That was one of the best, most exciting Seahawks games I've ever watched. As much as I love seeing the 'Hawks blow teams out of the CLink, it almost seems more satisfying to watch them overcome real resistance from a real good team. Seattle's true talent was never five touchdowns better than the Broncos', regardless of the final score in February, but they are at least a little bit better and they showed it today when it mattered.
The majority of the narrative on this game will revolve around the last few drives, and for good reason, but before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take a look at how they got there.
After the first Seahawks' first drive quickly stalled, the Broncos took over deep in their own territory. On their first play from scrimmage, Earl Thomas stripped Montee Ball, leading to a Seahawks recovery and a short Steven Hauschka field goal. In Pete Carroll's and John Schneider's very first draft, they had the 14th overall pick. The Eagles sat at 13 and were widely expected to select Thomas, around whom they'd build a new defense. They chose Brandon Graham instead. Somewhere, a butterfly flaps it's wings...
In between the fumble recovery and the field goal, the Seahawks ran what looked like a reverse to Jermaine Kearse. After receiving the hand-off, however, Kearse pulled up and threw an arcing pass back to a streaking Russell Wilson, who leaped up and secured it for 17 yards before Rahim Moore thumped him. That play did more than just pick up a first down, it served notice to the Denver defense that they couldn't assume anything on those receiver sweeps, something the 'Hawks would take advantage of multiple times later in the game.
The Broncos came right back with a long, efficient drive that eventually stalled out inside Seattle's ten yard line. A heavy dose of Emmanuel Sanders, who was primarily matched up with Byron Maxwell*, moved the sticks enough to even the score at 3-3 after a field goal by some guy who isn't Matt Prater.
*Maxwell is gonna end up being the most targeted corner in the league this year, given how frequently teams are going to pass against Seattle and how infrequently they do it to the right side of the field. As such, there are gonna be games where the receivers he covers fill up the box score (like Jordy Nelson's 14 target, 9 catch, 83 yard Week 1), but that doesn't necessarily mean he's getting beat. He's just the best of a bad situation for opposing passers.
One of my biggest concerns entering this game was Seattle's third down defense, as they came in allowing a league-high 55.8% on third downs. After the Broncos picked up two of their first three, I began to wonder if there was something systemically wrong with how they approached third down plays. My concerns were answered by Seattle limiting Denver to just one conversion on their next nine third downs. That inability to convert, combined with Peyton Manning's unwillingness to throw the ball down the field (only one first half pass traveled more than 12 yards downfield in the air, and that was an overthrow to Sanders), kept Denver at three points through the first three quarters in what appeared to be a dominant Seahawks win.
In the meantime, the Seahawks offense just kept ripping up chunks of yardage, with Wilson once again navigating a pocket that refused to hold it's shape for more than a second and a half. One of the things Danny has pointed out is how eager Wilson seems to be to get out of the pocket at the first sign of trouble. I'd love to get a better idea of Wilson's true pocket presence but it's hard when blitzes aren't being picked up and All-Pro defensive ends are consistently beating your tackles. Either way, he handled himself beautifully, completing 11 of his 13 first half passes for 145 yards and a gorgeous touchdown (in which he even stepped up into the pocket).
That big score came largely on the back of Ricardo Lockette, who made his presence felt throughout the game. Earlier in the drive, Wilson threw a pass Lockette's way but Aqib Talib jumped the route for what looked to be an easy interception. Now whether Wilson just made a bad read or Lockette overran his route I don't know, but Ricardo deftly mugged Talib to incur the offensive pass interference instead of the turnover. His efforts were rewarded when he got on Talib's outside hip and then expertly gained separation as the neared the endzone, clearing himself to catch the divine arrow Wilson had lofted his way.
The 39-yard score put Seattle up 10-3 and turned Century Link on its ear. Later in the game, Lockette vaporized Broncos punt returner Isaiah Burse. One of these days, Lockette is going to murder somebody on a punt return and then they're gonna make football illegal. So thanks for that, Ricardo.
On the next drive, a quick pass to Demaryius Thomas was immediately stripped and was ruled a Seattle recovery. After replays showed that Thomas only completed 87 of the 94 criteria to rule it a fumble, the Broncos were awarded the ball back but Thomas was clearly out of it. He had dropped his only other target and finished the first half with zero catches on two targets. He would finish with four catches for 31 yards on nine targets*. The Seahawks are so far in Demaryius Thomas' head they're smoking cigarettes on his fire escape and making fun of his couch.
*Through three games, three of the best quarterbacks of the last 20 years have targeted their #1 WR 29 times vs Seattle. The results are 18 completions for 169 yards, 0 TDs, and 2 INTs. That's a 5.8 YPA and 49.3 passer rating. That would have ranked dead last in both categories last year. Again, that's just throwing to their best guy.
After Denver's offense fizzled again, Seattle took over and walked right down the field, this time capping their drive with a five yard TD pass from Wilson to Marshawn Lynch right before the end of the second quarter. As the teams went into the locker room for halftime, Seattle led 17-3 and were beating the Broncos up in nearly every aspect of the game. At the time, the vaunted Broncos offense had been held to 3.5 yards per play. Not per run. per play.
Peyton Manning came into the game averaging 8.2 yards per attempt. He finished with a 6.2, which was worse than any QB finished with last season. In the first half, it was a ghastly 5.4. It was a brutally brilliant performance by the secondary, as Seattle was unable to generate much pressure against Manning's quick-release game plan. At the half, the Seahawks had more than doubled the Broncos' yardage (206 to 102), limiting Denver to their lowest first-half output in the history of their Peyton Manning Era. Seattle also held the ball for over 16 minutes in the first half; nothing impressive in its own right but reassuring after a week in which they only had 17 minutes of possession.
Russell Wilson finished the first half with more passing yards than Peyton Manning and more receiving yards than Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker combined.
Early in what was a scoreless and rather boring third quarter, Russell Okung went down with an apparent leg injury and was replaced by Alvin Bailey. Okung returned and continued to play pretty well against a hungry Demarcus Ware. Justin Britt held his own as much as a rookie RT could be expected to against the inhumanly quick Von Miller. While Britt was beaten as often as not, he held his ground long enough to at least provide Wilson with consistent escape routes. James Carpenter continued to look great. I never notice Max Unger, which is a sign of how Pro Bowly he is and deserves to be.
The fourth quarter more than made up for the third's lack of excitement. It began with Seattle pinned deep. In attempto gain some breathing room, they ran left side with Lynch. Ware, however, discarded Okung and hit Lynch in the endzone, holding him up long enough for the rest of the team to maul him into the painted turf for a safety. On Seattle's next possession, Talib jumped a crossing route and deflected Wilson's pass to Chris Harris Jr. for Russell's first interception of the season.
After the pick, a rejuvenated Manning carved his way across the field before dumping a designed shovel pass into Julius Thomas' arms for their first touchdown. It was nine points in just over three minutes after scoring a mere three points in the first 45. Seattle's acute ability to execute their offense deserted them in the second half, as they managed only a couple first downs in the third quarter and the majority of the fourth. After another punt gave Denver the ball back with six minutes to go, Manning went to work.
Continuing to lean heavily on Emmanuel Sanders (11 catches, 149 yards), Denver pushed the ball inside Seattle's 30. As the crowd's blood pressure began to rise, Kam Chancellor stepped in. Looking right for one of the few times all day, Manning attempted to fit a pass to Welker in over the top of Chancellor and underneath Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. Kam, who later said he knew what they were gonna run, never flinched. Instead of turning to run with Welker, Chancellor his feet firmly in the turf and jumped up to snag Manning's pass. The long return set up another Hauschka field goal and an eight-point lead with just 52 seconds remaining. Even if the pass had gotten past Chancellor, it wasn't going to end well for Denver, not with Earl Thomas' obliteration of Welker.
With 80 yards in front of him, Manning played as well as could reasonably be hoped for. Eschewing the screens and slants that they'd been running all day, Denver began unleashing deep combo routes down the left side with the outside receiver angling in (and taking Maxwell with him) while the slot receiver wheeled out down the sideline behind Maxwell. Four times they ran some variation of that exact same play, completing three of them including a 26-yarder to a somehow wide open Jacob Tamme with 18 seconds left.
Down 20-18, Denver still needed to convert the two-pointer. Mentally, I was daring them to go at Sherman and, to my surprise, they did just that. The result was a highly contested, toe-tapping grab by Demaryius Thomas in the back of the endzone, knotting the game at 20 and sending it to OT.
After Tarvaris Jackson single-handedly willed the coin toss to go in Seattle's favor, the Seahawks uncorked their best drive of the year: Wilson to Percy Harvin for 11. Wilson incomplete to Baldwin. Lynch, left side for seven. Wilson scrambles for five. Wilson to Kearse on a 12-yard comeback route. Wilson around the right end for five more. Short slant to Harvin for another five. Lynch up the middle for six. Incomplete pass. Wilson scrambles for five, again. Wilson scrambles for six. Wilson to Harvin for seven. Then, climactically, Marshawn Lynch right up the fucking middle for a six yard, game-winning touchdown.
It wasn't a high-flying, highlight-filled offensive explosion that won it. No, that drive was sexy in an I-want-to-build-a-life-and-have-children-with-you kind of way. On the final play, Talib served as the only defender with a shot of stopping Lynch but despite that, he went low and Lynch easily scored. It was an attempted tackle by a guy who wanted know part of trying to wrap Lynch up and drive him backwards. It's tempting to call it a micrososm of the game. Tempting.
Some other observations:
~I'm going to start including something called Passer Rating Differential, because it just might be the most predictive stat in all of football. Today, it was Broncos: 85.7, Seahawks 101.5
~Including the two-point conversion, Richard Sherman was targeted five times and allowed two catches for 14 yards. I really wish teams would stop exposing him.
~Emmanuel Sanders became the first 100-yard receiver Seattle has allowed in 14 games.
~The Seahawks finished with over 38 minutes of TOP, more than double what they managed in San Diego.
~Since the beginning of last year, the Broncos have averaged 35.6 points per game in the 20 games against non-Seahawks opponents. they've averaged 14 PPG vs Seattle, less than 40% of their output vs the rest of the league.
~Chancellor finished with nine tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble. He also nearly killed teammate Marcus Burley with a vicious leveling shot intended for Sanders. The commentators called it friendly fire but personally, I think Kam was just jumping Burley into the LOB.
~Bobby Wagner continues to wreck shop in every single game he plays. Another 11 tackles for him, giving him 34 through three games.
~After receiving just 10 touches last week, Marshawn Lynch got 29 of the 33 RB touches this afternoon. he turned those into 128 yards and two teeders.
~Doug Baldwin made a tangible impact for the first time all year, registering four catches and leading the team with 56 receiving yards, including another gorgeous sideline catch at which he's become so adept.
~Two tackles for loss for Kevin Williams. What a strong replacement for Red Bryant he's been,
~The Broncos averaged 1.8 yards per carry. On the season, Seattle's opponents have registered just 217 yards rushing on 78 carries (2.8 YPC).
It was an exciting, encouraging, and downright arousing victory. After the Cardinals beat the 49ers and the Rams coughed up a 21-0 lead against the Cowboys, the Seahawks will enter their early bye week at 2-1, one game behind the undefeated Cardinals and a game up on St. Louis and San Francisco. While I prefer bye weeks later in the year when the fatigue of a long season has set in, it's great to see the 'Hawks take an important win into the break.
This is still a team that can beat anybody. This is still a team that's expected to beat anybody. This is a team that steps onto every field with the most talented roster, which means their best game beats everybody else's best game. This wan't that, but it was close enough to defeat one of the true contenders for their throne.