It's funny how big an effect the difference between a win and a loss has on one's physiology. For the first 59 playing minutes of today's game, I was a Pepto Bismol commercial, trying to keep the Seahawks-induced bile in my stomach from seeping up to my brain and shutting everything down forever. A minute later I was celebratorily throwing my pug Toby up in the air and high-fiving all zero of the people in the room. The difference between winning and losing is often as small as one play, but the difference between a win and a loss is much larger, with 4-3 teams making the playoffs 51% of the time while 3-4 teams make it in at just a 15% clip (since 2002, per ESPN).
So how did we get there? Let's revisit:
The Seahawks started the game with the ball and despite two quick completions to Doug Baldwin, went three and out. Jon Ryan then punted one off the moon and the ball's terminal velocity on the way back down forced it right through the Panthers' return man's hands. As the ball careened straight into a gaggle of Seahawks, they continued their season-long aversion to creating turnovers and a Carolina player somehow dug it out of the pile. I don't know what the exact numbers were at that point but Seattle's inability to recover 50/50 balls this year is not only maddening, it's well into the reaches of statistical improbability.
Anyhow, Carolina made it count by leaning on Jonathan Stewart and an O-line that consistently won the pushing war up front. With the drive finally stalling deep in Seattle territory, Carolina turned to Graham Gano, who kicked a short field goal to give the Panthers a 3-0 lead. Seattle gamely countered with their second straight three-and-out, allowing Carolina to follow the pattern and turn a 12-play drive into another Gano field goal, making it 6-0 and leaving the Seahawks looking like a gooey pile of nuthin'.
It was a script we've seen too many times before this season: the opponent stringing together first downs while Seattle's defense stays two inches and half a second short of getting off the field. At the end of a very one-sided first quarter, the Panthers had a 105-17 edge in total yards while holding the ball for over 11 minutes. After Carolina's second score, Paul Richardson flashed the skills that made him Seattle's first pick in the draft, darting through coverage for 47 yards on the ensuing kickoff and injecting a touch of life into a team that had theretofore looked quite lifeless. After registering their first first down of the game, the Seahawks stalled out at the Panthers' 40 and moments later Steven Hauschka was lining up for a ostentatious 58-yard field goal that he buried between the uprights halfway up the net. It was, quite possibly, the most impressive kick in Seahawks history, as it came on grass, at sea level, and would've been good from over 65.
It would remain the highlight of the first half, as the remainder of the second quarter was pretty ragged. Carolina took their next drive deep into Seattle territory, with Stewart consistently chipping off 4+ yards and Cam Newton completing eight of his first ten passes. They were helped along by Bruce Irvin's second neutral zone infraction of the half and after eight plays and 67 yards, the Panthers were prowling around in Seattle's red zone again and moving the ball with a consistency that made it look like seven points were more likely than three. On the ninth play, however, the Seahawks finally caught a break when Newton fumbled a read-option decision and Cliff Avril (who had a great game) pounced on the ball for Seattle's first turnover in years, probably.
It was then that the pendulum which had been swinging away from the Seahawks over the last few weeks felt like it was about to come back their way. Realizing that they had only handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch twice up to that point (about 4:30 left in the half), the Seahawks began to feed their franchise running back and he responded like a rodeo bull when the gate opens. The 'Hawks ran the ball on their next four plays, gaining 20 yards and setting up Russell Wilson to pass of of the read-option, which he did with aplomb.
Seattle passed on the next six plays, with Wilson completing five of them and bringing the Seahawks all the way down to the Panthers' seven yard line. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, as though Seattle would be able to take a lead, or at the very least a tie, into the locker room on the back of a 13-play scoring drive. On third and goal, Wilson checked down to Lynch at the goal line, but the ball slipped right through Marshawn's hands and into the waiting arms of defensive back Josh Norman, who ran around like a little kid until the half was effectively over.
At halftime, the Panthers were out-gaining Seattle 154-102 and had the ball for over 19 minutes. Opposing QBs were then 23 for their last 28 against the Seahawks defense; five incompletions over six quarters. The 'Hawks, for their part, could only manage 4.4 yards per play in the first 30 minutes and despite the relative efficiency of their last drive, there weren't many indicators that it was gonna get better in the second half.
The Panthers started Act II with the football but the dam that has kept the Seahawks pass rush at bay all season finally began to leak. Excessive pressure on a third and seven forced a desperate pass from Newton, one that was picked off by Marcus Burley. It was Burley's first interception as a Seahawk and later, as Legion statutes dictate, he will lather it in myrrh and burn it as a sweet-smelling sacrifice at the foot of Earl Thomas' throne.
With the ball and the ever ephemeral momentum in their grasp, Seattle
marched drove trundled 29 yards in 12 plays, setting up Hauschka for a game-tying field goal. Lost in that drive were a couple of touchdown opportunities, the first of which came on a similar play to the one with which they scored their first touchdown of the year. Faking screen pass, then faking a run, Russell Wilson was left with a wide open Cooper Helfet standing by himself at the 10-yard line. Seizing the moment, Wilson uncorked the worst pass of his professional career, Tebowing a running jump pass four yards short, leaving Helfet (and the rest of us) gaping in shock. On the next play, Wilson whirlybirded his way through defenders on a broken play for a first down. Then, facing third and goal, Seattle ran two slants with Helfet and Jermaine Kearse. Both receivers got inside position and Wilson deftly split the difference between them. It was the third pass of the game that should have resulted in a teeder. Instead, zero teeders.
The Panthers then went three and out, punting the ball to Richard Sherman who looked fearless, if nothing else, in his first jaunt as punt returner (his eight-yard return was nullified by a penalty). Seattle retook control and again moved the ball determinedly down the field, this time extending eight plays into 60 yards and another scoring opportunity. After a bobbled snap between Wilson and center Steven Schilling that Wilson fell on earlier in the drive, the two had their issues again on the possession's final play. On 3rd and 1 at the Carolina 21, Wilson again went under center but never got the ball, the result of another bad snap (if you can call setting the ball down between your own ankles a snap). Carolina fell on the football, leaving Seattle in the lurch on yet another scoring chance. At that point, Seattle's last three drives had covered 166 yards on 33 plays and resulted in three total points.
The teams opened the fourth quarter by exchanging punts, with Seattle winning the field position exchange and putting Newton's back to the wall, starting the drive at his own eight-yard line. On the first play of the drive, Michael Bennett beat his man and, like some beast from another era, threw himself on Newton with designs on devouring him whole. Bennett made the mistake of not chewing his food, however, and Newton, with Herculean strength, fought his way out of the sack and threw the ball away. It was another missed opportunity, and one whose damage wouldn't be truly felt until Newton hooked up with rookie stud Kelvin Benjamin on a long 51-yard pass. The ball was a divinely inspired spiral that perfectly split the gap between Sherman and Thomas and Benjamin, in an effort that is sure to be iconized in Carolina, caught the ball while in the clutches of the Legion of Boom's two most vaunted players.
The Panthers would finish the drive with Gano's third field goal to make it 9-6 and the Seahawks stood four and a half minutes away from their third consecutive lost. At that point, it was score or go home. Well, I suppose the Seahawks were going to go home afterward whether they scored or not, but maybe they get to ride a better plane if they win?
Either way, it was time for the Seahawks offense to shine in the clutch; to score when they absolutely have to. We've seen it so many times already: Wilson carving his way through defenses with the game on the line. He did it against the Patriots a couple years back in the new era Seahawks' coming out party. They did it twice in the clutch at Chicago, the fulcrum game upon which the franchise tipped. They've beaten the Packers, Rams, and Buccaneers on last-minute drives, did it earlier this year against the Broncos. But for every time Wilson and Co. have pulled wins out of thin air, we've also seen them come up short this season against the Chargers and Cowboys.
I'll admit that I wavered. Two weeks ago, my confidence in the boys from the Emerald City to come through was unassailable; now it was pure hope. In reality, it doesn't matter what my confidence level was, because the Seahawks' was clearly high. They came out fearlessly, running their offense with precision and alacrity.
-Wilson to Helfet for 11
-Wilson to Kevin Norwood for 10
-Wilson scrambles for 14
-Lynch up the middle for 2
-Wilson to preach for 9
-Lynch off guard for 4
-Lynch up the butt for 5
-Wilson around the end for 7
-Wilson to Luke Willson for 23 yards and the got dang game-winning TD
I called Seattle's game-clinching drive against Denver "sexy-in-an-I-want-to-build-a-life-and-have-children-with-you kind of way". Today's game-winning possession was more like a "please-don't-leave-me-I-know-we-can-still-make-this-work" type deal. Clinging to our perception of this team as a potentially dominant Super Bowl contender, our faith was restored, at least temporarily, by the savage briskness with which the Seahawks scored that TD.
The score came with 47 seconds left and from there, all that was left was cleaning up the mess. With their ears pinned back, Irvin, Avril, and Bennett got hungry and harassed Newton on each of the final four plays. One kneel-down later, the Seahawks were 4-3 and on their way home for a two-game Clinkstand.
Some other stuff:
-Passer Efficiency Differential is now 8-0 in Seahawks games, as Wilson notched a respectable 77.5 while Newton was held to a 61.
-Marshawn Lynch looked like himself. Amid all the clattering about Seattle's locker room turmoil sprouted this new/not-really-new story about Lynch's supposedly imminent departure, nothing that we saw today (outside, I suppose, of the interception that went through his hands) indicated that he was distracted. It wasn't a marquee game for Lynch, but he turned his 14 carries into 62 yards (4.6 YPC).
-When Lynch didn't run it, Christine Michael and Robert Turbin did. Again, nothing spectacular (Turbin: two carries, 10 yards / three catches, 32 yards; Michael: four carries, 12 yards) but those two managed four first downs between them.
-Doug Baldwin led the team in targets (8), catches (6), and receiving yards (61) again. He looks comfortable as the patriarch of the receiving crew.
-Penalties. Always with the penalties. As I mentioned, Bruce Irvin was called for two neutral zone infractions during the first half. With Bobby Wagner out, and Malcolm Smith going down with injury, Seahawks can't afford to have to pull linebackers out for boneheadery. I think James Carpenter's false start was the only other exasperating penalty of the game. All told, Seattle had seven fouls for 41 yards while Carolina was flagged just four times for 20.
-Three more dropped interceptions. Seahawks defenders catch the ball like they've been soaking their hands in ice water for an hour.
-Seattle managed three sacks today, an encouraging improvement on their toothless pass rush but were unable to finish at least a couple of others. Missing sacks is starting to become a troubling theme for this defense. Cliff Avril still doesn't have a sack this season and as for Bennett, these backfield whiffs have been killer. Seattle missed a sack on Philip Rivers' game-winning throw to Antonio Gates in Week 2. They missed a sack on Tony Romo on 3rd and 20 during the Cowboys' game-winning drive. They missed a sack on Austin Davis during the Rams' final scoring drive last week. Gotta fix it.
- This was the first time all season the Seahawks have turned the ball over more than once and their two turnovers today were fairly fluky. No real worries there.
-The Panthers only managed 3.7 yards per carry today. The Seahawks defense remains elite in this regard.
-Earl Thomas led the team in tackles with nine, including two beautiful open-field wrangles that saved big gains. He has been exceptional in the increased amount of ground he's had to cover in Bobby Wagner's absence.
-Tharold Simon looked good. Pretty sure Sherman was targeted more times than he was, though I didn't see how often he was on the field. I'm sure a lot of that had to do with how much better Benjamin is than the rest of the Panthers receivers but when called upon to perform, it appears that Simon did.
Up next is a home game against the still-reeling-a-decade-later Oakland Raiders, with a chance to get right back in the thick of the NFC seeding race. This is a good team we follow, but they are flawed. It's not the talent that concerns me, it's the consistency with which they display it. The 'Hawks will need to take advantage of the next couple of weeks (home vs the Giants after the Raiders) to bolster their record before entering their brutal final seven-game stretch.
If the team can get their collective shit together, we're still talking about a Super Bowl contender. The defense was not just good today, it was great. Nine points allowed, three sacks, two turnovers, and five tackles for loss. The pressure up front was consistent and the majority of Carolina's completions were tightly contested. The offense was actually pretty damn efficient too (their last five non-kneel-down drives were 13, 12, 9, 8, and 7 plays long), they just sucked at turning them into points, which is something they haven't really struggled with.
The arrow that was wavering precariously sideways is again pointing up for the Seahawks. They're not out of the woods yet, but the trees are a little further apart. Road wins in the NFL are difficult to come by, regardless of opponent, and every one you can nab is golden. It wasn't pretty today, but we're past the point of holding out for sex appeal. For now, it's back to just making sure the job gets done and the Seahawks did that today. Onward and upward.