For the first 26 years of my life, just having the Seahawks in the playoffs was enough. Win or lose, elation or heartbreak, even making it into the first round of the postseason meant a successful season and a glimmer of respectability for a franchise that spent their first three decades practically defining mediocrity. Then Pete Carroll showed up and started subjecting my blood pressure to this on a yearly basis. For the fifth time in their last seven playoff tilts, the Seattle Seahawks watched the outcome boil down to the final non-kneeling snap of the game.
Today, it was the Minnesota Vikings who would have the penultimate possession, the result of which would decide the fate of Seattle's season and for all the world it looked as though Minnesota would win. After being dismantled in front of their home crowd by this same Seahawks team a month and a half ago, the Vikes found themselves a 27-yard field goal, the football equivalent of a two-foot putt, away from exacting their retribution. Blair Walsh had already made each of his three previous kicks in the icebox that played host to this game, all of which were significantly longer than this one. It was a mere formality, really.
But funny things happen to the human psyche when the sheer tonnage of expectation finds itself resting like Atlas' burden upon your shoulders. You become acutely aware of things your mind would normally filter out; molecules in the air begin flickering around you like a concert full of near-empty lighters, sounds that normally blend into the white noise of life suddenly begin piercing your sphere of concentration, and the simplest of movements, motions that have been practiced to the point of perfection, become chores of elaborate concentration.
You know that feeling you get when someone with strong, nervous body language enters the room or conversation? Without even thinking about it, we become apprehensive and the synapses in our brains begin to connect differently. When stressful people enter a room, we feel them, invisibly, before we even see them. The nebulous majority of our subconscious brainpower shifts before our conscious mind is even aware of it, and we instinctively tighten up. Now imagine that feeling, intensified by the furious energy of a diehard fan at an NFL playoff game. Now multiply that by 50,000. Then by the pressure of having to deal with the fallout, exponentially increased by the national coverage and season-deciding nature of your actions. The reality you've known for your whole life, distorted around you like a house of mirrors, the frequency and noise of the air pregnant with inebriated anticipation.
Now go make that kick.
You've heard me say it a dozen times before, but so often the victor in an NFL game comes down to who performs the best in the weird 2% crucible that hovers above the shared talent levels of the two teams. "Clutch" is a difficult thing to describe, to quantify, but it's exactly that ability to shield out the harsh, bizarre nature of game-deciding plays that ultimately separates teams and players in games like this. Who knows, maybe Walsh didn't feel any of that pressure and just yanked it. Maybe it was because the laces were facing him and he Ray Finkle'd the kick but I doubt that, since he banged home a similar hold on a 46 yarder earlier on. Maybe I'm talking out of my handsomely sculpted ass. Regardless of the cause, Walsh missed a kick that would have all but ended the Seahawks season and the ensuing result is downright terrifying for the rest of the NFC. So how did we get to that point?
Slowly. Painfully. Minnesota stole the entire first quarter from Seattle, holding the ball for 13 of the first 14 minutes, draining the clock three and four yards at a time. The Seahawks ran just five offensive plays in the first period and while the Vikings took complete ownership of possession, they were never able to compliment their constant jabs with a punch of any real consequence. For all of their effort and determination, the Vikings still only managed three points on their first four possessions, and those came on the receiving end of a gift in the form of Jon Ryan going full Keystone Cops on a low punt snap.
The Seahawks defense was at their absolute best in this one, however, despite being granted only brief respites by a struggling offense. The defensive line not only harassed Teddy Bridgewater on nearly every drop back, they stayed assignment-committed to playing their gaps in the run game. They were content to let Adrian Peterson, the best running back the NFL has seen since Barry Sanders, get two or three yards on his good carries while occasionally kicking down his front door and abducting him in the backfield.
To Minnesota's credit, they stuck with the bionic, corporal punishing face of their franchise, feeding him 10 first quarter carries as part of 23 total. All of that effort, however, resulted in a puny 45 yards. It was enough pressure to squeeze dry the udders of the game clock but ultimately produced very little in terms of win probability. In fact, in two games in Minnesota, the Seahawks defense has held Peterson, the NFL's leading rusher, to 63 yards and no touchdowns on 31 carries. For all of the talk that will assuredly surround Walsh's final kick, Seattle's front seven is the main reason they won today.
Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who made up the best 4-3 DE combo in the league this season, led the way by collapsing the outside edges of Minny's OL, shrinking Bridgewater's universe and forcing the second year QB to try and beat the NFL's best defense from inside a phone booth. And while Bridgewater completed 17 of his 24 passes for a surface-level impressive 71% rate, those hook-ups were mere pecks-on-the-cheek that never escalated to heavy petting. The completions only totaled 146 yards, which was somehow even more than what he managed in the first matchup (118). Add in the three sacks and the Vikings offense managed just 125 yards on 27 pass plays for a cringe-worthy 4.6 yards per dropback.
Even so, even so, the lukewarm temperature of Minnesota's yardage output was enough to build a 9-0 lead over the nerve-deadening coldness of Seattle's offensive efforts. Seattle was late getting in and out of their huddles, something they had excelled at of late. This left them staring at a rapidly adjusting defense with only a few seconds of game-clock in which to diagnose and, if necessary, audible. That struggle was exacerbated by Russell Wilson's admitted inability to clearly communicate his play calls and line adjustments due to the jaw-clenching freeze in the air. Those struggles resulted in four wasted timeouts, a couple delays of game, and an offense that never really found a rhythm.
Wilson not only struggled with frigid mandibles, he clearly suffered from frozen phalanges as well. He air-mailed at least three short passes, underthrew or was late on every deep ball, and spent what seemed like half of his drop backs bouncing off of Vikings D-linemen. He passed for only 39 yards in the first half and would finish with 142 overall. He completed just 50% of his passes and a good chunk of those misses were poor throws. Now, I don't doubt that that has almost everything to do with the inhuman weather that accompanies the third coldest game in NFL history, but it's still the reality. The fulcrum of what's been the NFL's most efficient offense over the last two months was nullified by the cold and it would be up to Seattle to grind something out in ugly fashion.
The most obvious alternative to superior passing is to turn to the run game. In the perplexing/misleading/unsettling weirdness of Marshawn Lynch's absence, starter-come-lately Christine Michael ran hard and well, but clearly sacrificed his usual yardage after contact in favor of a heightened focus on ball security. He managed 84 total yards on 22 touches, and never really found the open field. Normally, 84 yards on 3.9 per touch is production that would get lost in the shuffle, but that 84 represented 37% of Seattle's total yardage today. Whatever happens with Lynch this week, I feel as confident as ever in C-Mike's ability to handle the duties of a full-time RB.
Perhaps the only player who had a better game for Seattle's offense than Michael was Doug Baldwin, who led the team with five catches and 42 yards on seven targets. And while, again, those numbers are hardly impressive at first glance, they became crucial in the context of a game played with numb fingers and ice-burned lungs. One of those catches was probably the best snag a Seahawks receiver has made all year, a one-pawed, backhanded snag of a Wilson lob to convert a nigh-impossible third down. He also scored the game's only touchdown, on a short arrow route inside the right pylon.
That TD was set up by the Seahawks' most impressive play of the day. It started out disastrously, as Patrick Lewis prematurely delivered like an excited teenager during his first backseat romp. The snap skeeted over Wilson's left shoulder, setting in motion a series of events that had to break the spirit of every Vikings fan watching. After hook-sliding around the ball, Wilson alertly popped to his feet, and waggled to his right until the last possible moment before floating the frozen swine bladder to Tyler Lockett, who found himself alone in the middle of the field. After making the catch, Lockett hopped on his hoverboard and razored down the sideline to the four. In a matter of seconds, the Seahawks went from their best field position of the day, to being knocked out of scoring range, to being on the doorstep. Such is the annoyingly magical nature of Russell Wilson.
That touchdown gave the 'Hawks a lift, but they still trailed by two and were rapidly running out of time. It took Seattle over 48 minutes to score any points at all and the Vikings got the ball back with just 11 between them and an upset victory of the two-time defending NFC champs. Seattle's offense had come up big, but making one big play once in a while won't win you many football games, especially in the playoffs. No, to truly succeed you must compound great plays with other great plays, and after three quarters of quarantining Minnesota's offense, the 'Hawks D finally made their play.
There was no question that the Vikings would try to use Peterson as their closer, and they managed to get their Herculean running back the ball on a simple screen to the right side. AP picked up what would have been a critical first down before he was stood up by KJ Wright like Screech on a blind date. As Peterson tried unsuccessfully to escape from Wright's tractor beam tackle, Kam Chancellor pulled the hammer out of his tool belt and knocked the ball free from Peterson's grasp. The ball barely had time to kiss the sweet ground of freedom before Ahtybah Rubin's hustling, gargantuan mass pounced on it.
Just like that, the Seahawks had the ball on the fringe of field goal range, and when the offense again struggled to advance their position, Seattle found themselves facing a fourth down decision. The air was stiff with cold, muting the distance and duration of kicks, passes, and punts alike. So much so that earlier in the game, Pete Carroll opted to go for it on 4th and 13 rather than have Steven Hauschka attempt a 48-yard field goal. Now, with the lead on the line and only two yards closer, Carroll sent out this season's most consistent performer and that pale, beautiful sumbitch calmly knocked a 46-yarder through the uprights.
It was now Seattle's turn to try and protect it's 16th fourth quarter lead of the season, something they had done successfully just 10 times coming in. For a while, it looked promising, as the Vikings gained just 12 total yards on their next two possessions. Unfortunately, Seattle only gained 14 on their next two and a Picasso-nosed Jon Ryan found himself punting it back to the Vikings with 1:42 left to go. Starting at their own 39 yard line, the Vikings followed up a batted first down pass with a stop-and-go effort to Kyle Rudolph that didn't confuse Chancellor as much as it brought him into Rudolph's path. The ensuing collision garnered a pass interference flag and brought Minnesota closer to their event horizon. On the very next play, Bridgewater again targeted Rudolph, who barely beat a gambling Chancellor on an out route that he turned up field and deep into field goal range. After a couple of plays bled the clock as far as possible, Minnesota used it's final timeout to set up Walsh for the potential game-winner.
It's funny, trying to describe my reaction to Walsh pulling his tap-in wide of the hole. I was balls deep in the process of trying to rationalize the loss, to console myself with the laurels of recent playoff runs. I was resigning my heart and mind to the reality of the situation, that it just wasn't meant to be for this team. That all of the turbulence and drama and environmental factors had combined to form this gut-wrenching entropy. Then he missed. It didn't register at first. I hadn't even allowed myself the temptation of hoping for a miss. A block, maybe.
But when Walsh's squib wiggled wide left, the searing dawn of resurrection stunned me. As my household and its attendant guests mashed their sternums together in jubilee, I found myself joining in the revelry while still trying to process the miss. As the warmth of the victory slowly heated me up from dejected to incredulous to relieved to exultant, I ripped open my back door, strutted out onto my porch, and crowed like a Lost Boy. It was a shitty way for the Vikings to lose a playoff game, but there's no such thing as a shitty way to win a playoff game.
In a way, this contest felt like so many other 'Hawks playoff games before it. The three quarters of bumbling offense followed by a crazy series of fourth quarter events to steal a lead reminded me of last year's NFC Championship Game against the Packers. The gut-twisting tension of watching an opposing offense drive down the field in the final minutes, getting closer and closer to the game-winning score was reminiscent not only of last year's Super Bowl, but of their 2013 NFCCG win over the 49ers and their 2012 Divisional Round loss to the Falcons. The inability to successfully convert a gimme go-ahead field goal brought me back to the Tony Romo flub in 200whatever. I don't know how old I'll be when I die but I promise you it's 20 years sooner than if I wasn't a Seahawks fan.
We can argue all week over who "deserved" to win this game but in the end, deserved has nothing to do with it. For what it's worth, I thought the Seahawks outplayed the Vikings today, but only marginally. After spending the first 80% of the game strapped to a bed with the Vikings holding a pillow over their face, the Seahawks finally worked one hand free and knocked the Vikings off. Still, when called upon, the Minnesota offense and defense did what was necessary to give their team the best chance to win on those final drives. Regardless, it was the Seahawks who came out on top, the Seahawks who won their league-leading seventh playoff game in the last four seasons, the Seahawks who will regroup for their march into Carolina next week.
Sometimes, you just have to win games like this. Onward, upward.
The cigar of the day is a sumptuous Arturo Fuente Work of Art from their Hemingway collection that I've been saving for the postseason.As you know by now, you can get 'em at a great deal at www.Famous-Smoke.com and Cigar Thoughts readers can save an additional 15% on orders of $75 or more by using the promo code: FIELDGULLS. Also, congratulations to Dylan Grant, the winner of the Famous Smoke Shop cigar giveaway contest and thank you to everyone who joined in. It was cool to see how many of y'all entered and I'm sure we'll be doing more of this in the future.