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Cigar Thoughts, NFC Championship: Seahawks prank the Packers, steal Super Bowl trip in final minutes

The Seattle Seahawks advanced to the Super Bowl by pulling off the biggest comeback in Conference Championship history, overcoming a 16-0 deficit to the Green Bay Packers late in the third quarter to win 28-22 in overtime.

Russell Wilson, seen here smelling his finger after picking a wedgie, is headed back to the Super Bowl
Russell Wilson, seen here smelling his finger after picking a wedgie, is headed back to the Super Bowl
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For the entirety of my existence as a Seattle sports fan, I've been conditioned to expect disappointment. I was born one day before the start of the 1983 NFL season to parents who didn't own a television. The hospital into which the glorious dawn of my humanity emerged did have a TV, though, and my mom and dad swallowed the cost of another night's stay so I could "watch" my first Seahawks game. The next 30 years of my life were a series of disappointments of varying degrees, as Seattle sports teams (Mariners, Sonics, Seahawks) went 91 consecutive seasons between 1980 and 2012 without a single championship, reducing us fans to aspirations of meaningful late-season games and the occasional playoff berth.

For the better part of 40 years, Seahawks fans have been limited to wearing jerseys of players who barely moved the meter outside of the state and hanging our hats on the careers of Walter Jones and Steve Largent, and touting that one really good season that Shaun Alexander had. The 'Hawks were barely more than a team that showed up on the schedules of more interesting franchises and the joys and sorrows we felt were dismissed out of hand by the sporting community at large because frankly, they just didn't register.

Then Paul Allen bravely changed directions, yanking the team out of the one-year mire of Jim Mora Jr.'s "dirtbag" era by hiring a coach with a dubious NFL past that was emerging from a major collegiate scandal. In the midst of yet another identity change for the franchise -- Pete Carroll was the third head coach in three years -- something special began to happen. The Carroll tenure brought wholesale roster changes and a sharp shift in philosophy that spread to the entire fanbase. Gone were the days of just wanting to be competitive and in their place emerged a time of uninhibited aspiration. For nearly four decades the Seahawks franchise was like a car driving with its fog lights on before Carroll came along and installed high-beams -- Always Compete on the left side and Win Forever on the right.

"Good enough" was no longer good enough, as Carroll took white-out to the entire roster and rebuilt it in his own image- a roster full of cutthroats not only physically capable of beating anybody but mentally and emotionally unafraid to do it by whatever means necessary. All the while, Carroll traversed the emerald landscape of the Pacific Northwest like Johnny Appleseed, wantonly sowing seeds of hope and the desire for excellence throughout the region while challenging the limits of what was thought possible. The result has been a dramatic shift in expectations for the Seahawks, a shift legitimized by the unrelenting performances delivered on the field by his team.

As such, I entered this post-season as a fan in a previously unexplored state of expectation. Last season's Super Bowl run affected more than just my outlook as a fan, it redirected the trajectory of my whole life philosophy while galvanizing the community in a way that anything short of (and maybe including) a natural disaster could not. Gone were the feelings that any playoff run was simply playing with house money and in their place stood well-anchored aspirations of elite performance in the highest-leverage of situations. In short, I no longer hope for a Seahawks victory, I expect it.

My feelings last night were best summed up by one of my favorite people I've never met (and an absolute must-follow) @BestGuyAround, who tweeted

Unfortunately for 'Hawks fans, the team was greeted not with a bulging sack of holiday cheer but a newly sharpened blade swung pell-mell by a yuletide entity that was much more Krampus than Santa. It was an attack that would've felled Matt Hasselbeck's Seahawks, as well as Warren Moon's, Dave Krieg's, and Jim Zorn's*. Hell, it was an attack that seemed to get the best of Russell Wilson's Seahawks too, as he completed three passes to the opponents before completing two to his own receivers.

*Charlie Whitehurst would've been unaffected as he spends his Christmases banging moderately attractive mothers of two on horseback.

But this team is not those teams. In the past, a 16-0 deficit to a squad captained by the greatest quarterback in the world would've been a death sentence but the current Seattle Seahawks give up the ghost willingly to no one, fighting relentlessly until they meet an opponent with the skill and fortitude to snatch their last remaining breath from them. Over the last two seasons, five teams have had the opportunity to snuff the 'Hawks out and all five of them failed, though none of them came as close as the Packers team that invaded Century Link this afternoon.

This game offered a very busy first seven minutes, as the Packers drove the length of the field on their opening drive, racking up three first downs and taking advantage of three Seahawks penalties to advance the ball deep into Seattle territory. Eddie Lacy ran the ball with gusto and Aaron Rodgers found receivers with room as Green Bay looked every bit the offense that decimated teams earlier in the season. Now, everyone was acutely aware of the fact that in these teams' Week 1 match-up, Rodgers never once threw Richard Sherman's way. Rodgers, who was clearly bothered by the assumption that he was scared of Sherman, went that direction twice on their first possession, the first resulting in a half-hearted underthrow and the second ending in a Sherman interception in the endzone that looked easier than if Richard had been the intended receiver.

It seemed then, to me at least, that the Seahawks had withstood the best they would see from the Green Bay offense and had come away unscathed. The offense, however, seemed intent on giving the Pack every possible opportunity to make up for it by giving the ball away each chance they got. Seattle's first series ended with a third down pass ricocheting off of a slanting Jermaine Kearse's hands and into the waiting arms of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who returned it deep into Seahawks territory. After allowing another first down, the Seahawks' historically stingy defense bowed their collective back and stuffed the Packers on a short 3rd & goal after a short John Kuhn TD run was overturned, and GB head coach Mike McCarthy was apparently satisfied to concede the touchdown and take an easy three points.

The ensuing kickoff was a disaster, as fill-in returner Doug Baldwin took a ball from halfway deep in his own paint (boo!) out past his own 20 (yay!) before coughing up the ball on a routine tackle (boo!). A couple of plays later, the Packers found themselves again with a 1st & goal and again they were turned away by a defense that protects its own endzone the way a mama bear does her cubs. At that juncture, it was 6-0 and surely that was as bad as it was gonna get for a Seahawks team favored by a full touchdown, right?

Wrong, idiot. The Seahawks' next two drives would last a combined six plays and gain a total of three yards, resulting in two punts (one of which was terrible) and two more possessions in Seahawks territory. In fact, the Packers ran a staggering 25 of their first 31 plays on Seattle's side of the field and finally found paydirt when Rodgers found a wide-open Randall Cobb on a free play that saw no QB pressure despite an early jump. The lead was 13-0 and would balloon to 16-0 before the half, one point more than the largest deficit ever overcome in a conference championship game; a deficit amplified by Earl Thomas' departure from the game with an apparent shoulder injury that sent him to the locker-room and forced the untested DeShawn Shead into playing single-high safety.

Earl would return after a short absence but the Seahawks offense refused to improve, netting an embarrassing 59 first half yards and combining that impotence with a startling, and season-high, four turnovers The lack of execution did more than just snuff out Seattle's scoring chances, it propped Green Bay's up on a luxurious pillow, as the Packers spent the first two quarters playing on half a field; their average starting field position being the Seahawks' 49 yard line. There was a brief window of hope just before halftime, as Russell Wilson completed his first pass and the 'Hawks accrued their first first downs of the game, advancing the ball into the red zone and putting themselves into position to cut into Green Bay's unexpected lead.

That hope was snuffed out shortly thereafter, however, as an uninspired underthrow from Russell Wilson was intercepted in the endzone when Kearse back-pedaled out of position, allowing the corner an easy drive-ending pick. That interception was Wilson's third in as many attempts to get Kearse the football and signaled a previously un-witnessed lack of execution, including the early season morass that Seattle's offense experienced before the Percy Harvin trade.

Not content to sit on their big lead, Green Bay marched right back down the field with aspirations of extending their lead but the beleaguered Seahawks were bailed out by Byron Maxwell's diving interception on a rare miscommunication between Rodgers and Jordy Nelson. Even so, the 'Hawks limped into the locker room down 16-0, out-gained 178-59 and with a quarterback that was 2-9 for 12 yards with three picks.

The first eight minutes of the second half went about the same as the previous 30, a disheartening continuation of underwhelming football that was finally vanquished when Wilson found Baldwin for an impressive 29 yard completion on 3rd & 19. After a wheel route to Lynch bounced off his hands on third down (great coverage), the Seahawks drew up my favorite play in franchise history. With Steven Hauschka lining up for a 38-yard field goal, Jon Ryan took the snap and, after holding it until the most exquisitely late moment, ran around the left end the way you'd imagine Big Bird would. Just before crossing the line of scrimmage, however, Regina's favorite ginger* lobbed a pass to a wide open and apparently eligible Garry Gilliam (wait, what?) for the touchdown, cutting the lead to 16-7 and injecting hope into a blindsided and rather subdued fanbase.

*Watch the replay- Ryan holds his follow-through as he trots off the field like Reggie Miller after hitting a three.

At that point, it seemed as though the momentum was shifting, a perception enhanced by Green Bay's quick three and out on their next drive. The 'Hawks offense, however, reverted right back to their melancholy ways, punting on their next two possessions and finding themselves down 19-7 with five minutes left, sometime after Mason Crosby's fourth field goal. As Seattle took over with those five minutes on the clock, I felt that anything short of a teeder would spell the end of the season. My fears were realized when Wilson's fourth attempt to get the ball to Kearse bounced off his hands and ended up like the first three tries, with a Packers interception. It marked the first time in Wilson's gilded career that he had thrown four picks and the smoldering ashes of the Seahawks season were ground under the surprisingly dominant heel of the Green Bay Packers.

I will admit it was then that I began writing a very different article than the one you are reading right now. Headline, lede, URL, premise- everything I reluctantly hammered into my keyboard reflected the imminent end of a glorious season and I began to prepare myself mentally for a long off-season on the heels of disappointment. Then the Packers went three and out in under a minute. Then Lynch ran up the gut for 14 yards. Then Wilson found Baldwin for 33 more. Then Wilson hit Lynch on a sideline route for a touchdown that was overturned when replays revealed that Lynch stepped out of bounds after the catch. No matter, as Wilson kept the ball on a read-option play and scored a short TD that cut the lead to 19-14 with 2:09 left on the clock.

The Seahawks, who had spent 58 minutes being broken by a team that had out-played them in every facet of the game, found a heartbeat. It seemed, then, nothing more than a tease- a cursory score that would do little more than save face and preserve Seattle's historic streak of not losing by more than 10. The Seahawks then lined up for a desperate onside kick, football's fleeting plea for salvation -- the same one offered up by so many teams before them, only to evaporate noiselessly into the void, unheeded by the deities governing the savagely beautiful universe of gridiron competition. All a team can do in that most hopeless of situations is kick the ball in a way that induces the maximum possible interest from the gods of chaos and Hauschka did just that, popping his grounder high into the air on the second bounce like a sweet-smelling offering to the spirits of mayhem where it was mishandled by the Packers hands team and corralled by Chris Matthews.

In a matter of seconds, the Seahawks' season was rescued from the discombobulating ether that relentlessly nips at the toes of every NFL team until it suddenly swallows them whole, and placed it firmly back in their own hands. Wilson, who had looked rattled and uneven up until then, refused to allow another opportunity to escape. With the season on the line, the 'Hawks offense looked more like themselves than they had in the first 58 minutes: Wilson on a keeper for 15, Lynch up the middle for three, Luke Willson on a stop route for eight more (including the final, chain-moving two by beasting through two tacklers). It took all day but the offense was finally clicking.

Then came the play that we'd all been waiting for- Marshawn Lynch off left guard, running with the ferocity of a cornered Rottweiler, tearing his way through the Packers defense en route to a game-flipping touchdown and a bevy of delighted handshakes. It was like watching James Bond run through 24 yards of henchmen, their errant bullets missing wildly and their clumsy judo chops bouncing harmlessly off of Lynch's battle-scarred hide. In a flash, Carroll's out-gunned Seahawks team had turned a hopeless 19-7 deficit into a one-point lead with 1:25 left.

Now, say what you want about Darrell Bevell's play-calling, but before you do, look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you have the stones to call a Hail Mary on a two-point conversion, cuz that's exactly what Seattle did. With Wilson rolling option-less to the right of the field on the attempt, he turned amid a horde of pass-rushers and threw a ball towards the heavens where it hung long enough to be kissed by God before descending back to Earth and into the outstretched hands of Luke Willson for the score and an important three-point lead. It was the kind of call usually reserved for drunken NFL Blitz tournaments but, then again, isn't this whole team like that?

In most games, this is where the story would end. In the 2015 NFC 'Ship, however, the drama was still on the upswing. True to his increasingly legendary form, Rodgers, who had accomplished practically nil since midway through the second quarter, led the Pack all the way down the field and into field goal range for Crosby, who calmly drilled a 48-yarder that tied the game with 14 seconds left, which meant overtime in what had all of a sudden become one of the great all time championship games.

In OT, Seattle hilariously (or shrewdly, as everyone else was huddled on the sidelines receiving their marching orders) sent out Ryan, Hauschka, and Tarvaris Jackson for the coin toss. The Packers called tails, God called heads, and the Seahawks got the ball with a chance to finish the largest comeback in championship game history.

It would take them all of six plays. After another ill-advised Baldwin kick return put the ball on their own 14, Wilson trotted out with a clear sight-line to victory. Lynch up the middle got them the first four, Wilson to Baldwin got them the next 10. After Lynch got four more, Wilson was sacked for a loss of one and faced his billionth 3rd & long of the afternoon. That's when he found Baldwin for 34 yards and a first down. It was the longest play of the game, until the next one, when Wilson identified one-on-one coverage on Kearse to his left with no safety over the top. He dropped back with conviction and unleashed a throw down the right seam. As soon as he did -- and the people I was watching the game with will confirm this -- I said "the Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl." No sooner than those words, perhaps the most beautiful in the English language, escaped my succulent lips that Wilson's throw reconciled its game-long differences with Kearse's hands and nestled itself in Jermaine's heaving bosom for the game-winning 35-yard touchdown.

And here I thought The Tip would never be topped.

Other observations from this most delicious of victories:

-Marshawn Lynch finished with 183 yards from scrimmage. One hundred and eighty three. Even with time waning and their win probability being eclipsed, when all the universe was screaming pass, the Seahawks continued to lean on their indomitable running back and he rewarded their trust with one of the great performances of his life. He is worth whatever he costs.

-Russell Wilson played the worst game of his career for the first 96% of regulation but was good enough, and got enough help, in the last six minutes to overcome all of it and put his team in the Super Bowl anyway. 14-29, 209 yards, 1 TD, 4 INTs, and a 44.3 efficiency rating- abjectly horrible numbers but a line that belies a resiliency I've never seen from a Seahawks QB. There are, the stories tell us, magical creatures who walk the earth in human form; it just so happens the Seahawks have one of them as their quarterback.

-For all of the domination that the Packers seemed to impose on this game, the Seahawks defense was actually quite superb. Twenty-two points seems like a lot on the surface, at least compared to the eight they'd been allowing per game over the better part of the last three months, but it was far more the result of Green Bay's outstanding average field position than it was a reflection of incompetence. All told, the Packers managed just 4.7 yards per play, scored one touchdown, turned the ball over twice, and Rodgers finished with a 55.8 rating. They were whipped by the Seahawks, to be completely honest, a fact that was overshadowed by Seattle's incapability to move the ball on offense.

-Since 2011, when he redefined the standard of QB excellence, Aaron Rodgers has gone 43-11 against the other 30 teams in the NFL, racking up 140 TDs to just 24 INTs at a ridiculous 8.8 YPA and a staggering 115.2 rating. Against the Seahawks in that time period, however, he's gone 0-3 with 1 TD, 3 INTs, and a 5.5 YPA for a rating of just 67.2. To put it a different way, against 97% of the league, Aaron Rodgers is some sort of super QB from a red sun planet; against the Seahawks he's Blaine Gabbert.

-Richard Sherman continues to prove that he's the best cornerback in the league, being targeted a grand total of four times while allowing one catch for seven yards and notching the interception to boot. Even when he hyper-extended his elbow making a tackle early in the second half, Rodgers wouldn't touch him, even though Nelson spent most of the final two quarters on his side. Think about that: the best QB in the world avoided his All Pro receiver in the NFC Championship game because he was guarded by an obviously one-armed Richard Sherman.

-Speaking of banged up LOBers, Earl Thomas exited the game in the second quarter with an apparent shoulder injury, even heading off to the locker room to get examined. He returned to the game because of course he did and still flew around like a dragon in the secondary, even using his injured shoulder to launch Eddie Lacy out of bounds like a toddler on a trampoline. It was the type of performance that, while not lighting up the box score (five tackles), shows the ferocity with which the competitive fire smolders within him. Earl Thomas is like a sun: he has an incredible gravitational pull and burns with a heat that can be felt light-years away.

-Chris Matthews hadn't touched a football in a game all season long before recovering that onside kick.

-This victory was so redemptive in nature. The Seahawks had played the Packers twice in the playoffs before and had lost both games, one after forcing two early turnovers and the other on the most infamous OT coin-toss call of all time. Today, they turned that ball over early and still won, went to OT and still won. Wilson shrugged off four interceptions to lead two TD drives in the final five minutes. His leading receiver (Baldwin: six catches, 106 yards) had two drops and was atrocious in the return game. His last touchdown went to a receiver that was having one of the worst games in the history of the position and he still threw the ball to him with the same conviction he would've to an All Pro. After the game Wilson said that as soon as he saw Kearse get a step he had "no doubt". Amazing trust.

The Seattle Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl. They're going there for the second consecutive season, after a second consecutive heart-arresting NFC 'Ship win. At this point, I can't find a single reason to doubt these guys. They were bludgeoned on all sides by an excellent football team, got horrendous performances from multiple players including most of the offensive line, turned it over a staggering five times, and still won.

The path to the mountaintop is never the same. For almost 40 years the Seahawks wandered through the NFL's wilderness like exiled children of God, only to find their way to the peak last season. Early on it appeared, for all intents and purposes, that it would just be a matter of following in last year's footprints but conditions have changed over the last year. Slippery patches of moss appeared where once there had been dry footholds. The paths that had used to meandere uninhibited up the cliffside are now overgrown with thorns. The Seahawks had to adapt their trail to their new landscape, be willing to amend their strategy to fit their new situation. This team is resourceful, and every time they ran into a dead end they regrouped and leaned on each other to continue their ascent. They hoisted each other up to the next level, with those being lifted reaching back down to pull up those who helped them.

After all of that, after all of the scrambling and scraping and clawing and climbing, the Seattle Seahawks are once again within one game of the highest vantage point in the football universe. All season I've closed this article with the call to go onward, upward- they've done that. One step to go. This team that has been so forthright and open about their desire to be great, so unapologetically transparent in their hunger to be legendary, is now just 60 minutes of football away from immortality.

Jacson on Twitter /// Cigar Thoughts hub

***Tonight I went with the very smooth, very special Perdomo "Lot 23" cigar, a bright and tasty stick that paired perfectly with the staggeringly enjoyable Yamazaki Japanese whiskey I've reserved for Seahawks victories.