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Cigar Thoughts, Game 16: Seahawks Trounce Rams, Claim 7th NFC West Title in 13 Years and Second Consecutive #1 Seed

The Seattle Seahawks continued their impressive stretch of defense, stifling the St. Louis Rams and locking up home field advantage in the NFC for the second straight season.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Seahawks fans have felt a lot of emotions during the last six games, but nervous hasn't really been one of them; at least until today. Where Seattle had spent much of the previous five games taking their opponents down early and spending the remainder of those contests squishing them under their collective heel, they found that the Rams were an especially difficult bug to break.

To be honest, the Seahawks basically spotted the Rams the first half, which is a funny thing to say considering Seattle out-gained St. Louis 189-66 in the first 30 minutes. What I mean is that despite the yardage disparity, the Rams were able to transfer an average starting field position of their own 34 into two field goals while holding the Seahawks scoreless, which to my memory is the first time that's ever happened since Russell Wilson was drafted. The 'Hawks moved he ball fairly well but absorbed negative plays in crucial moments during those first two quarters, with drive-killing sacks, dropped passes, and turnovers. St. Louis couldn't do much themselves but Seattle didn't exactly make them have to, as STL's two scoring drives covered a grand total of 35 yards at 2.3 yards per play.

Normally, allowing six points in the first half is nothing to get worked up over but with Seattle's first half possessions ending: punt, turnover on downs, interception, fumble, punt, end of half -- there was cause for some low-key alarm, despite the general alacrity of a team and crowd on the precipice of wrapping up home field advantage. The defense, per usual, held up their end of the bargain, limiting the Rams to roughly three yards per play in the first half but the two field goals stood out as all three of the Seahawks' drives into Rams' territory were rendered fruitless by poor execution.

In the first instance, Luke Willson ran a four yard stop route on 4th & 5, neglecting to reach the ball across the first down marker upon contact. The next venture into the enemy half was derailed by an interception on an errant overthrow by a scrambling Russell Wilson. The final possession in plus territory ended on an inconsequential pass to Doug Baldwin as time expired after an ugly sack knocked Seattle out of field goal range. Meanwhile, St. Louis was able to capitalize on their beneficial field position, turning a drive that started at the 50 into a 33-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal and then repeated the damage after Marshawn Lynch fumbled after being caught from behind by Alec Ogletree on his own 33. All in all, it was probably the worst first half of the Seahawks' season since the last time they played the Rams. The upside was that despite all of the missed opportunities, the defending Super Bowl champions were only down by six.

The second half went more according to plan, as Seattle gained 56 of the first 50 yards* in the third quarter en route to two quick Steven Hauschka field goals, an encouraging bounce-back from his career worst performance last week. And even though the Seahawks didn't get into the end zone on those drives, and even though they remained tied with a six-win team, you could almost feel the game regressing towards the expectation most of us had for it. With the offense clicking, the defense switched gears like a bunch of guard dogs circling an intruder, waiting for their master's command to attack. And once they were given that order, there was no calling them off until all that was left of the 2014 St. Louis Rams were shoelaces and gristle. Everybody ate their fill to the tune of four sacks, seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and 4.1 yards per play allowed.

*Not a typo

Michael Bennett again led the charge up front, collapsing the Rams line and pocketing two TFLs while opening up gaps for his contract-twin Cliff Avril as well as Jordan Hill (again), O'Brien Schofield, Bruce Irvin, and Kevin Williams -- all of whom showed up on the sack list this afternoon. The second half became a game of one-upsmanship, with Seattle's offense and defense taking turns trying to outdo one another. The first seven drives of the second half went as follows:
-Offense drives 56 yards for a field goal
-Defense forces a three-and-out on -6 yards
-Offense drives 42 yards for another field goal
-Defense forces an impressive interception by Jordan Hill
-Offense drives 54 yards, capitalizing on a long completion to Kevin Norwood with a nine-yard Marshawn Lynch touchdown that saw him go into handshake mode at the four yard line
-Defense does offense's job for them with Irvin's second pick-six of the season
-Defense teases Rams, lets them drive 74 yards before the lion's blood coursing through Earl Thomas started to boil, allowing him to make this nigh-miraculous touchdown-saving fumble at the one yard line

When the dust cleared and the pleas for mercy subsided, the Seahawks were downing out a 20-6 victory -- their sixth straight win in a month-and-a-half long stretch that saw them outscore their opponents 134-39 and out-gain them by an average of 405-220. The result of that almost unheard of streak of dominance was Seattle's second straight NFC West title (and 7th in the 13 years since realignment) as well as their second straight #1 seed (and 3rd in the last 9 seasons). Some other stuff:

-Earl Thomas was amazing today, leading the team with 12 tackles in addition to his TD-saving fourth quarter swipe. I've said it a number of times before but truly appreciating the effect Thomas has on this defense is as difficult as beating him on a go route. He is not only one of the best defensive players in the league, he is the fulcrum upon which the entire scheme balances; the epicenter of a Richter-breaking earthquake.

-Russell Wilson was not the spectacular version of himself that has astonished fans and had women in NFL cities across America springing for Seahawks-themed underwear. In fact, there were times today where he looked downright overwhelmed. He was constantly accosted by the Rams pass rush, threw under pressure as often as not, had a couple of passes get away from him, and managed just seven yards rushing. And yet, when you look at his final line of 17-25 (68%), 239 yards (9.6 Y/A), and the INT, you realize that even on his off days, Seattle's QB is going to keep his team in every single game. He finishes the season with 3,475 passing yards and 849 rushing yards. Incredible.

-In fact, in the Russell Wilson Era, the Seahawks have gone 40-13, including 4-1 in the post-season and have never lost by double digits. That's a winning percentage of 75.5% -- a number so far above the expectation of a team with a young QB that I had to triple-check it before writing it down. The crazy thing is, they can still rack up three more wins before the close of his third season.

-Michael Bennett is every bit a Pro Bowler. His effect reaches far beyond the box score, demanding double-teams that are no guarantee to stop him and that free up the rest of the pack to plug running gaps and harass opposing QBs. I imagine he is among the first people that opposing offensive coordinators account for when game-planning against the Seahawks but the thing about Bennett is that Black Santa's gonna come down your chimney whether it's Christmas or not. Better have them cookies ready.

-Paul Richardson continues to build off of his recent success, leading the team in targets (7), catches (5), and receiving yards (60) as well as 52 yards on a couple of kick returns. There were two plays he made today that stood out to me as signs of a young wide receiver beginning to feel comfortable with the pro game:
1.) A sparkling 32-yard redline catch in which he perfectly high-pointed the ball above the defender, a play reminiscent of the type the team has been missing in the absence of Golden Tate.
2.) On 3rd & 2, Preach was Wilson's first read (significant), shook his man with a sexy little shimmy and darted inside for a 16-yard gain.
If Richardson can become the guy the team envisioned him to be and do it this early in his development, we may have to readjust our expectations for his future.

-Marshawn Lynch had 96 yards from scrimmage and a teeder on just 17 touches (14 carries for 60 yards, three catches for 36). It took him a while to get going and while he failed to force his genitals upon any impressionable viewing audiences in this one, he still managed to contribute mightily to Seattle's 16 first downs.

-Robert Turbin was only a step behind Lynch and appears to be the clear-cut #2 in the pecking order moving forward, garnering 66 yards on 12 touches (11 carries for 53 yards, one catch for 13) while Christine Michael saw just one carry for two yards. On the season, Seattle's RB productivity is as follows:
~Lynch: 280 carries for 1,306 yards (4.7) plus 37 catches for 367 (9.9) for a total of 1,673 yards on 317 touches (5.3)
~Turbin: 74 carries for 310 yards (4.2) plus 16 catches for 186 (11.6) for a total of 496 yards on 90 touches (5.5)
~Michael: 34 carries for 175 yards (5.1) plus one catch for 12 (12.0) for a total of 187 yards on 35 touches (5.3)
We can quibble all we want about which guy should be where behind Lynch but my biggest takeaway from all of this is that even when Lynch is out, there is virtually no drop-off, statistically speaking. That's something to celebrate.

-The Seahawks defense has allowed 39 points over the final six games of the season. That's not even a touchdown per. They finish the year with a league-leading 267 yards per game allowed (nearly 30 yards better than second place) as well as an NFL-leading 16.5 PPG allowed. That means for the second time in a row, Seattle has led the NFL in both categories, the first time a team has ever done that. In fact, they have now led the NFL in scoring defense for an unprecedented three straight years. This really might be the greatest stretch of defense that the modern NFL has ever witnessed.

-Seattle finishes tied for the best record in the NFL for the second consecutive year. Their point-differential of +140 trails only the Patriots in that regard. They led or almost led the NFL in the following major categories:
~Overall record (T-1st)
~Conference record (T-1st)
~Point differential (2nd)
~Home record (2nd)
~Points allowed (1st)
~Yards allowed (1st)
~Rush yards (1st)
~Rush yards allowed (2nd)
~Yards per carry (1st)
~Yards per carry allowed (2nd)
~Rushing TDs (T-1st)
~Passing yards allowed (1st)
~Yards per pass allowed (T-2nd)
~Interceptions thrown (T-1st)
~Turnovers (2nd)
~Plus a litany of advanced metrics, I'm sure
In short, I don't know how many fan bases have ever been treated to such a dominant stretch of football.

There is no ceiling on this football team. There hasn't been for three straight seasons now. No matter what else happens, Seahawks fans have the luxury of knowing that their team's best game beats every other team's best game. Combine that with Seattle's nearly unmatched home field advantage and you have all the ingredients for a Super Bowl repeat. Now, that's not to get ahead of myself. I am fully aware that the Seahawks still need to win three games against presumably very good teams before we can talk about hoisting Lombardi's giant silver phallus again but the path to that most gilded of gropes is as clear as it possibly can be.

Onward. Upward. Let's fly.

Jacson on Twitter /// Cigar Thoughts hub

-A number of you have been asking me what cigar I smoke each week so I'll start listing that here. Tonight I went with an MX2 Black Label from CAO. Not recommended for beginners; this double maduro is a big ol' donkey dick of a stick with a ton of flavor and a spicy kick that takes some getting used to. A grand choice for the more leathery puffers out there, though. Cheers!