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Cigar Thoughts, Game 7: Seahawks lose to the Saints and everything is fine. It’s fine.

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The Saints rode an efficient performance from Drew Brees and a comical disparity in penalties to a 25-20 win over the Seahawks.

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Look, I’m gonna get the penalty stuff outta the way right now, cuz it’s gonna be impossible for me to get to everything else until I do*. I’m sure the comments section will be fertile ground for fans of other teams to come in and accuse me/us of being homers or sore losers for complaining about the calls, so feel free to engage them at the risk of your own emotional well-being, but let me stress that this isn’t just some Seahawks fan whining about a loss.

*And, I imagine, it would be difficult to read about anything else until the penalties are addressed

There are a few components to this diatribe before we even get to today’s game. For one, let me be clear that I hate complaining about the refs and I’m fully cognizant of the fact that the Seahawks do commit a lot of very legitimate penalties. Fans of every team thinks their guys get flagged too frequently but in Seattle’s case, it’s probably true. Since the start of 2014, the Seahawks have been called for 7.5 penalties per game, which is the second highest rate in the NFL over that time period, including leading the league in ‘14. Okay, fine, the Seahawks commit a bunch of fouls, and a lot of ‘em (false starts, neutral zone infractions, etc) aren’t subjective. Second most in the league? Ehhh... maybe.

But here’s where it starts to get wonky: over that same 2+ year stretch, the Seahawks’ opponents have been called for the fewest penalties in the league. Not only that, teams playing Seattle were called for the fewest penalties in the league in 2014, then were called for the fewest penalties in the league again in 2015. We’ll hva eto wait for the rest of this week’s games to finish, but as it stands right now, Seahawks’ opponents have been called for the second-fewest penalties so far in 2016.

Penalties committed by each team are actually pretty consistent from year-to-year. Disciplined teams stay disciplined and undisciplined teams don’t. Fine. But opponent penalties, a category defined by dozens of different opponents and nearly 20 different officiating crews, should even out over a sample size this large. For teams playing the Seahawks to consistently get flagged at a far-below-average rate, year over year, is beyond the scope of random distribution.

In this one, the Seahawks were called for 11 penalties, costing them 76 yards and, more importantly, gave the Saints four first downs on 3rd down plays that were otherwise unsuccessful. Two of them were borderline back-breakers. Now, most of those calls were legit, I will grant you that. But how a team like the Saints, who are committing as many penalties per game as the Seahawks have over the last three years, and who constantly run pick plays where the only intent is to hit the defender, only gets called for two inconsequential false starts is beyond me.

I could spend the whole article going call by call but I’ll save us all the self-pitying torture of that exercise. What I will highlight are two blatant illegal screen plays that New Orleans ran on what were probably their two most significant plays of the game. The first came on a goal-line pass to Brandin Cooks that gave the Saints the lead and would ultimately prove to be the winning score. As Cooks slants in from the outside, Willie Snead straight up bullrushes Jeremy Lane, shoving him out of the play to give Cooks a too-easy TD. The second one came on the very next drive, when Snead again ran straight into Lane, only this time it was an “out route” in which his entire purpose appeared to be shoulder-chucking Lane out of the play. It was successful, went uncalled, and sprung Cooks wide open for 20 yards, putting New Orleans in field goal range* for a crucial extra three points. In a season where we’ve seen Jermaine Kearse called for offensive PI four times for everything from breathing on the defender to making minimal contact with an extended hand, it is beyond reason that fouls like the ones the Saints didn’t even try to disguise go uncalled.

*Significant because it took a field goal out of play for Seattle’s final drive

Eleven penalties for 76 yards versus two penalties for 10. I guarantee you there’s never been a game played where, if everything was called correctly, one team committed 85% of the infractions. The Saints scored on their final six possessions, the first time they’d done that in over five seasons and I can’t imagine the Pete Carroll Seahawks have ever let that happen before. The thing is, three of those drives ended, and then were continued because of flags against Seattle that ranged from “I guess so” to “is this an elaborate episode of Punk’d?”. There’s just no way the team that has allowed the fewest points in the NFL for four straight seasons (and who came in tied for first again), gives up six straight scores without some help.

I’m totally open to admitting that I’m overstating this- that I’m an irrational fanboy freaking out cuz my team got beat- but I’m gonna need a lot more than “you’re a Seahawks fan so of course you think your team is getting screwed” for that to happen, because the data paints a devastating picture of bias, conscious or otherwise, against the ‘Hawks by officials. It’s infuriating as a fan of this team, and maddening as a fan of the game, because huge penalty disparities make the games less watchable and do damage to the overall product.

/just the deepest sigh in the world

Okay. The game.

This matchup featured the most prolific offense in the NFL over the last four seasons on a yards per play basis going up against the most prolific defense in the league with the same criteria. And even though Seattle came into this one at 4-1 and New Orleans 2-4, it had terrifying potential for the Seahawks. This is as banged up a unit as the team has had to deal with in the Pete Carroll era and a defense coming off a 100-play performance and a cross-country trip had to face this vaunted attack without All-Pros in Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett. Their offense, which is missing their #1 RB, their LT, and playing with half a quarterback, had been impotent for the majority of the last seven quarters. The fact that the Seahawks lost was not that surprising, all things considered, but it’s worth examining how it went down.

Seattle’s offensive struggles continued at the outset of this game, as Russell Wilson struggled to find a rhythm with no running game to speak of. He did complete a high percentage of passes throughout, but they were often short looks that would’ve been extremely effective in normal down-and-distance but were fairly impotent given the second-and-longs and third-and-longs that Seattle’s penalties continually put them in.

The offense was, however, buoyed once again my an otherworldly defensive effort, and the team got their first score with Russell Wilson and Co huddled around their Microsoft Surfaces on the sideline. That happened when Mark Ingram was bottled up on a short run and someone (DeShawn Shead?) popped the ball free from behind. It was scooped up by Earl Thomas who sprinted to the house for the game’s opening score.

It stayed 7-0 until the Saints hit a field goal, after which the ‘Hawks got a little creative. With the traditional offense stymied by an immobile QB and a run game with very little forward push, Darrell Bevell flipped to the appendix of the playbook and dialed up a beauty. Wilson took the snap and swung it laterally to Tanner McEvoy, who keeps finding ways to impress. McEvoy then calmly found the laces and lobbed a beautiful throw across the field to streaking CJ Prosise(!), who nearly made it to the endzone before being dragged down. That play set up a short TD plunge from Christine Michael, and put Seattle up 14-3.

After another Saints field goal, the ‘Hawks got the ball back with a chance to put some real estate between them and their hosts before the half. That’s when Wilson failed to see a linebacker dropping into his passing lane, and delivered a perfect spiral right into the chest of the defender. It was a forgivable mistake, especially when you consider that it ended a career-best streak of 203 passes without an interception for RW. Acceptable or not, it was a turnover that lead to New Orleans’ first touchdown, even though it took them six tries to go the final 11 yards against Seattle’s fearsome defense.

Seattle actually got the ball back with a little bit of time before the break and got the ball across midfield with enough time for Steven Hauschka to attempt a long field goal. He’d never get the chance, as the snap/hold was mishandled and Jon Ryan was forced to scramble away from pressure and throw the ball away for his first career incompletion. It was yet another mishap in Seattle’s recent string of kicking game buffoonery. They missed a short field goal and had an extra point blocked against the Falcons, then we all watched the worst field goal attempt in Seahawks history in overtime against the Cardinals, now the team can’t even attempt a kick that, if made, would have had massive implications on how the end of the game played out. Maybe it’s all the new longsnapper’s fault, or maybe once a couple things go wrong that self-fulfilling doubt starts to creep in, either way, the kicking game is wonky as hell right now which is crazy, given how incredibly reliable it’s been over the last half-decade.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Drew Brees was very good in this one, having as much success through the air as anyone has this year, at least from an efficiency standpoint. Granted, he was helped significantly by three defensive holding penalties and we already beat those pick plays to death, but he was really timely and accurate today, finding the soft spots in Seattle’s coverage and peppering them with conviction. The result was 27 completions on 35 attempts for 267 yards, a touchdown, and a 107.4 rating. He was great, and can’t be faulted for the stuff that pisses us off.

Brees stayed within himself, even when his team was down by a couple of scores, and his quick releases spread Seattle out enough for Tim Hightower, who took over for Ingram after the fumble, to rush for 106 yards on 26 carries. By hook or by crook, the Saints continually ripped off third down conversions (9-15), keeping the ‘Hawks defense on the field for the vast majority of the contest (again). Here’s a bullshit fun fact: the Seahawks defense has been on the field for 83 minutes over the past eight days.

Eventually, the Saints would score on the aforementioned slant to Cooks, giving them a 22-17 lead (the two-point conversion failed) with 12 minutes left. The Seahawks responded, with Wilson darting short passes to his receivers and C-Mike finding a little room to run. The drive continued until Seattle found themselves facing a 4th & goal from the three yard line, down by five, with 6:45 left. I thought they should have gone for it because A) that was probably gonna be their best statistical chance of getting a TD for the rest of the game and B) even if they didn’t convert, they would put themselves in position to have plus field position on their final drive.

Pete Carroll disagreed with me and, for better or worse, settled for the field goal. That made the score 22-20 and the Saints got the ball back with thoughts of salting it away. The Seahawks would actually stop the Saints, causing chaos with a pass rush on 3rd & 5 and forcing Brees to dump it off short of the marker. Nonetheless, Sherman was called for defensive holding, extending the drive and allowing New Orleans to run their dubious pick play to Cooks, flipping the field and putting the Saints in position to extend their lead to 25-20, which they did shortly thereafter.

That left Wilson and his plucky band of heroes less than two minutes to make things right, and they began that quest right quick. After a five-yard Wilson scramble, Seattle’s unbreakable QB found CJ Prosise(!) for 14 yards, then Baldwin for four, then Baldwin again for 27. Just like that, Seattle was in the red zone and rolling. Without any timeouts, Wilson was forced to burn first down with a spike. After another completion to Prosise(!), they burned third down with another spike and had one shot with two seconds left from the Saints’ 10. It was a perfectly poetic opportunity to give Jimmy Graham a chance to win it in his return to the only other team he’d ever played for, but it looked like the Saints were anticipating the same thing and forced Russ off his look. Rolling right, the best remaining decision was apparently a jump ball to a well-covered Kearse, who actually caught the ball but could only get one foot down before being shoved out the back of the endzone.

The result of that play meant that Seattle would fall to 4-2 which, when combined with the Cardinals’ loss and the Rams’ bye, kept them a game and a hlf clear of the field in the NFC West.

There’s some other noteworthy stuff to cover so I’ll do it quickly:

-Earl Thomas is back to being the All-World safety we’ve come to expect and love. His grasp of the defense and the pre- and mid-play adjustments that need to be made have been incredible. He’s near almost every tackle and is involved on nearly every pass play that goes more than 15 yards in the air. After scoring the touchdown, he actually got flagged 15 yards for hugging the referee which tells you everything you need to know about the NFL and Earl Thomas.

-Cliff Avril has 7.5 sacks is on pace for 17+ for the season, which would break Michael Sinclair’s franchise record of 16.5. He is a destroyer of planets right now. On the other side, young pup Frank Clark notched yet another sack and finds himself on pace for 12 in just his second season. When he, Bennett, and Avril are all clicking, watch the hell out. All are huge reasons that Seattle has a legit shot at recording more sacks than any Seahawks team in history.

-Fifteen more tackles for Bobby Wagner. He probably won’t have enough sacks or turnovers to win the award, but it’s hard to imagine a more valuable defensive player in the NFL right now. We are watching the blossoming of the best inside linebacker in the NFL.

-Jimmy Graham’s big return to New Orleans was a bit underwhelming, which I’m sure was a product of design by the Saints defense. I did notice at least two occasions where Wilson looked off a seemingly open Graham, but who knows what all he was seeing. Three catches for 34 yards on an underwhelming five targets.

-Wilson’s production is still less than a shadow of his former self. 22 of 34 for 253 yards, no TDs, and the pick. I realize there are a bunch of challenges he’s dealing with right now but the fact of the matter is, this team is not gonna make a deep run without Wilson returning to his former glory at some point.

-Christine Michael had just three carries for just three yards in the first half, but bounced back with seven carries for 37 yards in the second half. He was spelled by CJ Prosise(!) who led the team in yards from scrimmage (103) on just 12 touches. Extremely promising performance from Seattle’s much-hyped rookie RB, who ended up leading the team in catches (4) and receiving yards (80). Excited about his future.

The Seahawks are still in the driver’s seat of what has surprisingly been a pretty lame division so far. They’re beat to shit, have no running game, and their two-dimensional QB has been reduced to half a dimension by injuries. Penalties are destroying one out of every two drives, two of their best defenders are out, and their special teams have been tenuously successful at best and clown-show bad at their worst. Even so, this team is 4-2, with over a game clearance over their nearest challenger in the division. The road to the #1 seed is still clear.

This game sucked and I don’t blame anybody for being frustrated, but this loss doesn’t noticeable affect their chances of getting back to the Super Bowl when you consider the current landscape of the NFC. I mean, this game really sucked. Man, did it ever suck. Sucked so hard. So dumb. What a stupid dumb game. What was I talking about?

Oh yeah, this game was really lame but the Seahawks are still in a really good position. They’ve got some issues to sort out, but so does literally every team except the Patriots. History tells us that this team will get better, much much better, in November and December. Until that doesn’t happen, this team deserves the benefit of our doubt.

Seattle will host the Bills next Monday night with a chance to get back on track. A win will make all of us feel a hell of a lot better about things. Until then, onward and upward, my friends.

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