"It's not how you start, it's how you finish." We've heard it a thousand times since Pete Carroll showed up and transformed the expectations of Seattle sports fans and, on the back of an incredible run of success, we've accepted it as canon. Except sometimes it is how you start, and that's never been more evident than in today's game. The Panthers ledgered the first five scores of the game before clinging on to a 31-24 victory.
The day started off all wrong for Seattle, with players slipping and falling over Carolina's shameful green bean casserole of a field during pregame warm ups. The Panthers didn't seem to mind, however, and got all aspects of their running game going with the first drive. Jonathan Stewart opened the game with a 59-yard run to the red zone, then caught his breath while Cameron Artis-Payne took his place. The rookie then unceremoniously fumbled the ball on the very next play when Michael Bennett ripped it loose, but the ball cartwheeled directly into the plush arms of Carolina's other running back, Mike Tolbert. Then a Cam Newton keeper, then Stewart banging it home from four yards out.
At the time, I thought "no matter." The Panthers got away with what was maybe the longest run against the Seahawks all season and cashed in. Long ways to go, and the 'Hawks have faced much worse only to overcome it many times in the last few years. Then Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short set landmines under the feet of Seattle's interior line on the next two plays, stuffing Marshawn Lynch's first carry in two months and then forcing Russell Wilson into a desperation toss that Luke Kuechly picked off and returned for a touchdown. It was 14-0 Panthers before the opening coin flip hit the ground..
On their second drive, Seattle hit on a couple of plays before punting the ball away and for a moment, it felt like they had dammed the flood. Except then the Panthers responded with their longest scoring drive of the season, with Stewart charging in for his second score to cap a million-minute possession and put the home team up 21-0. Then Russell Okung's arm fell out of his socket like an old GI Joe action figure, allowing a Panthers lineman to hit Russ as he threw, causing his pass to flutter into the infuriating grasp of Cortland Finnegan. The ensuing drive netted Carolina three more points and after exchanging pleasantries for the next few possessions, Carolina added one more punch to the nuts with a fabulous touchdown reception by Greg Olsen. In the time it takes to make a homemade pizza, burn it, and re-make it, the Panthers were up 31-0. At that point, even the most Panthers-hating, Cam-Newton-loathing, diehard Seahawks fan was left with no vitriolic recourse. The Panthers spent 30 minutes straight whooping the asses of the two-time defending NFC Champions.
It was funny- I came into this game thinking that there were only three possible outcomes: a close Seahawks win, a close Panthers win, or a blowout Seahawks win. The possibility of Carolina disassembling Seattle like that wasn't even in my pregame database, yet there we were, staring at a score more cartoonish than realistic. I had said to my wife this morning that one of the greatest things about being a modern Seahawks fan is that you don't ever have to be truly worried until the 4th quarter, given how routinely the 'Hawks manage to close whatever deficits they face. Well, I didn't even have time to get worried. Any hope I had was snatched from my chest at the jump and I began to make my peace with the fact that Seattle just didn't have it today. In a way, it was peaceful. A quick death as opposed to a long, drawn-out torture scene.
Then the teams came out for the second half. Tyler Lockett took the opening kick to midfield and a personal foul on Carolina set up the 'Hawks to catch some fast confidence. And they did just that, with Wilson dialing up Jermaine Kearse for a 13-yard TD a few snaps later. After a quick Panthers punt, Doug Baldwin stunned the left half of the Carolina secondary with a beautiful stop-and-go route for an easy teeder but Wilson over-shot him*. No matter, on 3rd and long later in the drive, Wilson dropped a pass down the chimney to Lockett in the back corner of the endzone to make it 31-14.
*The drop-off in Wilson's deep ball accuracy this season is a baffling and under-rated development.
On their next possession, Seattle found themselves facing 4th and 2 deep in their own territory, but pulled off a direct snap to DeShawn Shead on a fake punt and pushed the ball to the brink of field goal range before punting it back to Carolina. After holding the Panthers again, this team, this fucking team, brought the got dang football back down the field and, facing a collapsing pocket in a condensed field on 3rd and 15, Wilson threw a heroic floater to the back of the endzone where it was hauled in by Kearse. In a blink, the Seahawks had made this a game again and I was yanked out of my attempts to rationalize a huge loss and plopped right back into the emotional threshing floor of tight playoff football.
The Seahawks would add yet another long drive, one that ended with a field goal, and were, for the second straight postseason, facing an onside kick attempt to keep their season alive. To his credit, Steven Hauschka hit the ball perfectly, getting the big hop at just the right time. Unfortunately for the 'Hawks, and unlike last year, Seattle's opponent didn't let it bounce off their head and into the hands of the good guys. Thomas Davis Jr. skied to grab the ball at its highest point and survived the undercutting hit from Derrick Coleman to seal the proverbial deal.
It was such a strange, dichotomous contest that it's difficult to surmise. For the 11,627th straight playoff game, the Seahawks found themselves embroiled in one of the all-time weirdos. In this case, they came up one score short of the second biggest comeback in NFL playoff history. Anytime a game is decided by a single score, there are a litany of plays you can point to that could've changed the outcome. What if Seattle recovered the fumble on Carolina's opening drive? What if Pete Carroll chose to kick a field goal down 31-0 instead of going for it on 4th and 5? What if the 'Hawks didn't waste so much time on their final drive of the first half? What if either of the first downs that Carolina got by the literal edge of the football were spotted two inches shorter? What if Davis Jr doesn't hang onto that onside kick while falling six feet onto his face?
Any one of those plays goes otherwise and this may be a very different article being read by you in a very different mood. The Seahawks actually out-gained the Panthers 403-295, highlighted by finishing on an outrageous 386-101 run over the final 35 minutes. The thing is, what-ifs are an opiate for the pain of losing, a self-indulgent thought experiment applied as a salve for wounds that are still tender. No one is judged by what they could've done, not really. No, we're all held, ultimately, to the universal standard of what we actually do and what the Seahawks actually did was get kicked a little harder at the beginning than they kicked at the end.
I did a radio spot on Friday and the host asked me the following: "if the Seahawks lose this week, will this be a disappointing season for them, in your mind?" I had to think about it for a sec but my response was "no, it would seem about right." And I still feel that way. I thought the Seahawks would win this game, and I still think they're probably the most talented team in the NFL, but finishing tied for fifth in the entire NFL sort of seems appropriate for all of the previously un-experienced challenges they faced this season.
And here's the thing: we've been treated to more good football, and certainly more exciting football, in the last few years than we'd experienced in the 20 years prior. Hell, starting with the BeastQuake, we've experienced more significant football moments than some fans see in an entire lifetime. We cheer for a team that literally never gets blown out, even when they do (NFL record 82 games since they lost by more than 10), and always, always has a chance of winning with five minutes left in the game.
The Seahawks have advanced to the NFL's final eight in each of the last four years and in five of Pete Carroll's six seasons after only making it that far in six of the previous 34. Their defense "struggled" it's way to it's fourth straight scoring title. They led the NFL in rush defense and passing touchdowns allowed.
They had the NFL's highest rated passer. Doug Baldwin evolved into an elite NFL wide receiver and Jermaine Kearse (11 catches, 110 yards, 2 TDs today) blossomed from the best of a bad WR2 situation to a legit offensive threat. The post-Lynch future arrived in Thomas Rawls, who led the NFL in yards per carry and who costs literally five cents on the Marshawn dollar next season. Fellow rookie Tyler Lockett became an instant sensation in two of the game's three phases. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett were the most productive DE combo in the NFL and when they were spelled, Frank Clark, Cassius Marsh, and Jordan Hill shone. Ahtyba Rubin was a revelation and KJ Wright elevated his game to the game-changing level of his LB-mate Bobby Wagner. The Legion of Boom had an off year and were still arguably the best secondary in the league.
A top-heavy roster of All World talent saw a significant infusion of trajectory-shifting youth. The offense went from good enough to the most dangerous in the NFL over the last two-plus months. The Seahawks became a team that could beat you in each of the six facets of the game. They could run (3rd in the NFL in rushing yardage), they could throw (most efficient passing offense in the league), they could stop the run (#1 ranked rush defense), they could stop the throw (league-leading 14 pass TDs allowed, 2nd in pass yards allowed, 3rd in opponents passer rating). Tyler Lockett was the most productive return man in the NFL and the Seahawks did a superb job of covering their kicks all season.
They scored the fourth most points in the league while allowing the fewest. It may not have felt like it at times, but collectively, the Seahawks played a season of elite football and they're bringing almost everybody back next year. They're still among the youngest teams in the NFL and saw extremely encouraging results from the depth at every starting position they face critical contract decisions with.
In short, today's result was extremely disappointing but it only slightly dims the prospects of the future. A team in desperate need of a true offseason finally gets one and if they did lose an edge after the way 2014 ended, you can bet your presumably pale northwestern ass that that edge will be sharpened to a lethal point after this year. I'm sad this season is over but I'm grateful for meaningful games deep into January. It is still a gilded age of Seahawks football and, while there's no sign of this franchise slowing down, I'm excited to remember all of the other stuff I like to do.
It's been a weird, frustrating season in spite of all of its accomplishments and, if I'm being honest, was probably the most beginning-to-end tense year of my life as a fan. I'm not sorry it's over, just sorry it didn't last a few more weeks. This season served as a between-courses palate cleanser for last year's bitter finish. I look forward to entering next year free from that burden and spending the fifth straight year cheering for the NFL's most talented team with it's most lovable coaching staff teaching a life-changing philosophy of self-belief and unity.
Being a football fan, one willing to make the conscious decision to step into the psychological maelstrom of being present with the ebbs and flows of the game, is like purchasing a ticket for the wildest ride at the amusement park. It is knowingly and willingly subjecting yourself to the harrows and exhilaration of life stripped of the mundane worries that pockmark it. It is alternating screams with cutoff inhales snatched by momentum from lungs that ache for breath and then being equally stunned and happy to exit the ride in one piece. Next year will have its own share of thrills, elation, frustration, heartache, and satisfaction. I look forward to it with an eagerness that will only increase as time passes. Until then, it's been an absolute joy to bring you this article this season and I want to thank you all for reading.
Onward. Upward. And cheers!
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