From the day the NFL schedule came out, I've said that the Seahawks could start 0-2 and win the Super Bowl. The toughest two-game stretch on Seattle's schedule are games #1 and #2, on the road against two talented teams; one uniquely built to leverage Seattle's weaknesses and one uniquely built to leverage everyone else's. Here's the reality: the Green Bay Packers have, ostensibly, a 2.5 game lead over the Seahawks for home field advantage after this one and for the first time in three years, it's likely that the road to the Super Bowl won't go through Seattle.
So how did it happen? Well, for starters, Aaron Rodgers went 4/6 for 71 yards and a TD on the opening drive. Make no mistake, despite his struggles in Seattle, Rodgers is still the best quarterback on the planet and he looked the part tonight. Working the intermediate passing routes with aplomb (just as the Rams and Patriots did before him), the possession ended with Rodgers finding James Jones for a touchdown on a free play due to a Michael Bennett offsides. Jones beat Richard Sherman on an in-route and Rodgers delivered a backpedalling dime for the score. Sherman granted Jones a small window on the backside of a play in which a right-handed QB was moving to his left. The throw that Rodgers uncorked was nothing short of spectacular, as it led Jones away from Sherman for a pretty TD to open the scoring.
The Seahawks responded by going backwards on their first drive, punting it back to Green Bay posthaste. The Pack turned their second possession into a field goal and a 10-point lead, as Rodgers continued to exploit the small openings granted him by a Seahawks defense not yet playing to the historic standard they've established over the last three years.
From that point on, the game was pretty evenly played but those opening 10 scratches on the ledger would make for all the difference. Seattle would counter with a nine-play, 51-yard drive that ended with a 54-yard bomb from Steven Hauschka to cut the lead to 10-3. After Green Bay's third drive ended on a slick open-field tackle by Bobby Wagner on third down, Seattle continued to move the ball with purpose, with Russell Wilson finding Marshawn Lynch and Luke Willson on consecutive 12-yard pass plays, landing them in field goal range until a Russell Okung false start knocked them out of it.
Finding themselves on the 42 yard line on fourth down, Seattle sent Jon Ryan out to punt it away. Not missing a beat, Green Bay came back out and ripped off two more first downs before KJ Wright stuck his straw firmly in James Starks' milkshake on a swing pass. With Eddie Lacy out of the game due to an ankle injury, Rodgers flipped the ball out to James Starks. As Starks received the ball, he turned up the left sideline, which is where he met his fate in the hulking form of Wright. Wright contemptuously slapped the ball out of Starks' hands like an indignant schoolmarm before collapsing on it and giving Seattle the ball back with a chance to change the course of the game.
Following the turnover, Seattle drove into field goal range for a third time, but were removed from striking range when JR Sweezy got penalized 15 yards for playing offensive line*. That penalty, dubious as it was, took Seattle out of field goal range again and they had to settle for another Jon Ryan punt.
*Sweezy was flagged for driving his man into the ground after the play was over, even though the play was still going and Sweezy was already engaged with him but who's gonna get caught up on technicalities like the actual rules of the game?
Green Bay's next drive started off with a Bruce Irvin sack, an advantage negated on the very next snap. When a hard count drew Michael Bennett offsides again, Rodgers had another free play and made the most of it, targeting Ty Montgomery deep and drawing a massive 52-yard penalty on Sherman for a first down that would lead to a field goal when their drive stalled on the doorstep of Seattle's endzone.
That last drive from Green Bay milked the game clock's udder raw and sent the two teams into the locker room with the Packers holding a 13-3 lead over the defending NFC champions. That first half saw Russell Wilson complete six of ten passes for 62 yards, with exactly zero of those completions going to high-profile acquisition and resident superhero Jimmy Graham.
Things began to look more promising after the break, with Seattle beginning to move the pocket (something I'd like to see more often) and giving Wilson some options outside of his first read. The result? A 10 play, 80 yard drive in which Wilson went 5/6 for 60 yards with a touchdown to Fred Jackson that pulled the Seahawks within three at 13-10. It was the type of drive that makes you wonder how this team ever comes up empty, given the ease with which they moved the ball.
After the Packers offense stalled on their first drive of the third quarter, Seattle kept the momentum going with a five play, 54 yard drive that culminated with a 13-yard touchdown rocket from Wilson to Doug Baldwin. It looked for all the world as though the Seahawks had found their groove, racking up 134 yards and 14 points on 15 plays against a defense that had stifled them all day. Like last week, it appeared the game leverage had crossed the fulcrum upon which the win probability would ultimately swing in Seattle's favor. With the 'Hawks ahead 17-13, it was simply up to the defense to keep the Packers at bay, needing only a couple of productive drives from the offense to steal a huge road victory.
Rodgers and Co. weren't ready to concede however, and responded with a 54-yard drive that was highlighted by a 35-yard Starks scamper and punctuated with a 44-yard Mason Crosby field goal. That kick made it 17-16 and Week 2's Sunday night matchup was relegated to being a virtual toss up. Still, Seattle had a chance to re-establish their will on the game, an opportunity nearly lost when an erratic read-option give bounced off of Marshawn Lynch's chest and into the hands of a Packers defender, a brutal turnover eliminated by a pair of Green Bay penalties on the play. Still, Seattle was unable to do anything with their second chance and Green Bay got the ball back down by one and feeling good.
Green Bay's positive vibes kept going on the next drive, with Aaron Rodgers looking unstoppable. When he's properly tuned up, Rodgers passes the ball with a sharpness that turns every throw into a downfield hand-off and his deliveries down the stretch were as on point as one could possibly expect. With every Rodgers pass finding the loving arms of his intended receivers, the Packers moved down the field with relative ease, their superstar QB eluding pressure on nearly every snap to calmly deliver the ball with purpose and precision. Perhaps no pass exemplified this as much as the final one on this particular drive. Again moving to his left, Rodgers found his tight end Richard Rodgers effectively shielding off Cary Williams in the endzone. Aaron's dart found Richard's sternum with his feet in bounds and, following a successful two-point conversion, the Packers regained their seven-point lead.
On the surface, it didn't seem like much. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks had been in this situation before and had responded with heroic drives on many of those occasions. In fact, it looked like it might happen again when Wilson kept the ball on a 2nd & 12, picking up a first down and energizing his inconsistent offense. Shortly thereafter, however, Wilson's attempt at an innocent screen pass was speared out of the air by defensive lineman Jayrone Eliott, who immediately fumbled the football during his attempt at a return. A half-dozen members of both teams dove on or around the football, with Justin Britt miraculously emerging with the pigskin. By all normal interpretations of that game, Seattle should have gotten the ball back, 1st & 10, but the officials inexplicably ruled that Green Bay recovered. It was a baffling call that notably affected Seattle's win probability but was also just a bad turnover and it would have been an absolute gift if Seattle had gotten it back. Still, what the hell?
One thing that good teams do with consistency is take advantage of the opportunities granted them and the Packers turned this one into a clock-strangling drive, complete with a couple of heartbreaking third down conversions that ended in a field goal and essentially choked out the Seahawks' chances of winning. Seattle's desperate comeback attempt was asphyxiated when Fred Jackson had the ball knocked out from behind on a dump-off pass and when the oblong object of our attention settled in a Packers defender's arms, it was only a matter of knees before Seattle's NFL record streak of not losing by double-digits came to an end.
They say the best players play their best when it matters most. Well, entering the fourth quarter facing a deficit against the reigning conference champs, Aaron Rodgers went 9-9 for 91 yards and a TD in a performance reminiscent of Tom Brady's closing effort in the Super Bowl. This loss marked the third consecutive time that the Seahawks have given up a fourth quarter lead and, as such, resulted in their third consecutive loss.
-Russell Wilson looked, I thought, better this week than he did in St. Louis. Maybe it was because he was more mobile. Maybe it was because Green Bay's pass rush isn't as good as the Rams'. Maybe he just felt better, or maybe I'm just seeing things. Either way, it felt a lot different. Last week, Wilson struggled early before spending the second half dotting Baldwin, Kearse, Graham, and Lockett for short to intermediate gains. This week, he had more time but couldn't get the ball to any of his receivers besides Baldwin with anything resembling consistency. On the flip side, Wilson was significantly more mobile and extended plays long enough to turn negatives into positives, the way we've grown accustomed to seeing. The result was 284 total yards and two TDs (19/30 passing for 206 yards, 2 TDs, and an INT and 10 carries for 78 yards) -- the type of two-pronged attack that elevates Wilson from a pretty good QB to matchup nightmare. The Wilson we saw tonight, while unspectacular, would win a lot of games, and I think he'll look even better as the offense begins to find its rhythm.
-Marshawn Lynch never got going today. Maybe it's the offensive line's fault, maybe Green Bay figured out some adjustments, but after feasting on the Packers' defense for the last three years, Lynch was held to 62 total yards on 18 touches (15 for 41 rushing, three for 21 receiving). The offense won't start clicking in earnest until Lynch does. It will be imperative that they figure this part of the equation out quickly.
-Jimmy Graham was targeted exactly twice, resulting in one catch for 11 yards. I don't understand this and I don't think any argument will make me. You don't trade a first round pick and a Pro Bowl center for a decoy. Jimmy Graham is one of those rare NFL receivers that doesn't have to be open in order to complete a pass. His catch radius is the size of Saturn and sometimes you just need to force-feed your all-world pass catcher. I would rather Seattle go one for ten throwing to Jimmy Graham than one for two, because at least that would mean you're at least trying to take advantage of one of the better mismatches the sport has to offer. There better not be one more game ever where Jimmy Graham only sees two targets.
-Doug Baldwin was the best player on Seattle's offense today. He was targeted eight times and turned them into seven catches for 92 yards and a score. When Wilson targeted Baldwin in this one, he had a passer efficiency of 154.2 with an 11.5 YPA. Targeting everyone else, Wilson posted a 65.3 passer rating and a measly 5.2 YPA. Baldwin was huge today and his connection with Wilson will be paramount if Seattle is to continue their recent run of success.
-Seattle's offensive line this week, as compared to last week, is like a kindergartener's fingerpaintings at the end of the year versus the beginning- messy as hell but at least better?
-KJ Wright was very good today, recording nine tackles before being tossed after the officials decided his role in a shoving match was somehow far more reprehensible than his opponent's and kicked him out of the game. Nothing to worry about here- KJ looked great. His LB-mate Bobby Wagner led the team in tackles with 12 and looked closer to the All Pro worthy of a major contract than the rustier version that played in St. Louis last week.
-Cary Williams continues to look extremely good while filling the Brandon Browner / Walter Thurmond / Byron Maxwell role. He blanketed his man all night long, his one defeat coming on the Rodgers-to-Rodgers TD when the tight end boxed him out in the endzone on an extended play. Something tells me he'll be just fine.
-Richard Sherman was targeted three times (two of which were on free plays), allowing one catch for the opening 29-yard TD. Much will be made of this, but it's still the only pass that the best QB in the world has completed against him in three games. It's a sign of how good you are when every catch you allow is notable.
-Earl Thomas looks 100%, physically anyway. This is two straight weeks of him straight bodying people in the secondary. It's a good sign, given the injury he's recovering from. He does look, however, like he's been caught out of position on a couple of plays. I won't pretend to know his scheme responsibilities on every play nor will I count out the potential that he's overcompensating for two new members of the LOB. It's probably nothing, but it speaks to how spoiled we've been with ET.
-Seattle committed six penalties that accounted for 92 yards, while Green Bay was also called for six, though theirs only cost them 32 yards. The difference, in sum, was basically the 52-yard call against Sherman on a free play. That penalty, and the one against Wright, hurt Seattle a lot in this game but aren't really indicative of a systemic problem, at least yet. Okung's false starts and Bennett's offsideses, however, are a different story. I get that anticipation is a huge part of playing both sides of the line and the occasional pre-snap penalty can be chalked up to the cost of doing business, but these two veterans just can't keep doing this.
-Compounding matters, the Seahawks were only three of nine on third down this week. Not awful but almost never good enough to beat a good team on the road. Again, this is where Jimmy Graham should act as your trump card.
Look, it sucks that the Seahawks are 0-2. It sucks that they haven't won a game in almost nine months. It sucks that we, as fans, are still waiting for a victory to help wash out the taste of that Super Bowl loss. From a record standpoint, it is objectively the worst case scenario. The thing is, Seattle is still an extraordinarily talented team. The correlation between September road performance and overall performance is negligible. The worst of it is behind the Seahawks, from a schedule standpoint. There is much to correct but a long track record of success that gives us legitimate hope that the corrections will be made.
The Seahawks are not a team trying to figure out how to win, nor are they a team falling apart at the seams in the wake of a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss. This is a good team trying to figure out how to be great. This is a team that has played like the best squad in the NFL down the stretch of each of the last three seasons. They've stacked the deck a little higher this year but they are by no means buried.
Seattle will look to cleanse themselves against the Bears next week in the Seahawks' home debut. Onward, upward.
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The stogie du jour was a Gurkha Beast from Famous Smoke-- a rich, robust kick in the throat that perfectly accents the frustrations of a loss while swilling a nice peated scotch.