven't dominated the way we thought they would, but they are the only team in the NFC to win 13 games this season and will be hosting the league's penultimate showdown. The question marks still linger, but you can't honestly ask for more in the second week of January than what the Seahawks have. This team wins pretty, this team wins ugly, this team wins in between. Their best will beat everybody else's best. What more could we ask for?
- Seahawks beat Saints to advance to NFC Championship Game
- "Now I'm here, with the loudest fans in the NFL cheering me on. And I can hear them all."
- Seahawks vs. Saints: Pressuring the Quarterback
- Seahawks vs. Saints, NFL Divisional Round Playoffs: Scheming open - how the Saints can use Jimmy Graham
- Seahawks vs Saints: a Closer Look