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Cigar Thoughts, Game 6: Seahawks and Cardinals kiss their sisters for four long, awkward hours

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The Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals battled to a brutally defensive 6-6 tie that was low-lighted by missed game-winning field goals from both teams.

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Here, you write about this game. I’ve been trying to for the last 20 minutes and all I’ve done is wear out my backspace key. So go on, take my laptop and let me know when you’re done.

What’s that? Where to start? Listen pal, why do you think I’m pawning this off on you? You think I wanna write about that Finkle-fest? Well look, maybe you could start by talking about how the Cardinals recorded 18 of the game’s first 21 first downs, or how they held the ball for 32 of the first 46 minutes. Or you could write about how David Johnson had more yards in regulation than the entire Seahawks team. Or how every time Seattle got something going, a penalty caused it all to unravel. Or you could start with the end and you know what just give my computer back thanks. No, here, just give it... thanks. Yeah.

The Seahawks have a way about them, don’t they? Every time you think you’ve got a beat on what kind of team they are, they go out and deliver a game that is, if nothing else, entirely unique. Tonight was no different, and this game had a number of distinctions that I hope to get to. Most of the narrative surrounding this game will, I imagine, center around one or two themes: ugly offensive performances and shanked field goals. And while there’s no doubt that this game had both of those things, it’s not what stood out to me the most.

My biggest takeaway tonight was the performance of the Seahawks defense. It was, in my opinion, one of the single most impressive, incredible, and downright inspiring games I’ve ever watched a defense play. And for as hyperbolic as that may seem, especially since the Cardinals gained 443 yards and were 10-21 on third downs, consider that the Cardinals had the ball in their possession for just about more time than any team in the history of the NFL.

The Cardinals absolutely dominated ownership of the football in this game. I don’t know what the official record for time of possession in a single game is, but Arizona had the ball for a staggering 46:21. It’s the highest number I’ve ever seen and the biggest number a cursory internet search gave me was 45:07 by the Dolphins a few years back. That means the Seahawks defense was on the field longer than just about any team in league history and only allowed six points.

And it wasn’t just that they allowed six points, it’s how they pulled it off. Somehow, they managed to not only stifle just about all of Arizona’s 14 drives, despite the Cards’ relentless ability to get four or five yards on seemingly every first and second down play. Their third down conversion rate is so high largely because it was almost always 3rd & 2. So while Carson Palmer and his army of offensive weapons were able to move the chains with some consistency, they were never able to capitalize.

The endzone was Seattle’s event horizon, a powerful time-space border beyond which nothing can ever be retrieved. And, just like gravity, their defensive intensity magnified the closer to Arizona got to it. Never was that more striking than on the Cardinals’ penultimate drive in overtime, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

And it’s not like it was some roster full of jabronis and journeymen that they snuffed out, but a Cardinals offense that has lit up scoreboards over the past few seasons and whose running back might be the best football player on the planet right now. Fourteen drives. Six points. Seattle forced the home team to punt on their first three drives, a favor their offense returned every time. Each change of possession inched the Cardinals closer until a 12-yard drive had them in position to take an easy 3-0 lead in the second quarter. That’s when Bobby Wagner summoned the darkest demon from the deepest recesses of Kam Chancellor’s soul-void and hurled his magnificent body over AZ’s center and obliterated Chandler Catanzaro’s kick with his powerful bosom. It was a play that not only wiped three points off the board in a game where points were as precious as they possibly can be, but one that would have repercussions later on.

Arizona would get a field goal on their next drive but they needed 15 grueling plays to go 53 hard-bitten yards just for the privilege. But Arizona just kept coming. Like the ocean’s endless progression of waves, the Cardinals slowly eroded the Seahawks defense with short runs and dump-offs, with David Johnson (41 touches, 171 yards) and Larry Fitzgerald (nine catches, 70 yards) doing the bulk of the lifting. Arizona piled up first down after first down and after yet another long drive took them deep into Seattle territory late in the second quarter, Seattle’s ferocious pass rush got to Palmer for a drive-killing sack that ended the half with no damage done.

On Arizona’s next drive, they took the ball all the way to the red zone before Michael Bennett and KJ Wright erased their blockers to wrap up Johnson in the backfield on 4th & 1. Yet another scoring opportunity cast helplessly into the void by a desperate pack of heathens who’d rather have died tonight than give up a TD.

After that, the ‘Hawks D forced the Cards to punt on their next four drives, as the reality that they were operating with zero margin for error crystallized with each laborious minute. That non-existent margin was made possible by Seattle’s offensive dedication to the punt, as they kicked it away on each of their first nine drives, forcing perfection upon their defensive counterparts.

The game stayed 3-0 in favor of the Cardinals as the minutes continued to swirl down the drain. With less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the offense barely cresting 100 total yards the special teams came through again. Tanner McEvoy bull-rushed the protection blocker on the Cardinals’ punt attempt and reached his big, undrafted paw into the path of the football, blocking the kick and giving Seattle their only not-horrendous field position of the day. They turned that remarkable play into three points of their own after fittingly going zero yards. Another Cards punt later, the teams were headed to OT at 3-3, to the relative delight of Seahawks fans and the absolute annoyance of literally everyone else.

The Cardinals won the coin toss and chose to receive. Like so many drives before, they methodically pushed the ball up the field at a painstakingly slow pace. They took the ball into Seattle territory again , getting as far as the 27, before a wide open Michael Floyd dropped a sliding first down catch on 3rd & 5. Catanzaro made the kick and the pressure was on Seattle to manifest their first successful offensive possession. And manifest they did.

Christine Michael ran left for 10 yards. Then Russell Wilson his Jimmy Graham for 13 more. Then Graham again for 8. Then C-Mike for 6. Then Graham once more for 14. The drive eventually petered out at the Cardinals 23 but Seattle’s best offensive effort of the night was enough to get Ste(ph)(v)en Hauschka a game-tying attempt, which he calmly drilled.

Even if the game had ended there, and I think plenty of people would’ve been happy to let it, this would have been a superlative performance by the Seahawks defense. But they were called into battle once more, beaten back but never beaten, shields held firm by screaming muscles, feet dug firmly into the earth, fighting not just against their opponent but by a workload heavier than almost any in the history of the sport. And yet the Cardinals kept pushing.

Palmer and Co. would push it across midfield again, finding themselves facing a 3rd & 7 on the Seahawks’ 45. Seattle brough a blitz, leaving their secondary in man coverage. Jaron Brown ran a savage dig route, creating separation from Sherman and then somehow hurdling him while leaping to catch Palmer’s pass. from there it was a clear sprint to the endzone for the speedster, and the game was all but over. Not to McCray though. Kelcie hustled over to somehow chase down Brown, knocking him to the turf at the 5-yard line. At this point, it was simply a matter of going through the motions. A lot of coaches would opt to position the ball to their kicker’s liking with a kneeldown, but not sweaty Bruce Arians.

Arizona’s big-toe-with-glasses called a run to Johnson, who bounced it outside and towards the pylon. It looked for all the world like he would score and mercifully end this savage pugilism. But again, when it no longer made earthly sense to summon the energy, Earl Thomas blazed over and met DJ before he could break the plain. It was a game-saving tackle eerily reminiscent of the ones he made against the Rams a couple years back and against the Lions just last October. The refs (correctly, I think), ruled Johnson out inside the one and instead of challenging the call, Arians tried to take advantage of the confusion and sneak Johnson in on a quick-snap plunge. That’s when Wagner bear-hugged him mere inches from victory and drove him back. Still, it appeared that these three displays of heroism were simple formalities. Then a seemingly inconsequential delay of game penalty pushed them back to the 6-yard line and Catanzaro came in to win it with the world’s easiest field goal.

Except Bobby wasn’t having it. Loathe to have spent himself as fully and as valorously as he had only to leave with a loss, he expertly timed his jump again and filled Catanzaro’s line of sight. His kick went around Wagner, who had shot straight up the middle, and doinked off the upright. It was a shocking miss and kept the game on life support.

Seattle’s offense then trotted back onto the field. There were only about three minutes left in OT at that point and Seattle had the full length of the field to travel. And yet they hit this possession with a skip in their step that belied their earlier frustrations. Wilson picked apart the Cardinals defense with short passes to Doug Baldwin and one gigantic bomb to Jermaine Kearse on 3rd & long. They hammered it 70 yards on eight plays, bringing the ball to the exact center of the Cardinals’ 10-yard line with 15 second left. It was the second easiest field goal attempt in the world but not to be outdone, Hauschka pulled his own game-winner wide left and I mean, it wasn’t close. In fact, it was probably the single worst kick of his entire life and was, I suppose a fitting end to this weird, gross, amazing game.

It’s funny, after Brown’s big catch on the previous drive, I would have traded a family member for the game to end in a tie. Then, when Hauschka missed, I felt sick, even though the tie is exactly what we got. Silly things, expectations.

Now, how does one of the greatest defensive performances that I’ve ever witnessed end up as a draw and not a decisive victory? Well, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, the offensive line got smoked by Arizona’s nasty, talented front seven. It’s been encouraging to see how well the OL has held up recently, looking good-to-great against the Jets, the 49ers, and the Falcons. Which is why it was so sobering to be reminded how outmatched they are against truly good defensive fronts. Look, it’s to be expected. Every Seattle team of the last five years has had really bad, ugly offensive performances in September and October and it always stems from an offensive line that’s gotten whooped by a really good D-line. Same as it ever was, and still in line with my expectations for where they’d be at.

It didn’t help that Seattle came out passing almost exclusively and only handed the ball to Michael once in the first quarter. Without the threat of a run, and able to pressure Wilson with only four rushers, the Cards were comfortable dropping seven men into coverage and hastily rallying to whatever short target Wilson was forced to choose. Now, y’all know I’m a pretty staunch defender of Darrell Bevell’s track record,* but it doesn’t mean he’s above reproach. I really didn’t like Seattle’s pass-first approach to the outset of this game but then again, every game script looks worse when receivers drop three of the first five passes. Either way, Seattle was offensively dreadful and managed a grand total of 102 yards in the game’s first 56 minutes. Remarkably, they managed 155 in the game’s final 19 minutes which is very impressive but also kinda annoying cuz where was that before?

*And honestly, any rational big-picture view of Bevell’s performance as OC justifies positive reviews (aka if you’re only looking at game totals and not per-play/per-drive efficiency, you’re missing Seattle’s point)

Russell Wilson did the best he could, given the circumstances. Under siege all game, he was sacked only once and completed 24 of 37 passes for 225 yards and no turnovers. Not glamorous by any stretch, but maybe not quite as terrible as the game flow would lead you to believe.

Christine Michael never really had a chance to get going and finished with just 55 yards on 19 touches. Doug Baldwin was well covered for most of the night but got loose a couple times late during Seattle’s key OT drives. Six catches on nine targets for 69 yards from the leader of the WR corps. Jimmy Graham shook off an early drop and a couple of Wilson misfires to finish with five catches for 53 yards on 10 targets. Not bad, but he picked some big spots to get going late.

On the defensive side of things, there were so many outstanding individual efforts. Cliff Avril was stellar tonight, leading the charge with 2.5 sacks, while the young dog Frank Clark got 1.5 of his own. Avril has been one of, if not the most, effective defensive players on this defense and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how fucking disruptive he is. Michael Bennett was tag-teamed and side-swiped all night but still caused a ruckus up and down the Arizona OL, opening up plays for Ahtyba Rubin and Tony McDaniel.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks secondary went step for step with AZ’s talented receivers, allowing a just-under-60% completion rate despite running a marathon’s worth of coverage routes (Cardinals called 53 pass plays in this one). DeShawn Shead was a beast; sticky in coverage and sure in his tackling, logging an impressive nine tackles and breaking up a game-winning touchdown bomb in the endzone. Richard Sherman, who was coming off his worst game maybe ever, was solid if unspectacular, allowing a few completions but keeping them all to short yardage (with the one glaring exception in OT). Earl Thomas was ubiquitous again, making his way into every play the way sunlight will shine through any crack it can find. Kelcie McCray looked great to me, recording seven tackles and providing what I assume was steady coverage, as I can’t remember him getting beat or being out of position.

Even with all of that magnificence around them, no one was more resplendent in their play than Seattle’s all-world linebackers. Wagner and Wright were angels of death, spending the better part of four hours swinging their powerful scythes and chopping down ballcarriers like so many stalks of wheat. KJ logged 12 tackles and never seemed to be more than a step away from the few he wasn’t involved in. He dropped into coverage, made numerous open-field wrap-ups, and even blitzed. He was a prince among princes and had the type of game you can use as an instructional video to young linebackers.

It was Bobby, though, that gave the performance of a lifetime. For all of the incredible individual and collective efforts around him, Wagner shone brighter than them all. Thirteen tackles don’t even begin to tell the story. Those tackles were made on nearly every sector of the field, and 12 of them were solo. Imagine facing up David Johnson that many times and always bringing him down. And even that doesn’t do him justice. Thrice he lined up against Johnson split out wide, and covered one of the NFL’s premier receiving backs flawlessly, even on a 40-yard deep route. He blocked the aforementioned field goal and helped to save the day in overtime when his second superhero leap over the line filled Catanzaro’s line of sight, an effort that undoubtedly factored into the AZ kicker’s chip-shot miss that would have won it. And that still doesn’t adequately tell his story, as his biggest play may have been when he stuffed Johnson on what should have been an easy doorstep plunge for the game-ending touchdown.

Cohesively, there were still a lot of the same problems that have plagued Pete Carroll’s teams for years, especially in the first half of the season. They were just 3 for 14 on 3rd downs, a gruseome byproduct of facing 3rd & long almost all night. Why 3rd & long? Penalties. Every time Seattle seemed to break through with a big play, there was a flag on the field and a signal against the ‘Hawks. And it wasn’t just the offense. Fouls cost the Seahawks a bunch of opportunities all over the place. An offensive holding call against Garry Gilliam nixed a 21-yard completion to Baldwin on 3rd down while a defensive holding call against Sherman nullified an Earl Thomas interception. A bullshit-ass, tacky-ass, lame-ass, bitch-ass, assin’-ass questionable offensive pass interference call against Kearse undid a promising third quarter drive (side note: whats the record for OPI calls against a single player? The average team gets called for OPI about 2.6 times per season. Kearse has been flagged for it at least four, and I think five, times this year already). Frank Clark also encroached on a 3rd & three and back-to-back holds knocked Seattle out of scoring range in the second half after a big Kearse catch had them on the move. It is just SO hard to win when you’re erasing two-thirds of your good plays with penalties.

Also Bradley Sowell got hurt. I haven’t heard the extent of it but whatever you think of Sowell’s performance so far, he’s obviously the guy they feel is their best option at the all-important LT spot. That’s a significant loss if he misses extended time.

One interesting note- this is the third consecutive game in which the Seahawks have held the Cardinals to exactly six points in Arizona. This game had the slight discrepancy of not being a 30-point win like the last two were, unfortunately. Still, that’s an amazing thing to think about, given Arizona’s recent offensive prowess.

So now what? Well, this tie is actually a net positive for Seattle. The Seahawks are still 1.5 games ahead of the Cardinals in the NFC West but now there’s one less game to make up that difference. Given that head-to-head matchups at home are your best opportunity to make up ground, Seattle escaping with a tie actually increases their chance of winning the division vs their odds before kickoff. The Vikings, Falcons, and Rams all lost too, which means Seattle’s only half a game back of Minnesota and Dallas for the #1 seed in the NFC. As disappointing as tonight’s result was, the ‘Hawks are still in great position.

And this is still a very good team. The 4-1-1 on their record is that they can still handle their business and are well-positioned to make a run at home field advantage. If, before the season, I presented you with the possibility that the Seahawks would be three games over .500, with more than a full game lead in the NFC West, and playing the best defense in the NFL, would you have taken it? Exactly.

There will be games like this. Well, maybe not quite like this but sometimes this is just how it goes. I know we all want the ‘Hawks to blow out everyone they play but the thing about the NFL is that it’s filled with the best football players on the planet who are coached by guys spending 60 hours a week preparing them for their next opponent. The margins are slim when you’re operating in the top .001% and to be the best of that bunch is simply going to include powering through some tough, rugged, ugly games.

The Seahawks are 4-1(-1). They are in first place, and they’ve done it with a gimpy Russell Wilson, a recovering Jimmy Graham, and no Thomas Rawls on offense. The defense is playing as well as they ever have, despite missing their lion king Kam Chancellor for the last two games. Things are good, my friends, no matter what this game made you feel.

Onward, upward, cheers!

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