Even as I write this, the lights in Century Link Field are being shut off one by one. An eerie stillness pervades the stadium, the fog settling over the site of the Seahawks' latest victory casts the battlefield in a hazy cloak, blurring its outlines and muting the echoes that shook the entire structure just hours before. Jeff the field manager begins his closing rounds, locking the exits and shivering as his numb fingers struggle to pick errant Skittles off the turf. His thoughts of celebrating the win with his kids were interrupted by a faint ripping sound emanating from the mist. Against his better judgment, he slinks softly towards the noise, treading carefully until the ephemeral shadows increase in density and actual form can be made out. One shadow, hulking maliciously in the damp air over the fallen heap of another.
"Hey," Jeff calls out, trying to mask his fear with forced bravado. The massive figure straightens up, much bigger than Jeff had originally thought. A quick break in the ground-level cloudiness made Jeff almost certain he saw the faintly illuminated outline of a 31 on its chest before it made a snarling noise and scurried off into the fog. Emboldened, Jeff moves tepidly towards midfield, peering close at the monster's victim until he recoiled in horror. There, just before his eyes, was a Panthers player laying motionless, a mask of unfiltered terror staining his once friendly, nay, amorous face. His scalp had been shorn clean off. It was a sight frightening in its savagery, an experience whose violence burned hot as it seared itself into the soft tissue of Jeff's memory bank. It didn't even take the helmet off, he whispers to himself in the damning quiet of this poor player's unceremonious grave. It just ripped right through it.
He stands up, waiting for his inner ear to recalibrate as he staggers backward. He turns to run, to flee this mercy-forsaken place and retreat to the loving arms of his wife Linda, to have her tell him it will be okay but his intentions are interrupted when he trips over another body. Scrambling to his knees, Jeff finds himself staring into the face of a different scalped victim clad in Carolina white. The same helmet-shearing wound, the same twisted look of fear and despair etched in its lifeless face like some Dante-inspired Rodin sculpture. A heaviness settles over Jeff's soul as he looks around. They're everywhere. He screams. Or, at least, he thinks he did. There is no one present to verify either way; just one man stranded in an irreversible descent towards madness, the result of venturing too close to the sanity-cleaving event horizon of Kam Chancellor's murderous gravitational pull.
Jeff will retire tomorrow. He will turn in his badge, uniform, and the fake-gold rake that his manager Leroy gave him after he'd worked for the company for 10 years. A voiceless "see ya later" to Nancy on the way out will be the last anyone sees of groundskeeper Jeff as he toddles aimlessly into the wilderness, forever a captive to the recollection of the viciousness he witnessed tonight.
This game spent more time being close than most of us would have liked or expected. The upstart Panthers, winners of five in a row, came into the Seahawks' agoge and spent the first two-thirds of the showdown being almost every bit the football team that the defending champs are. They did it by winning the low-leverage plays, rushing for 132 yards against the league's second best run defense and converting seven of their first 12 first downs. Against a Seahawks defense that allows practically zero plays over the top, beating them means stringing together first downs and Carolina did that with aplomb for all of 40 minutes before the cresting wave of reality came crashing down on the gutless pumpkin they called a carriage.
The game started with a bunch of dumb boring drives that didn't go anywhere; a colorless game being played in colorless weather as the initial surge of crowd energy began to wane. The encroaching doldrums were summarily kicked to the curb for the remainder of the contest however, when Richard Sherman picked off Cam Newton on a desperation heave whose fate had only one possible outcome. The tide seemed to be pulling in Seattle's direction when Russell Wilson, on 3rd & 12, found the freshly-returned Jermaine Kearse on a 33-yard completion. The drive was derailed, however, by a Ricardo Lockette unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that knocked them out of field goal range heading into a 4th down. Lockette was flagged because he gently tossed the ball "at" a defender and in today's NFL that's as bad as punching someone or ripping them down by their facemask. It's the stupidest rule in football but Lockette knows it's a rule and sometimes in life, you just gotta toe the fucking line.
Anyhow, the ever-nebulous notion of momentum stayed firmly in the Seahawks' grasp when Michael Bennett stripped Jonathan Stewart of a read-option handoff, allowing Tony McDaniel to fall on it before the rest of the 'Hawks defense piled on top of him like cop cars in a Blues Brothers movie. The Seahawks offense caught their groove then, punching the ball into the red zone before Wilson dropped back and uncorked an I-have-faith-in-you lob to Doug Baldwin, who deked a flat-footed safety before veering around him like a traffic cone in a new car commercial to haul in the toss for a 16-yard score.
The Panthers answered with an impressive 14-play, 79-yard scoring drive, culminating with a slant pass from Cam Newton to Kelvin Benjamin where Benjamin lined up one-on-one with Tharold Simon and beat him inside right off the snap for a relatively easy catch. It was the type of drive that makes you tip your hat to the underdog, never minding that it came after Sherman jumped a stop route and turned it into a drop route, letting his would-be second pick clatter to the turf.
The Seahawks didn't hesitate to flip it right back on the Panthers, with Wilson turning a 3rd & 7 into a 63-yard touchdown pass when Kearse reached up with his butterfly net of a right hand and speared Wilson's toss in stride, winning the footrace to the pylon and giving Seattle their seven-point lead back less than three minutes after surrendering it. With Seattle's offense clicking, it seemed as though victory would simply be a matter of course; but that was before an absolutely crazy end to the half.
The Panthers' final drive of the second quarter was a doozy that saw them convert a 4th & 1 in field goal range, a risky move that almost backfired when Earl Thomas dropped an interception at the goal line. After the drive stalled again, the Panthers tried a simple 35-yard field goal- an attempt complicated by Kam Chancellor's otherworldly hurdle of the offensive at the perfect time; an inexplicable feat of athleticism and anticipation undone by the simple fact that he somehow whiffed on blocking the Graham Gano's kick. The try was good but waived off on a false start by Carolina, undoubtedly caused by the fear of seeing a soul-reaper in shoulder pads charging unencumbered before taking flight like some Hell-sent angel of death. On the next attempt, Kam fucking did it again, and again missed the block, this time because Gano yanked it wide to his left and then fell over like a toddler learning to walk when Chancellor bumped him. His infantile flop earned a dubious penalty and gave him a third attempt, which he made for the stupidest three points ever, cutting Seattle's halftime lead to 14-10 and throwing the game's outcome into unexpected doubt.
The Seahawks, who led the NFL in rushing during the regular season at 173 yards per game, were kept to a diminutive 25 in the first half, a number dwarfed by the Panthers' 80. It was an unsettling development, one that caused a collective tension among the 12th Man that didn't relax until midway through the third when Russell Wilson wiggled his way for 14 yards. His spritely jaunt was followed up by a 25-yard gallop by a careening Marshawn Lynch, who ran through the Panthers secondary like a bus whose brake line has been cut. The drive set up a 37-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka which extended the lead to 17-10.
It was then that the visitors seemed to run out of gas, with the Panthers offering up a lifeless three and out in response. Their ungracious hosts smelled the impending exhaustion and, after trading jabs all game, Seattle staggered Carolina when Russell Wilson found Luke Willson on the "get open" play for a 25-yard touchdown and then knocked them out with Chancellor's hope-extinguishing 90-yard pick-six to put the defending champs up 31-10.
Carolina gave the 11-point spread a decent run with a face-saving TD from Newton to Benjamin that narrowed the final deficit to 14 but it was altogether inconsequential, as the marauding band of elite warriors -- identified by their fearsome stride and glinting Super Bowl XLVIII rings -- marched onto the NFC Championship game for the second straight game.
-Third downs have been of the utmost importance to Seattle this year and today they converted 54% of them. They actually went 0-5 when running the ball on third down but Wilson was beyond spectacular with his back to the chains, going unconscious to the tune 8/8, 200 yards, 2 TDs, and seven first downs on third down.
-In fact, Wilson was so good in this one that his final line of 15/22, 268 yards, 3 Tds, and 0 INTs resulted in a passer efficiency of 149.2- the 10th highest mark in NFL playoff history.
-Per FOX, the Seahawks have now had a lead in 53 straight games, the longest streak in NFL history. Win Forever is more than just a mantra.
-Lynch finished with just 59 yards on 14 carries. the Seahawks, as a team, only rushed for 100 total. Those are unimpressive numbers until you consider that the NFL's best rushing team struggled to run the ball and still put up 31 points. The Panthers' front seven is exceptional and it stands to reason that Seattle will have more success on the ground against whoever next week's opponent is. It's just nice to know that the team can still eat their fill when you take the main course away from them.
-The Panthers actually out-gained the Seahawks 362-348 but one of the reasons that Pete Carroll doesn't worry much about yards is because yards gained often mask actual game flow and doesn't account for all the hidden yardage buried in the average starting field position stat. To wit, the Panthers average drive started on their own 16 yard line whereas the 'Hawks started their average possession up at their own 35. That shit matters.
-Jermaine Kearse finished with 129 receiving yards. he was targeted three times. Good to have him back.
-Wilson didn't target a single receiver more than four times, electing instead to spread the ball around to all the hungry chicks in his nest. His three leading receivers (Kearse, Willson, Baldwin) transformed their 11 combined targets into 10 catches (90.9 comp%) for 235 yards (21.4 YPA), and three touchdowns. Say what you want about volume, there was no beating the efficiency of Seattle's passing attack.
-Earl Thomas had 11 tackles, forced a fumble, and again led the team in passion, energy, and leadership. He also had two interceptions bounce off his hands, giving him 237 dropped picks on the season. 96% of Earl Thomas is the best safety in the world, the other 4% are his hands.
-If you averaged 17 points per game, you'd finish 29th in the NFL in scoring. This was the first time any team scored 17 points against the Seahawks since November 16th of 2014.
Seattle has now won seven straight games by double digits, tying an NFL record. They're 15-1 in primetime games under Pete Carroll and are 25-2 at home in the Russell Wilson Era. What we're seeing is the best top-to-bottom roster in the football universe hitting their peak at the exact right time. The Seahawks have, in three short years, released Seattle from four decades of "maybe next year" prison and turned the city into the NFL's Mordor. It's possible to win here, it's just not very fucking likely.
The next team to attempt the nigh-hopeless mission will either be the Cowboys or Packers. Pray for them, pray for their families, and pray for Jeff. Onward, upward; let's do this again next week.
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***Tonight I chose a Flathead 554 from CAO, a robust but approachable stick which is a great fit for anyone from an experienced smoker to the novice looking to step up to something stronger. I paired it with a pour from one of the best bottles of liquor I've ever tasted, the global-award-winning Yamazaki 12-year Japanese whiskey, a flabbergasting gift from reader David Hart that I decided to reserve strictly for Seahawks playoff victories.