Much will be made about the Seahawks' play-calling in this game and much of the criticism will be warranted but focusing strictly on whether the Seahawks should have gone for it on 4th and goal or what plays they should have called would be missing the larger point. Namely, that the Seahawks have some issues with their Mebane-less run defense and downfield passing game and that the Chiefs exploited them.
On Kansas City's first drive, they ran the ball like it was an August practice, taking 15 plays to travel 86 yards, rushing on 10 of those plays and passing it to running backs on another three. They finished the game with 190 rushing yards on 6.3 yards per and the most damning thing about it was how far Jamaal Charles and co. got before Seattle defenders even got a hand on them. Brandon Mebane is a very good player who was having an exceptional season. He has been lauded as the best/most important player on the defense by Michael Bennett and Earl Thomas. There's no question his injury is a major loss for the Seahawks but the NFL is as much about contingency plans as it is about game plans and while it's hard to believe that one guy is the difference between allowing 3.2 YPC and twice that but that's the exact situation the 'Hawks find themselves in.
The Chiefs averaged 7.8 yards per carry in the first half, had 14 rushing first downs, and only passed the ball 16 times all game. Usually when a team does those types of things, they dominate the time of possession and the flow of the game, a la the Chargers and Cowboys contests earlier this season. Curiously, the Chiefs only had the ball for 40% of the game (24:03) in this game and while that was evidently enough, it was so low because the Seahawks offense was brutal and efficient in it's own right, leading to a game whose identity fit the frigid conditions.
This game was an exchange of long, will-enforcing drives from each offense, with Seattle gaining 204 ground yards on 37 carries (5.5 YPC) and 14 rushing first downs of their own. Twenty-eight combined rushing first downs has to be one of the highest single-game totals in recent NFL history and it gave the game a soccer-like feel in that every score would have a massive impact and that none of them would come quickly.
For Seattle's part, Marshawn Lynch was exceptional once again. the man who came into the game leading the NFL in rushing yards, rushing TDs, and yards after contact since 2011 was every bit as good today as he was last week, with the exception that he never found paydirt. His end-of-game line was an impressive 24 for 124 but it was the yard he didn't get that people will talk about*. Those 124 yards came ferociously, as he battered, shimmied, threw, and generally eschewed Chiefs tacklers despite often being met by a defender as soon as he took the handoff. His ferocity opened up the outside for Russell Wilson, who scampered for 71 rushing yards of his own.
*Don't worry, we'll get to that.
The Chiefs opened the scoring with the aforementioned touchdown drive but Seattle, to their credit, came right back. On a punchy 16-play, 90-yard drive (aided in no small part by a hands-to-the-face penalty against KC on a failed Seattle third down), the Seahawks answered with a pretty Russell Wilson scramble on which he found Doug Baldwin in the back of the endzone for their infinitieth schoolyard completion. Those two TD drives covered 176 yards on 31 plays and took a gargantuan 18-minute bite out of the game.
The Chiefs answered back with yet another TD drive, this one a more decisive 4-play, 80-yard effort that finished with Jamaal Charles' second touchdown. At that point, it began to feel like Seattle would never stop KC, as the Chiefs converted, well, everything they attempted. Seattle was fortunate to get a couple of field goals before the end of the half and I'll admit I was satisfied with the 14-13 deficit, all things considered.
The second half saw more of the same, as both offenses continued pushing the ball down the field in four-to-ten yard chunks. It had the feel of one of those "whoever has the ball last, wins" games, as the Chiefs didn't punt until late in the fourth quarter while the Seahawks only punted twice themselves. The only hiccup in that was a rare Jamaal Charles fumble in the third quarter (Kansas City's second of the game) that Seattle jumped on and turned into a Tony Moeaki touchdown and a third quarter lead.
From that point on, drives took on a leverage that amplified with each change of possession. As the extensive possessions drained the clock, scores became massive swings in win probability, which is why the Chiefs third TD (a Knile Davis 4-yard run early in the 4th) felt so big. The good news for Seattle was that Wilson and Lynch were rolling and they parlayed that read-option love into yet another long drive. Everything was clicking along according to plan; Seattle's dangerous QB-RB combo kept the Chiefs guessing and moved the ball deep into Kansas City territory before the Angel of Death did a flyover. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, the only player that didn't paint his doorway with lamb's blood was center Max Unger, who went down in a writhing heap, leaving the game on a cart with a dreaded high-ankle injury.
The offensive line that had looked so cohesive up to that point began to falter and a drive that looked so promising petered out inside the five. After a third down Lynch run was stopped inches short of the goal line, the Seahawks decided to go for it on 4th & goal and about six minutes left. Personally, I'm all for going for it in that situation but I was more than miffed by the play the 'Hawks chose to run. I would have loved to see Seattle keep the ball on the ground or roll Wilson out and give him the run/pass option but they opted instead for an ill-fated corner route to a bracketed Doug Baldwin -- a pass that skidded hamrlessly off the turf behind the endzone. It never had a chance.
The Seahawks did, to their credit, force Kansas City's only three and out on the following possession and took over after a punt in Chiefs territory. It was not two minutes later when they found themselves facing another 4th & 1, and this time they did run the ball, albeit from the shotgun against a loaded front with no fullback. Lynch's carry was stopped at the line of scrimmage and the Chiefs again took the ball over on downs.
Yet again the Seahawks defense forced the Chiefs to punt (which happened to be a devilish kick that was downed inside the five after bouncing one foot from the goal line) and were given one last chance to run the gauntlet. At this juncture, however, the Chiefs correctly assumed that Seattle would do away with their run game and their formidable defensive line wreaked havoc on J.R. Sweezy and Justin Britt, forcing Wilson out of his reads on three different occasions before Russell had even finished his dropback. The result was a predictably broken-looking offense that did manage one first down before coming up empty on a 4th & 19 that effectively ended the game.
Some other stuff:
-It is shockingly apparent how much more cohesive the offensive line is when Unger is in there. His injury is yet another devastating blow to the type of football that the Seahawks want to play.
-Seattle's wide receivers are not good, at least by NFL standards. It's a fault laid exceedingly bare when Golden Tate and Percy Harvin are removed from the equation. Paul Richardson runs nice routes but hasn't been able to get separation. Baldwin is the leader of the group and justifiably demands most of Wilson's attention but his ceiling is lower than the majority of #1 WRs in the league. Jermaine Kearse shows out once in a while but he is horribly miscast as Seattle's only downfield threat. Russell Wilson has been confined to throwing the ball into tiny windows with no receiver he can count on to consistently win those 50/50 balls.
-The way the Harvin thing worked out makes the loss of Tate all the more painful but Tate was one of a litany of Seahawks who were wildly outperforming their pay and were due a substantial raise and the team couldn't keep them all. In hindsight, it's easy to say the team should have kept him but at the time it made sense to me. It's shit like that that makes repeating in the NFL so damn tough to do.
-Seattle's special teams units have been awful this season. The Seahawks averaged a pitiful 15.8 yards per punt return and their punt coverage has gone from elite attack unit to preschool recess in less than a year.
-Malcolm Smith looks completely and utterly lost. It's something that Danny mentioned to me a couple of weeks ago and now it's all I can see. He's devastatingly slow to recognize plays, takes the wrong angles, and scrambles to line up in proper position. He's athletic and can make plays but he's the type of player that needs everyone else to succeed in order to play well and with Seattle's patchwork defense, he's painfully out of sorts.
-The Seahawks were killed in the penalty game again, committing 72% of the fouls for 88% of the yardage.
-On the bright side, Seattle was 5/12 (42%) on third downs while holding the Chiefs to 33% (2-6).
-Kam Chancellor looked good today, logging six solo tackles and generally looking like his usual Decepticon self.
-Earl Thomas continues to be the tie that binds, holding a makeshift defense together with exceptional protection over the top and fearless tackling. Since Bobby Wagner got hurt, Thomas has led the team in tackles in every game but one, including today, in which he added 11 tackles to his ledger.
-The Seahawks only had one tackle for loss and didn't record a single QB hit. With so many guys missing behind them, the pass rush has got to get home. A big whiff from them in that respect today.
This loss certainly dampens Seattle's playoff hopes but they're still 6-4 and far from facing a lost season. They are trotting out starting lineups made up largely with reserves and they continue to be competitive week in and week out. Find time amongst your angst to appreciate how hard it is to do that in the NFL and how unrelentingly game the Seahawks are every time they took the field.
The Chiefs are a good team that played a good game. Road wins are extremely hard to come by and losing them in the morning to a playoff caliber team is not damning on it's own. The thing that makes this loss so frustrating is how close Seattle came to winning it. But when you step back and look at the NFL as a whole, the Seahawks are the only team that never gets blown out. The 7-2 Patriots lost by 27 to these Chiefs, the 8-1 Cardinals lost by a million to the 7-3 Broncos this year, who in turn have lost by 15+ twice in the last three weeks. The 7-2 Eagles are getting embarrassed by the Packers, the 7-3 Cowboys lost by double digits to the Cardinals, and the recently unstoppable Steelers were absolutely handled by the 1-8 Jets.
None of that changes today's outcome but it reminds me how blessed we are to cheer for a team that is always either winning or in it until the very end. The final six games of this season will be, as you all already know, a brutal gauntlet of difficult opponents. It would be great if the Seahawks were entering that stretch at 7-3 or better but this team is still in the thick of things (one game behind Green Bay for the 6th seed, presuming they hang onto their four-score lead) and have the opportunity to handle their own business the rest of the way. It won't be easy and likely won't be pretty, but this last stretch is navigable. In order to have any shot at repeating as champs, however, this team will need to get healthy, and whether that ever happens remains to be seen.
The NFL stacks the deck against repeating champions and Seattle will have to play their cards nigh-perfectly the rest of the way to buck the trend of defending champs missing the playoffs the following year. It's a tall order but one the Seahawks are capable of filling. As always, onward and upward.