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Cigar Thoughts, Game 5: Seahawks beat Falcons, lose to Falcons, then beat Falcons again

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The Seahawks survive the Falcons’ second-half onslaught with two late scores, improve to 4-1 with 26-24 victory

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks
Please don’t die
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Allow me a moment to indulge in a personal story.

All week we’ve been hearing about the “storm to end all storms” touching down in the Pacific Northwest. Forecasts told of a massive, swirling sphere of devastation destined to knock Seattle and the surrounding area to its knees. From Thursday on, many of us hunkered down, watched the news reports, bought generators and bottled water, and waited for The Big One to hit. Some of us were even kinda excited about it, in the way we get to be excited about big storms when 99.99% of all human history has dreaded them and the damage they do.

Wednesday came, nothing. Thursday, too. Sure, there was some high wind and bouts of heavy rain, but nothing we’re not used to. I buy and sell pot for a living, and had some sales scheduled that I’d been tentatively putting off due to the promise of high winds and torrential downpour. But after two days of typical northwest weather, I figure I’d be good to go Friday. Moron.

Friday morning found me southbound on I-5, with a trunk full of ganja and driving straight into the maelstrom. Rain started falling so fast that even with my wipers on high, visibility was reduced to about 40 feet and two seconds of quasi-clarity. As I was white-knuckling it through Skagit County, I heard a loud pop followed by a sound I would soon realize was my naked rim grinding along the pavement. My rear driver’s side tire had blown out at 60 mph and I was forced to pull over to the right side of the road since there was no shoulder on the left. At this point, the gusts were (I would later learn) upwards of 50 mph and the rain was coming down in steady sheets. The shoulder was barely wider than my vehicle and two minutes later I found myself lying on the pavement, trying to change my exploded tire while cars, vans, and semi-trucks rumbled past by me less than two feet from my head. Of all the days, right?

I had never had to change a tire with this car before and found to my dismay that the jack had rusted almost completely in place. I stared at it and tugged on it in disbelief. Is this really happening right now? Like, the most simple part of the entire process wouldn’t even work. Eventually, it budged and I found myself forced to complete a fairly simple task while literally everything around me was a source of mayhem, concern, and discomfort. And while this may have been an easy accomplishment for most of you, I am a complete imbecile when it comes to cars so I was having to focus real hard to get the spare on. It was a brief, harrowing stretch where I half hoped to have a cop or somebody pull over and help me while also realizing that I had two gigantic totes full of cannabis sitting right above the spare tire that I needed and that maybe this wouldn’t be the ideal time to discuss with an officer how I ended up there.

Fortunately, nobody veered over the sideline of the freeway while texting and my head stayed attached to my shoulders until my car was roadworthy again. And then, almost as soon as I was safely back inside my ride, the wind settled a bit, the clouds lightened up, and the rain relented to a manageable drizzle. After that, the storm that was supposed to cripple the region passed with but momentary worries for most of us and we found ourselves more or less able to enjoy our weekends as per the yoozh.

The Atlanta Falcons were a lot like this storm, and I am a lot like the Seahawks* coming in with the most threatening offensive numbers the league has seen in a while. Matt Ryan touched down in the Emerald City as the league’s highest rated passer, boasting a league-leading 1,740 yards with 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions. His main squeeze Julio Jones came in with a 300-yard performance under his belt and on pace for a ~1,700 yard season. Their two running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, entered the contest with over 1,000 combined yards from scrimmage and they had done all of this over the course of just a month. As a team they were lapping the field with 457 yards and 35 points a game, and that included wins over the two best defenses in the NFL last year.

*No, I am a dumb idiot who didn’t have AAA or the presence of mind to call a tow truck.

Then this game started and it looked like a whole buncha hooey, pardon my language. The Falcons O-line was no match for Seattle’s front four, as they sacked Ryan three times on his first ten dropbacks and hit him on 11 of his first 17. One of those takedowns was an impressive strip sack from Cliff Avril inside Atlanta’s own 10 that led to Christine Michael’s first TD of the game and a 7-0 lead.

One quarter went by, and the Falcons looked completely out of sorts. The second quarter went by, and Atlanta’s vaunted offense still hadn’t done shit except go 0-6 on 3rd downs, gain 86 yards on 30 plays, and manage a measly three points against a Seahawks defense that looked as good as they ever had. Meanwhile, the ‘Hawks offense strung together an eight-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Alex Collins’ first career touchdown and followed it up with a five-play drive that resulted in a Steven Hauschka field goal right before the half.

The teams headed to the locker room with Seattle up 17-3 and Atlanta’s offensive storm looking like little more than some over-hyped drizzle. Then the third quarter started and the Seahawks blew a tire. Richard Sherman, who had heretofore muzzled Julio Jones, got caught following a receiver inside while neither Kelcie McCray nor Earl Thomas rotated over the top of Jones. The result was a free release for the most perfectly created wide receiver in the world and Ryan easily dotted him for a teeder to make it 17-10. Sherman was HOT after the play, and cameras caught him barking at defensive coordinator Kris Richard, then at the injured Kam Chancellor, then at Bobby Wagner, then at anyone else he could yell at until the whole defense surrounded him and started jumping and shouting until even Sherm had to relent.

Now, I don’t know whose fault that was. Lord knows it’s not the first time we’ve seen a receiver get free down the seam against this Cover-3 defense while members of the secondary argue over whose responsibility it was. But, I figured, this defense totally has each others’ backs and watching the whole squad drown Sherman’s anger with unbridled joy set my mind at ease. These guys got this. Wrong again, bonehead.

The next drive was more of the same. The pass rush that had been getting to Ryan at will was held completely at bay while Atlanta’s QB calmly waited for slow-developing routes to break wide open, which they did. The Falcons scored easily on their next two drives as well and it finally looked like the storm we had heard so much about all week had finally descended upon us. Michael Bennett, who was basically unblockable, got taken out with a cut block and with no Frank Clark to replace him, Seattle lost its best strategic matchup.

Black Santa wasn’t the only one caught up in the hurricane, as the offense stumbled all over the place with the OL getting knocked off their spots and Russell Wilson missing high on 3rd down passes that forced Seattle’s exhausted defense back into battle. All of a sudden it was the Seahawks who were laying on the cold concrete, doused in rain, and hoping that the next truck to go careening past wouldn’t be the one that ended them. By the time the quarter ended, the Dirty Birds had run 23 plays for an insane 252 yards and a whopping 21 points to turn a 17-3 deficit into a 24-17 advantage, and the Clink’s rowdy crowd had been reduced to a giant collective murmur.

It looked bleak. Maybe the Falcons really were this good. Maybe the Seahawks’ gaudy defensive numbers really were the product of weak opposition. Maybe this team had further to go than we wanted to believe. But here’s the thing: the Seahawks are like having the blue shell in MarioKart. No matter how far behind they are, no matter how many times they’ve driven off the bridge or into a cow, that azure son of a bitch is coming for ya and when it hits its mark, it’s a whole new race.

So it went in the fourth quarter. Either Seattle adjusted or Atlanta regressed but either way, the onslaught ceased and the Seahawks found themselves back on the road, uncomfortable but unbroken, with the payload still intact. That’s when things began to click again. Wilson deftly moved in and out of the pocket, eschewing his former self’s impulse to run in favor of maneuvering within his protection until he found an open man. As a result, Seattle drove all the way down to Atlanta’s 10 before settling for a short field goal attempt.

That’s when things really started to get weird. A loose snap forced a rushed hold which led to the impossibly accurate Hauschka yanking the chip shot wide left. Fortunately, the defense held and Seattle got the ball back at their own 30. Then they went to work: Wilson to Jermaine Kearse for 7 yards. Then again for 12 more. Two plays later he found Tyler Lockett for 10 then Doug Baldwin for 11. Chunk by chunk the Seahawks worked their way across the field until a pass interference call set up a one-yard touchdown plunge from C-Mike. Just like that, the score was 24-23 and instead of listening to the jabroni telling them to go for two, Pete Carroll sent out the kicking team to tie the game. Except they didn’t. For some reason, Hauschka kicked the ball with the same launch angle as a par-5 tee shot and it was blocked by a dude who couldn’t jump over a credit card if he had to.

That kept the game in Atlanta’s favor, though just barely, and they got the ball back needing to kill just four minutes to come away with an extraordinarily impressive win. You’d think they’d come out running the ball, but the Falcons don’t have time for what you think, pal. Instead, Ryan kept whipping the ball around like a showoff, completing a short one before hitting Jones on a slant route for what should’ve been a monumental first down. Except that instead of catching the spiral that hit him in the (admittedly well-covered) hands, Jones let it bounce off his paws where it was deflected by Sherman and then bobbled by Earl Thomas for like 20 minutes before ET corralled it for the pick. A first down later and Hauschka was back out to try and exercise the demons of his previous two kicks, except this time with no margin for error. No matter, as the steely-eyed hunk from Needham, Massachusetts calmly lobbed the 44-yarder through the uprights to give Seattle a 26-24 lead with two minutes left.

The Falcons got the ball back with one last chance to keep this one from getting away from them. Three incompletions later, they were face-to-face with their fate. On 4th & 10, they did what any self-respecting Madden player would do in that situation and dialed up a go route to Julio. Ryan launched his pass deep and accurately to his double-covered ubermensch, who skied heroically to try and bring it in with one hand. Why only one, you ask? It might have to do with the fact that Richard Sherman was actively pinning his other one down, a semi-flagrant violation of the rules that kept Jones from securing the pass as it bounced around in his free hand. The ball fell incomplete and no flags accompanied the play.

Seattle would down out the clock and escape with one of their wilder regular season wins, which is really saying something at this point. Now, the temptation is always to reduce the outcome of this spectacular game to whether or not a penalty should’ve been called on one specific play. Since that discussion is inevitable, I’ll address it. Do I think it was pass interference on Sherman on Atlanta’s final play? Yes I do. Was it blatant? Depends.

Way I see it, there are three reasons why the refs may have kept their yellow laundry in their belts: 1) even though Sherman had a grip on Jones’ arm, his head was looking back towards the ball which affords the defensive back a lot of leeway when it comes to contact, 2) that’s a spot-of-the-foul penalty and you know the refs don’t want to throw that flag unless they absolutely have to, and/or 3) they just flat out didn’t see it. Either way, Seattle won a game that they easily could’ve lost but definitely played well enough in to win. They’re 4-1, a game and a half clear of the rest of the division, and one game behind the Vikings in the race for home field advantage. I’ll take it.

Some other stuff:

-Earl Thomas was awesome today. After four games of bewilderingly mortal performance, Earl remembered that he was sent here from a red-sun solar system to lay unearthly waste to opposing offenses. He was everywhere: rallying to tackles, obliterating would-be receivers on three different occasions, and picking off the pass that led to the game-winner. He played like the All Pro he is and without that exact performance from him, the Seahawks lose this game.

-Russell Wilson was good but not great. He missed some throws and made a couple of head-scratching decisions, but he was safe and generally accurate, finishing with 270 yards on 25 completions in 37 attempts with nary a touchdown or an interception. It was good enough, and included an impressive third down escape on the game-winning late that resulted in a first-down dump-off to Collins. It wasn’t the type of performance that will cause us to spend the next week harassing every national reporter that doesn’t think he’s the best QB in the world but it was good enough and I’ll take that today.

-Christine Michael is very good but I’m not sure he’s great. He’s very adept at getting the yardage that’s there for him, which isn’t meant as a back-handed compliment because a lot of what’s there for him is a direct result of the crazy burst he gets at the line of scrimmage. What he has yet to do, besides that one time against San Francisco, is turn that first-level sprint into a second-level disappearing act the way great running backs do. The way Thomas Rawls did last year. Maybe it hasn’t been there for him but I think the sample size is large enough at this point to say that he’s not much of a tackle-breaker. What he is, however, is a surprisingly good pass catcher out of the backfield. That combo of skills allowed him to 83 total yards on 21 touches. Nothing crazy, but that 83 yards included two much-needed touchdowns and ultimately, touchdowns are the most important thing. I’m really glad we have C-Mike, but I’m also eager to see him as the complement to a fully healthy Rawls.

-How good is Bobby Wagner? Very good. His 14 tackles were six more than the next highest total on the team. The dude is like a big, sexy magnet that ballcarriers and my wife find themselves inextricably drawn to.

-DeShawn Shead continues to be great. In addition to another exceptional game in coverage, he added eight tackles and was a huge help against the run.

-This was the worst game I’ve ever seen Richard Sherman play. Actually, it was mostly just one bad quarter, but that quarter was real bad. It’s one thing to get beat a couple of times. It’s another thing to have defensive miscommunication. But it’s a whole other thing entirely to let the opposition get in your head and look completely lost while the opposing offense heaps three touchdowns on your defense. Am I worried about him? Not at all. He’s literally the best in the world at his job and the team still won despite his being out of sorts.

-Jimmy Graham rules and owns and reigns mega. He is the best player on this offense right now and the number one option in the passing game. He led the team in targets (9) again, catches (6) again, and yards (89) again. He was Russell Wilson’s Best Man and is now Russell Wilson’s best man. He is worth every penny and every greasy ounce of Max Unger. Not sure where this offense would be without him.

-The offensive line alternated between really good and slightly bad today, which is a major improvement. Honestly, it’s their third pretty good game in a row, which has them way ahead of schedule. The issue with these ragtag OL units isn’t necessarily talent-deficiency, it’s the communication and assignments that one needs to learn when one is being shuffled around to a bunch of different positions on the line. I’m no expert on OL play but I know someone who is. After Michael’s first score, I got this text from O-Line guru and friend-of-the-podcast Matt Nichols:

“Incredible double team by Britt and Ifedi. Germain leaves and goes to second level, Glowinski with a backside cut that made the LB go the long way and therefore had no chance to make the tackle. Great kickout at right tackle too.
Sowell had a cut on the backside that took the DT out of the play because Michael is so fast that by the time he gets up, C-Mike is three yards downfield.”

Sounds fine to me.

-As mentioned earlier, the Falcons ran 23 plays in the third quarter for 252 yards and 21 points. In the other three quarters combined, they ran 41 plays for 110 yards and three points. Champion fighters can take their opponents’ best shot and still come back with a knockout. The Seahawks did exactly that today.

All things considered, this is going great, you guys. 4-1 is a big time accomplishment and has this team poised to make a serious run at the #1 seed in the NFC. The Eagles, Packers, Rams, and Panthers all lost. The Vikings were on bye. The ‘Hawks are firmly re-entrenched in the NFL’s upper echelon and they look way too hungry to get complacent about it. Gonna be a real fun year. Onward, upward, cheers.

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