I love poker. Not because I'm particularly good at it but because it's a game of strategy, chance, and leverage. Like football, only with presumably less butt-slapping. When poker goes heads up, the size of your chip stack is as important as your play. It is leverage amplified and when you have the heavy stacks, you can lean on your opponent; the need for undue risk-taking is lowered while your possibilities expand.
The reigning champion Seahawks brought the heavy chips to the table today in the form of a more talented roster and a massive home field advantage and, for the first 30 minutes, played like it. The Raiders, for their part, stayed with their game plan, even as their stacks dwindled. Then they won a few hands, evened the weight at the table, and took the Seahawks all the way to the final deal. It was a game that the Seahawks could have ended early but didn't. Nevertheless, Seattle did end it in their favor, albeit in a less-fashionable manner than many of us would have liked. Let's revisit.
On the Raiders opening drive, Oakland converted their first two third downs and moved the ball incrementally down the field before pocketing a Sebastian Janikowski field goal and an early 3-0 lead. The Seahawks then took the field and responded with a big, slippery helping of Marshawn Lynch. They ran on the first four plays, three of which went to Lynch, with Wilson keeping the other. Then a quick pass to Doug Baldwin, a swing to Lynch, another Lynch run, and then the Seahawks went up top.
Wilson lobbed a deep pass up the right sideline for Jermaine Kearse, who was interfered with by the cornerback, setting Seattle up on Oakland's doorstep*. When most people find themselves on someone else's doorstep, they knock or ring the doorbell an appropriate amount of times. Marshawn Lynch, on the other hand, kicks the door down and elbow drops your coffee table. Taking the handoff at the three yard line, Lynch was stood up almost immediately. Instead of going down the way humans do when two 250-pound tacklers wrap them up, Lynch lowered his body angle to 45 degrees and dug his feet in like there was a cliff behind him. His blockers rallied to the cause, lifting, pushing, and torquing their savage running back towards the goal line. Lynch's legs seemed to spin in the air cartoonishly for a moment before they hit the turf again and powered him across the threshhold. It was a Herculean touchdown, one that very easily could have been blown dead but wasn't in what may very well have been a reputation non-call.
*This is why you take deep shots throughout the game. So many good things can happen, even if you don't connect on the pass.
After the two teams politely traded punts, the Raiders and their spunky young quarterback Derek Carr took the field for the third time. It didn't go well for them. On the third play of the drive, Carr attempted a pass down the right hashmarks. Bruce Irvin, who was coming off of a two sack game in Carolina, jumped preposterously high for a man his size and tipped the ball up in the air before catching his own deflection and housing the interception for a 14-3 lead.
As the rules dictate, the Seahawks kicked the ball back to the Raiders but Oakland didn't seem interested in having it because three plays later, Carr was being intercepted again, this time by Richard Sherman. It was a play that epitomized all of the things tha make Sherman special. Mirroring every muscle twitch of the guy he was covering, Sherman shadowed his man into the second level of the right flat. As the pass missiled towards his man, Sherman whipped his head around and made an impressive hands catch, somehow managing to keep from going out of bounds in the process. Sherman then wheeled his way down the field like a getaway driver, running with that unique combination of determination and recklessness that DBs have when they get the ball in their hands.
While Sherman pinballed across the pitch like a goof, Earl Thomas took the opportunity to vaporize Raiders receiver Mychal Rivera and stand above his fallen form, inhaling the dust that used to be his body matter and absorbing his power. The interception was Sherman's first of the year but he has in no way fallen off from last season. When targeting Sherman this season, opposing QBs are now 14-31, 235 yards, 0 TDs, and 1 INT, for a 59.7 rating.
The Seahawks offense was unable to punch it in despite the short field, but Steven Hauschka obliged with a field goal and the Seahawks' lead expanded to 17-3. On the ensuing kickoff, Raiders return man T.J. Carrie coughed up the ball and Hauschka fell on the football for a fumble recovery. His teammates congratulated Hauschka but all probably secretly resent him because once the kicker has recovered a fumble, nobody else gets let off the hook for not falling on one the rest of the season. It was the third turnover the Seahawks had forced in a five play stretch and a served as a welcoming reminder that this team is still capable of dominant, game-changing stretches.
The offense fizzled again, however, and Hauschka trotted back on the field for his second field goal attempt of the minute. This time, however, Hauschka yanked it to the left before coming off the field, telling Pete Carroll he missed on purpose because he's a defensive player now and proceeded to draw "LOB" on his biceps.
A couple of punts later, Seattle had one last chance to extend their lead after three straight dud possessions. They responded with an 11-play, 78 yard drive that ended with Lynch's second touchdown of the game, a five yard sprint up the middle to make it 24-3. A late push from the Raiders was halted when Janikowski's 51-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right and the teams retreated to the locker room to sing songs and huddle together for warmth.
Neither offense was particularly impressive in the first half, with Oakland totaling just 79 yards on 26 plays (3.1 per) while Seattle netted a meager 114 on 28 plays (4.1 per). Wilson used the last drive of the second quarter to bolster his line but still hit halftime with an underwhelming 10/18 for 85 yards. Lynch on the other hand, looked great, amassing 69 yards and two TDs on 13 first half touches.
The Seahawks took the ball to start the second half but sputtered and were forced to punt. On the kick, everything went according to plan except for one tiny detail: nobody blocked the defender closest to the ball. I missed the name of the guy who did it, but he got a clean release right past center Clint Gresham and swatted Jon Ryan's punt into the turf. Context aside, one of the funniest looking things in sport is when a dozen football players chase a bouncing football. In this case, the gaggle of highly-paid pro athletes bumbled after the football like they were chasing a wheel of cheese down a hill before Oakland's Brice Butler finally fell on it Seattle's endzone for a touchdown.
The teams exchanged three more punts before the game saw any more scoring. That came when Seattle was forced to punt from deep in their own territory after to Terry Gilliam (who was replacing Russell Okung) and Patrick Lewis (replacing Max Unger) had back-to-back false starts. The short kick and long return reduced Seattle's net yardage on the punt to 12 and gave Oakland their second easy scoring opportunity of the half. The Seahawks defense responded, stuffing the Raiders inside the ten and forcing 4th & goal from the one. It was then that Derek Carr rolled right and lobbed a touchdown pass to the reincarnated Rivera in the back of the endzone for a touchdown the brought the lead to 24-17.
With a sure thing suddenly starting to slip out the Seahawks' hands in the wind and rain, Seattle buckled down and began to move the football with some conviction. Cycling Robert Turbin and Christine Michael through the backfield to spell Lynch, Wilson and the offense went back to the run and drove the ball all the way down to Oakland's 12, settling for a short field goal that gave them their two-score lead back. The drive was aided by a defensive holding call on a play in which Luke Willson dropped a sure first down on 3rd & 3.
Despite missing Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane, and Malcolm Smith, the Seattle defense remained stout. The forced two more Raiders punts and the offense added one more field goal drive for good measure, leaving Seattle up by 13 with 4:14 to go in the game.
It should have been academic from that point, but the Raiders are a stubborn team, if not a victorious one, and refused to bend the knee to the reigning kings of the NFL. They valiantly pushed the ball upfield once more and once more ended the drive with a one-yard touchdown pass from Carr to Rivera. On the play directly before the TD, Kevin Pierre-Louis narrowly missed a 100-yard pick six, making it the second time this year that's happened and on both occasions, the opponent scored on the very next play. The game in which the Super Bowl champions hosted an 0-7 team with a 21-point lead would come down to an onside kick.
It took three tries for all the players and officials to be on the same page but when they finally were, Janikowski's textbook onside attempt
landed in the tender arms of Cooper Helfet, who lovingly cradled it to his newly-shaven bosom while legions of monstrous men threw themselves atop him was recovered by Jermaine Kearse, apparently. A couple kneel downs later and the Seahawks were finishing the first half of the season at 5-3 which, coupled with the 49ers' loss to the Rams, leaves them in sole possession of second place in the division, two games behind the 7-1 Cardinals.
-Wilson and Baldwin are really settling in since Percy Harvin's departure. Russell targeted Doug six times today, completing five of them for 38 yards. it wasn't flashy, but it was important, as three of those completions came on broken plays and two of them resulted in third-down conversions. I wonder what percentage of Baldwin's career receiving yards have come on Wilson scrambles. 70?
-At this point, Wilson only has two real reliable receiving options to throw to. Baldwin and Lynch are as steady as ever but everyone else is either developing (Kearse, Paul Richardson, Kevin Norwood), situational (Ricardo Lockette, Helfet), or dropping almost literally everything thrown to him (Willson). When Wilson threw the ball to Baldwin and Lynch, he was 10/11 for 114 yards and a 109.8 rating. When targeting everyone else, he was 7/24, 65 yards, and a 39.6 rating.
-Lynch finished with 143 wiggly yards and two touchdowns on 26 touches. If he really is out the door after this season, he's taking his exit interview very seriously. This is the Marshawn Lynch you can build your offense around and it was great to see Darrell Bevell do that today.
-Seahawks special teams were messy today. Aside from the blocked punt and missed field goal, they also allowed an uncharacteristic 52 punt return yards on just three opportunities. In fact, Seattle's punt unit only averaged 26.5 net yards today. It wasn't all bad, though. Richardson averaged 32 yards on his two returns, Baldwin had a 38-yard punt return, Helfet recovered the onside kick, and Hauschka made three field goals. Still, hard to seem them struggle on those high-leverage plays when they were so nearly invincible at them last year.
-Cliff Avril had another nice game, logging three tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and caused general mayhem coming off the left side of the line. That's back to back games now in which Cliff Avril has looked like himself, which is a welcome sight.
-Seattle's defensive fill-ins played admirably, I thought. None of them made a massive impact but they all looked assignment-correct and never got burned. Middle linebacker Brock Coyle had two tackles, strong safety DeShean Shead had four, and cornerback Tharold Simon was resilient in coverage, including a big break-up near his own goal line.
-K.J. Wright looks WAY more comfortable back at outside linebacker and he was everywhere this afternoon. Twelve tackles to lead the team, with a broken up pass to boot. He was a lion on a day when the Seahawks played a bunch of cubs.
-Earl Thomas is still awesome. No huge plays from him, but I still find myself mesmerized by how good he is on nearly every replay, whether he's around the ball or not. There's also nobody on the team that gets more hyped about teammates making big plays.
-It was an extrenely inexperienced offensive line today and they showed it, looking out of sorts on numerous occasions. Still, they did enough, limiting the Raiders to one sack and allowing the 'Hawks to average 4.3 YPC on non-kneels.
-I told y'all before the season that you might want to start making your peace with Robert Turbin. He is the clear-cut #2 RB on the depth chart and he looked the part again today. With 49 yards on six touches (5 carries for 35 yards, 1 catch for 14), Turbin is now averaging 4.5 YPC on the season. Christine Michael chipped in 16 yards on 4 carries and remains the more exciting, higher upside player but it's Turbin that has earned the trust of the coaching staff and got the bulk of the non-Marshawn RB snaps today.
-Preach had three catches for 12 yards on six targets. Really looking forward to him getting loose at some point.
-The Seahawks came into the game tied for the NFL lead with a 3.3 opponents yards per carry. That number gets even better (3.19) after limiting the Raiders to a 2.1 YPC today.
-Seattle's defense entered today's contest with a middling 13th-place ranking in opponents' yards per pass at 7.2, but 189 yards on 41 attempts this afternoon will lower it to 6.5, which should nestle them firmly in the top five.
-Seattle's offense has, despite the public outcry against the play-calling, still averaged a league-leading 5.3 yards per carry and trail only the Cowboys in rushing yards per game at 148.4. Just gotta get the passing game (30th in yards per game, 18th in yards per attempt) on track. They get a little bit of a pass today, given the inclement elements.
The first half of the season comes to a close for Seattle at 5-3. It hasn't been glamorous, and certainly hasn't been dominant, but it has been enough to situate the 'Hawks to more or less control their own path to playoffs as they enter their gruesome back half of the schedule. There are things that need to get fixed and it would be nice to see a game in which Seattle dominates from start to finish, but wins in the NFL are hard to come by and they all count the same in the end.
Today's effort might not have been good enough to win some games, but it was good enough to win this one. If this team can get healthy, they will be equipped for another deep playoff run. The fundamental elements of the defense are in place. The turnovers and pressure are starting to show themselves. Despite the injuries, Seattle is still running the ball more efficiently than everyone and defending it more efficiently than everyone. They're allowing a higher completion percentage but only 9.1 yards per catch, which, when the dust settles after this week, should lead the NFL.
The Seahawks are far from perfect but they're right in the thick of things. Next week, they welcome a Giants team that will be traveling cross-country on a short week after playing the Colts on Monday night. A win would set Seattle up nice for their late-season push. Until then, enjoy this win.