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Closing the Book on the Packers: Conference Championship Edition

In which the Seahawks put the special in special teams.

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Some accounts of Green Bay's alleged dominance in the game, even at 16-0, have been exaggerated or at least not very well understood. The score was always a bit illusory in that the game was both closer than the score indicated AND not nearly as close as the score indicated. The Pack, to its credit, capitalized defensively on Seattle miscues. But their offense was o.k. at best, relative to field position--far from outstanding.

Green Bay's early game dominance was built on defensive interceptions, but only partially so. I'd argue that their dominance on special teams is what really threatened to put the game out of reach. GB killed it on teams. I suppose it is fitting that in a game with SO many big plays the two in the first half that almost dug the hole too deep have been almost entirely overlooked. Wilson's interceptions provided GB with the ball, field position, and a sense that the dramatic was possible on the day. Jon Ryan's first two punts provided GB with the ball, field position, and the pride of ownership. The Pack absolutely owned Seattle real estate in the first half.

Slow and Steady Lost the Race

The guy mostly responsible for that sense ownership was everyone's favorite Ginger. I used my NFC Championship Game Preview to sneak in a humblebrag about Jon Ryan. He's been awesome this year. At the same time, I suggested that Green Bay's best chance in the game was to dominate field position based on advantages in the return game. (Now I also noted that Pete wasn't gonna just stand around and let that advantage go unaddressed without trying to find his own on special teams.)

Ryan, whose ability to create defensive field position is oddly under-appreciated, showed us exactly how valuable it is by leaving it at home. Russell Wilson may have been the worst player on the field for long stretches of the game, but the Ginja from Regina wasn't far behind. Ryan's net average of only 34+ yards across five punts is ghastly enough, but you can't really assess Ryan (or any punter) exclusively by net average. His day was mostly much worse than that net would suggest.

If you remember the "Once Bitten" episode of Archer (and how could you not?), Wilson's first interception, which set GB up inside the red zone, and Baldwin's kickoff return fumble, which set GB up inside the red zone again, were the proverbial snake bites to the taint. But it was Jon Ryan who showed us the truth of Ray Gillette's sage wisdom. You can't tourniquet the taint. Ryan's twin 39 yard punts proved this to a moral certainty. The first of the twin line drives was muffed and quickly recovered by Micah Hyde. The muff ruined what would likely have been a good return. Hyde returned the next one 29 yards, for a 10 yard net. The field position on those punts led directly to 10 GB points that threatened to put the game out of reach. Add to that, Seattle's kickoff returns following GB scores were putrid.

Green Bay built slow, steady domination on special teams.

And then Ryan did this.

Special teams is often under-appreciated by the casual fan. But, the disproportionate importance of explosive plays on special teams is often lost on even hardcore fans. Slow and steady winning the field position battle doesn't always win the race. That this continues to surprise people kinda cracks me up. Green Bay had more successful plays on special teams than Seattle, but really only one big play (the 29 yard return). The fake field goal undid all that in one fell swoop. Seattle evidently ran the fake at Brad Jones and only Brad Jones. That's just one special teams staff pantsing the other, a feeling with which Seattle fans are all too familiar.

"Charlie Brown" not only negated the six points the defense yielded after Wilson's early pick and Baldwin's early fumble. It effectively allowed Jon Ryan to start over from zero.

Better to Be Lucky...

The other "explosive" special teams play was the mostly random onside kick recovery. Brandon Bostick allegedly didn't block his assignment and compounded it by bobbling the kick. We probably shouldn't assume that Nelson catches the ball (or keeps it if hit). Golden Tate, who compares favorably to Jordy Nelson in the hands department, lost an onsides kick in last year's divisional game. It happens. More importantly, we should not assume that GB could just kneel out the clock. (They couldn't).

If you think special teams cost GB the game then your focus should be on the fake field goal rather than the onside kick. As lost onsides kicks go, GB wasn't left in an especially bad situation. They had the lead and the ball was on the 50. The Packers were still very much in the driver's seat.

Super Bowl Special Teams. Uh oh.

When it comes to going from suck to serendipity, Jermaine Kearse's will be on the cover of the annual, but Doug Baldwin's day was pretty miserable too until the end. Everything a player can do poorly Baldwin did extra poorly, well into the 4th quarter. Since I'm mostly talking special teams I won't mention him dropping passes, because Doug Baldwin doesn't drop passes. Everyone knows that. So let us never speak of it again.

On special teams he was arguably as bad or worse than Jon Ryan. Honestly, I'm not sure what to make of Baldwin as a kickoff returner. Was that just a bad day or is he just bad at returns? He's had moments of brilliance mind you. (He nailed down a roster spot as an undrafted rookie with a big kickoff return at the end of the preseason. Just last year in the NFCCG he had a fantastic underrated return game.) But, he's also never returned more than one or two kicks in a season until this year. In 2014 he has looked... wait for it... pedestrian in that role. His career average is just 19.8 on less than 10 returns (while the much maligned Turbin's is 22.1 on a comparable number).

Doug's in the discussion for my favorite Seahawks player. I love him because his talent (working angles) is easy to disregard, and it frequently is. Doug stays with it though. That said, we may be at the point of diminishing returns with him on kickoff returns.

It's not clear to me that Seattle has any better options at the moment, but I hope the team is exploring whatever those are. Heading into the Super Bowl, New England's ability to create explosive plays on special teams seems more repeatable. That is a little scary.