This season, the NFL has seen an unprecedented amount of games decided by one score. This was not one of them, as the Seahawks kicked down the door of the Vikings' chintzy saloon, mugged the barkeep, and left with all the cash and grog they could carry.
The narrative for this game was established early. Tyler Lockett, who had his best game as a pro, hooked the 'Hawks up with the first of a series of great returns, starting Seattle out at midfield and setting a tone of aggression that would resonate throughout the entirety of the contest. And despite the fact that the drive ended with a Thomas Rawls fumble, it just felt like the outcome was inevitable. That hunch was validated over the remaining 55 minutes, as Seattle crushed Minnesota like an empty beer can. Seven first downs in their first 16 plays and conversions on five of their first six third downs served notice that the Seahawks' offensive outburst last week was no fluke.
There are some staggering statistical performances to cover today but let me take a moment to praise an offensive line that I've been negging all season. Despite a maddening amount of pre-snap penalties (again), the OL delivered a bulldozing performance for the third consecutive week, allowing just one sack and creating lanes for Thomas Rawls and Russell Wilson to the tune of 175 rushing yards on 34 carries. They were aggressive and assignment-correct and mean and that's all any of us have ever wanted to see from them. The Seahawks' O-line has been an open sore all season and we're finally starting to see it coagulate.
In fact, Seattle's OL has been wavering between pretty good and very good for the better part of the last two months and you can see the effect that's had on Russell Wilson, who has transformed from whatever y'all were calling him to the best quarterback on the planet over the last three weeks. No, really. No matter what angle you take to the conversation, no one's been better over their last trio of games than Wilson. Check it- since the loss to the Cardinals, Seattle's over-paid, under-tall, over-rated, distracted-by-newfound-celebrity QB has gone:
66 for 86 (76.7% - tops in NFL)
879 yards (10.2 Y/A - tops in NFL)
11 TDs (12.8 TD% - tops in NFL)
0 INTs (tops in NFL)
148.2 passer efficiency rating (tops in NFL)
Oh yeah- he's also got 95 yards and a TD on the ground, too. This is not hyperbole: no one in the world is playing better football than Russell Wilson right now. And while you're reattaching your retinas, I'll tell you that those numbers include these particulars from this morning: 21-27, 274 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 51 rushing yards, and a rush TD. It was like he was quarterbacking a team of older brothers against their younger siblings in a backyard game.
Above all, he looked comfortable. And while he had his usual fill of are-you-serious? individual plays, he spent most of the game within the constructs of his offense, feeding his receivers one at a time like a soup kitchen. Lockett, as I mentioned, broke out today, corralling all seven of his targets for 90 yards plus seven more on his lone carry plus 47 more on his only kick return plus 19 more on his three punt returns. All told, the first offensive player taken by Seattle this season contributed 163 yards on 12 opportunities and you can just tell that Wilson trusts him now, as he didn't hesitate to wing it his way even when covered.
In fact, over the last six games, Wilson's efficiency when targeting his mini radio-controlled WR is not mortal. Get this, since October 22nd, Lockett has been targeted 25 times. Those 25 chances have been converted into 23 catches for 298 yards and 3 TDs. You read that correctly- since Week 6, Lockett has caught 92% of his targets for 11.9 yards per catch and a near-perfect rating of 155.9. They are the single most efficient QB-to-WR combo in the league over their last six games.
Still, the most prolific receiver on this team continues to be Doug Baldwin, who is blossoming in the season's waning light like an orchid. Following up the best game of his career, Baldwin kept his momentum going with five more catches on seven targets for 94 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which broke the Vikings' back like a Mortal Kombat finishing move. All of this means it's time for a mea culpa on the part of your strong, sexy, charming, but most of all humble author: I have sold Doug Baldwin short.
For too long, I've referred to Baldwin as the best of a bad situation at wide receiver. He has been a valuable possession receiver but has never forced himself upon the psyche of a defense. #1 WRs command attention, respect, and the focal point of an opposing defense and his production has been fairly spotty. That said, he is absolutely balling outside of his got dang mind lately. In the last month alone, Baldwin has caught 24 of 31 targets (77.4%) for 433 yards (18 yards per catch), and six TDs. On the season, Baldwin has caught an incredible 88% of the balls thrown his way.
One of the big concerns facing the Seahawks was the question of how they'd use the tight end position now that Jimmy Graham is gone. Luke Willson and Cooper Helfet were the ones charged with picking up Graham's considerable slack and they responded with a combined three catches on seven targets for 49 yards, respectable but far and away the least effective targets for Wilson today, save for Jermaine Kearse.
The uber-efficiency of the Seahawks' pass game has complimented their usual rush-- you know what? Put a pin in that for a minute, I wanna do something. While we're on the subject, I want to look at Wilson's passer ratings by receiver this season. I've set the threshold at 30 targets to qualify:
Baldwin - 150.4(!)
Graham - 112.7
Lockett - 137.1
Kearse - 125.9
Those are not game-manager numbers, those are world-ender numbers.
Like I was saying, Wilson's comfort and productivity both in the pocket (hooray!) and out of it has exaggerated the already impressive efficacy of the run game. The main beneficiary has, of course, been Thomas Rawls, who kept making his case for RBotF with 101 yards on 19 carries and a teeder while adding 22 more on three targets. Rawls, who now has just five starts to his credit, is at the time of this writing, the 9th leading rusher in the NFL and is second in YPC. The Seahawks now lead the NFL with 1,761 yards, for an average of 135.5 per game. In fact, of all players with at least 80 carries, Rawls (5.5) and Wilson (5.3) have the two highest yards per carry average in the league.
Imagine game-planning for a team whose QB is having one of the most efficient passing stretches in history while ranking second in the NFL in yards per carry, trailing only his running back. The offense that has frustrated us for so long is exploding and the blast radius includes the entire league. They are turning defenses to rubble; scorched earth and a trail of dead that leaves no doubt which way the Seahawks are headed. Yes, the Vikings were missing some of their best defenders in this one but you'll forgive me for assuming it wasn't going to matter much today.
Now that you're soaked to the bone with effusive offensive performance, we can get to the defense. The Seahawks D just held the best rushing team in the NFL, a division-leading squad that had won eight of their last ten, to zero points* and 125 yards. The Vikings, who Seattle just supplanted for first among rushing teams, feature the greatest running back of our generation and were only able to carve out 18 yards for him.
*The lone Vikings score came on a kick return
Seattle tackled better than they have since Super Bowl 48, swarming every ballcarrier with a rabid intensity that left no room for operation. The Seahawks tackled like they were made of duct tape, giving the Vikings a near goose egg in yards after contact. It was like watching a pack of hungry pitbulls with no boundaries let loose in a petting zoo. The Vikings managed just 31 yards rushing at 1.9 per carry, leaving the passing game with about as much hope as a gerbil in a piranha tank. All told, 2.6 yards per play for the Vikings, whose impressive bulwarks were splintered like balsa wood by the type of Seahawks defense that has dominated the NFL since 2012.
It's difficult to isolate individual standouts, as everyone played like they were promised a contract renegotiation based on today's performance. The guy that jumped out to me the most, however, was rookie DE Frank Clark, who crashed into Minnesota's backfield early and defied the Vikings to do something about it (they couldn't). The Seahawks' first draft pick of 2015 racked up two sacks and looked every bit as monstrous as Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, and Bruce Irvin. The class of '15 is acquitting themselves mightily of late and their prints were all over this one. Clark, Lockett, and Rawls were not just good, they played like Pro Bowlers.
Behind Clark and the rest of the ferocious front lurked the dark marauders of the linebacking crew and they delivered their punishment with apocalyptic force. Like riders on the storm, Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright brought their judgments without mercy, dropping ballcarriers where they stood like they had snatched the breath out them. It was a savage razing of Minnesota's sparkling city on a hill, the type of raiding massacre that would make a real viking proud.
The last wave of the defense didn't have a ton to do today but when they got their opportunities, they did much harm. Earl Thomas snagged another pick, Kam Chancellor broke out his hammer set, Richard Sherman and DeShawn Shead stuck to their receivers like pine sap and Kelcie McCray got his name called a half dozen times in run support. It was as though the Vikings awoke an ancient, evil hunger that had been lying dormant for most of the season. The Seahawks defense has risen up like an angel of death and woe be to the teams that haven't smeared their door frames with lamb's blood.
The win sets Seattle up very well for making the playoffs. Once 2-4 with a fanbase apoplectic from unsatisfied expectations, the Seahawks are now looking at playoff odds upwards of 90% (depending on how the rest of the games shake out). More importantly, they are only a game back (with tiebreaker) of the Vikings for the #5 seed. Minnesota, for their part, faces one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league. And while Seattle probably won't catch the Cardinals for the NFC West title, the difference between #5 and #6 will probably be the difference between playing at Lambeau in the first round or at whatever shitty team wins the flaccid NFC East. This was a huge, huge win for the Seahawks and there is no longer any reason to doubt that Seattle is setting up for the same dominant stretch they've experienced each of the last three seasons. I doubt there are many, if any, teams that opponents would like to face less than the current incarnation of the Seattle Seahawks.
Oh yeah, the Seahawks also went for it on 4th down while up by 28. They're not just trying to beat you, they're trying to make sure your offspring carry your shame.
PS - The cigar of the day was a delicious Padilla Connecticut Double Toro- full flavor, oily finish, indulgent as hell. I got mine from www.Famous-Smoke.com and now you can too, at a discount. Famous Smoke is offering all Cigar Thoughts readers 15% off on orders of $75 or more if you use the promo code: FIELDGULLS. Cheers!