Now that was a great game. It wasn’t a perfect game, but perfect is a phenomenon reserved for hot coffee on crisp autumn mornings, room service at an all-inclusive, and Super Bowl 48. On a cold night in November, you take ‘em however you can get ‘em.
Did the Seahawks struggle? You bet. Did they also make some spectacular plays? Absolutely. Did they win on national television to open up a two-game lead in the division? Shit yes they did. The Seahawks have given us no shortage of tension and suspense over the last few seasons — hell, we can all probably hold our breath 30 seconds longer than we could before Pete Carroll arrived — and tonight was no different. And while this game gave us the same palpitating ending we’ve become uncomfortably comfortable with, it took a decidedly less-traveled route to get there.
Seattle started the game with the ball but showed no interest in keeping it. After a nice eight-yard completion on the first play, Christine Michael sought out the nearest defender and ran straight into him on the next. A hopeless throwaway made for a near-instant three and out and Jon Ryan came out to boot it away. The Bills ran an admittedly well-disguised stunt up the middle that no one picked up and the guy running free enveloped Ryan’s punt as it left his foot. By the time the ball hopped out of bounds, Buffalo had 1st & goal from Seattle’s three and Tyrod Taylor needed exactly one play to score untouched.
The 2016 Seahawks special teams units have performed with the grace and timing of an beginner’s improv workshop. Nothing has quite topped The Ballad of Chris Maragos in terms of pure third-phase buffoonery but it hasn’t been for a lack of trying.
Unshaken, the Seahawks offense re-took the field after a long (finally) kickoff return from Tyler Lockett. Russell Wilson, who looked every bit of his “old self” tonight, needed just three plays to return the favor. Those plays were, in quick succession, a five-yard out to Doug Baldwin, a 50-yard bomb to Baldwin, and a read-option keeper for the touchdown. The long completion to Baldwin was particularly stunning, hitting him in stride despite a collapsing pocket to set up a momentum-halting score.
From there it looked like maybe the game would settle into the tedious, grind-it-out, mostly defensive contest we’ve grown accustomed to. It didn’t. Well, it sorta did, in that the Bills’ next drive lasted an exasperating 17 plays, covering 75 yards and including conversions on all five third downs en route to another touchdown. It was a possession that lasted ten long stupid minutes and sucked all the recently generated vibes out of the CLink.
Given the recent performance of the ‘Hawks offense, and the outrageous amount of minutes the Seattle defense has spent on the field over the last two games, those first 12 minutes of the provided some legitimate concern. It looked like the ‘Hawks D was finally giving into the fatigue that they’d been staving off and the offense had no recent performance upon which to hang expectation. The cool thing about Russell Wilson is that he doesn’t seem to give a shit about any of it. Like a bird whose broken wing has finally healed, Wilson began to rip off big chunk yardage, dodging pass rushers without bailing on his reads and delivering the ball with precise conviction.
After two months of dotting soda bottles with a BB gun, Wilson finally brought out his flamethrower, melting steel beams en route to 9 completions in his first 11 attempts. Seattle’s third possession saw Russ morph from the hobbling survivor we’ve seen this season to the flawlessly executing maestro he became around this time last year. He capped it with a 13-yard dime to a well-covered Jimmy Graham who, despite having one arm pinned by the defender, still managed to make a sensational leaping catch with his only free hand in the back of the endzone. It was the most impressive play Jimmy Graham had ever made as a Seahawk, and yet wouldn’t even go down as the best play he’d make in this game.
The Bills answered with another long possession, converting their first seven third downs of the game and tacking on a field goal when they finally failed on their eighth attempt. It was the ninth consecutive drive in which Seattle’s defense had given up a score, which seems unfathomable.
After a cordial exchange of punts, the Seahawks took their first lead when a long pass interference call against Buffalo set up a short C-Mike touchdown. After another Bills punt, Seattle quickly traversed the length of the field again and once more Wilson found himself targeting a blanketed Jimmy Graham in the endzone. This time he was double-covered, but stuff like double coverage only matters to those of us constrained by mortality. Diving into the painted grass, Graham bobbled and caught Wilson’s literally perfect pass, again with just one hand, and pinned it to his bosom as he landed. Oh yeah, this was after he hurdled a grown human man earlier in the drive. Graham, whose football career was all but dead less than a year ago, has shaken off the last of his ashes, revealing himself as the fiery bird god the Seahawks traded for two years ago.
His second touchdown was the Seahawks’ fourth in their last five drives, the product of an offense that was able to stay on script instead operating with a thin playbook in 1st/2nd/3rd & long situations all night. In short, it was beautiful, if not entirely weird, as the Seahawks all but abandoned their run game in favor of letting Wilson whip it around the yard like an Arena League QB.
That score gave Seattle a 28-17 lead, which they’d take into the half, although not without some goofiness. As it often goes, there are a couple of plays in this one that will be talked about more than anything else. And, as it often goes, they both involved Richard Sherman. The Bills were able to get the ball into position for a long field goal to end the half. That’s when Sherman incorrectly guessed the snap count and took off unabated towards the kick. The play should have been blown dead but wasn’t, meaning that Dan Carpenter essentially had a free attempt. Sherman continued his route, actually overrunning the kick (such was the egregiousness of his head start), and hurtling himself into the Bills kicker. Carpenter went down like a landmine had blown his leg off below the knee, then miraculously recovered after the flags flew.
I, and probably all of you, if you’re being honest with yourselves, anticipated a roughing the kicker penalty. None was called, with the officials instead opting for the simple offsides violation instead. That right there was enough to incense Rex Ryan and I would’ve been apoplectic if that had happened to Seattle. Still, it looked like Sherman actually did touch the ball before making contact with Carpenter but I mean, let’s not act like we would’ve gracefully accepted the ref’s explanation had it been the other way around.
That was just the opening act to this circus, however, as Buffalo couldn’t attempt another kick because Carpenter decided to roll around like he’d been gutted and had to take a play off as an “injured” player. Meanwhile, Tyrod Taylor had already gone to the locker room so the Bills had to rush out some goober with a non-QB number to spike the football. That allowed Carpenter to come back in with one second left and try another kick. Except that the refs didn’t properly reset the play clock, and didn’t move off the ball until there was less than ten seconds left. The resultant confusion led to a normal snap and a successful kick, but was waived off due to a pretty unfair delay of game. Carpenter’s next kick wobbled drunkenly to the left of the uprights, preserving Seattle’s 11-point lead and leading to the Ryan brothers screaming obscenities at Richard Sherman as the teams walked off the field. Really weird to see Rex and Rob Ryan lose their cool, they’re usually so composed. To be fair, all of this buffoonery happened shortly after the refs stupidly penalized Robert Woods for holding the ball in a defender’s face in a “first down” pose. He was flagged for taunting, which is enforced so stupidly and soullessly these days. Anyhow, you can make very good cases that the Bills didn’t get screwed but I think even Rex’s anger was pretty justified.
Wilson’s first half stats were pornographic, as he completed 14 of 17 passes for 229 yards, two TDs, zero INTs, and a rushing tuddy; and two of those three incompletions were throwaways. His passer rating was 158 and he looked for all the world to have this game under control. Graham, for his part, had six catches for 94 yards and the two scores in the first two quarters, a performance that helped sweep Seattle’s pitiful 16 rushing yards under the rug.
The third quarter saw a return to normalcy, with both teams getting some first downs but unable to put any points on the board. On Buffalo’s first drive after their coaches screamed like children at Sherman, Richard picked off an easy pass in the endzone and then returned exactly as far upfield as he needed to in order to silently stare Rex Ryan down while Rex stammered profanely through his veneers. Buffalo, to their credit, got right back to business, converting their first four third downs of the second half before finally punching in a short touchdown in the early fourth quarter and adding a two-point conversion to make it 28-25.
Seattle’s next drive was a big one. With time running low and Buffalo back to moving the ball at will, the Seahawks needed to either A) eat some clock, B) get some points, or C) both. Without a run game to speak of, that meant going right back to the air, which they did on all but one snap of their eight-play drive. After completions to Baldwin and Graham, and a short run up the middle from CJ Prosise(!), Baldwin smoked his guy on a double move in zero coverage. It would have been a walk-in TD had the vaporized CB not frantically reached out to hold Baldwin as he sprinted by. The pass interference saved a touchdown but moved Seattle across midfield. After a sack made it 2nd & 21 outside of field goal range, Wilson found Paul Richardson who made a timely and impressive contested catch to put Seattle within Stephen Hauschka’s distance. It was the type of play that’s easy to forget about in a game this wild, especially since it wasn’t a touchdown, or even a first down for that matter. But without it, the Seahawks don’t get the field goal (which Hauschka drilled) and Buffalo would’ve only needed three points to tie.
The Bills again marched down the field on their next possession, but a tripping penalty and a Herculean stop by
some guy I’ve never even heard of but who is now my favorite player Damontre Moore on 3rd & 21 knocked the Bills out of scoring range.
Unfortunately, Seattle couldn’t do anything with their next drive either and punted it back from deep in their own territory. That left the Bills with about two and a half minutes to go about 60 yards for the win. Taylor, who had been incredible all night, orchestrated yet another impressive drive, getting his team into the red zone with enough time to run four plays despite having no timeouts.*
*Thanks to Carroll, who elected to use his final two TOs in case Buffalo scored rather than let the Bills scramble with a running clock.
They got there in large part because Tyrod turned in a truly special play on a 3rd & 20. After sacking him on a blitz during the previous play, Seattle brought extra pressure again and again, the dam broke. Taylor found himself dodging pass rushers like Frogger, somehow escaping three or four sacks and then throwing an insanely accurate pass to Robert Woods on the sidelines, who toe-tapped for an enormous first down.
With one minute and four plays to go the remaining ten yards, the Bills had their full playbook at their disposal. They started with a handoff to LeSean McCoy, who gained three yards. Then KJ Wright burst through to sack Taylor for a one yard loss. On their next play, Taylor was sacked again, this time by Cliff Avril, for a loss of seven. That left the Bills with one more shot, a 4th & goal from 14 yards out. Dropping back to pass, but unable to find anyone open, Taylor drifted to his left, out of the the pocket. With Seahawks closing in, Taylor threw a prayer back across the middle of the field to a receiver who probably would’ve been open if any safety besides Earl Thomas were covering him. Thomas closed the slim gap between him and Woods, shielding the receiver from the ball and securing a hard-fought Seahawks victory as the pass skidded out the back of the endzone.
Now, as is customary in every close game, we can’t simply accept and enjoy the outcome. Instead, we must argue and harangue each other over parsed particulars in the NFL’s encyclopedic rule book. For the second time in the last month, Richard Sherman is being accused of cheating on the opponent’s final play, a claim which seems to have considerable merit upon first glance. Check it:
It appears to be an obvious penalty against Sherman who unceremoniously dumped his receiver on his ass, effectively eliminating him from the game’s most important play. Deadspin’s tweet got everybody riled up and the resulting vitriol clearly made it’s way back to Sherman who responded thusly:
@Deadspin that's what happens when the Qb scrambles..... check the rule book ......— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) November 8, 2016
Sherman is right, once a quarterback leaves the pocket, receivers essentially become fair game, nothing more than blockers for a runner provided the ball isn’t in the air when contact is made. So, is that what happened? Was Sherman really that aware of the situation that he was able to diagnose Taylor’s position relative to the pocket from the other side of the field? Yeah, I think so.
To my eye, it seems Sherman spends the whole play with his eyes in the backfield and then trucks the hapless receiver the moment he recognizes that Taylor’s compromised position makes all receivers fair game. But was he right? Did he really refrain from bodying that poor sap until he was legally allowed to? Yep. Thanks to the always impressive Jose Rivera, we have proof:
So there you have it. The data says it was a clean, legal hit, but don’t let that stop anyone from turning the comments section into a three-day argument about it. The Seahawks won an incredibly exciting game. It’s been a long time since Seattle found itself in a shootout and personally, I found it to be super refreshing. And for all the complaints we may have about the defensive performance (25 points, 425 yards, 12 third down conversions, and 40 minutes of possession allowed), it was pretty cool to see the offense pick them up on a rare off night.
Some individual observations:
-Jimmy Graham finished with eight catches for 103 yards and the two TDs on eight targets. Doug Baldwin had six catches for 89 yards on six targets and that doesn’t even take into account the ~50 yards he garnered through pass interference calls.
That means that when targeting Graham and Baldwin, Russell Wilson was a perfect 14 for 14 for 192 yards and two scores. That is a scary thought for defenses, considering the Seahawks passing game elevated to historic levels of efficiency around this time last year.
-I thought the offensive line was pretty not good tonight. Yes, the Bills have some impressive front line talent but in today’s NFL, so does everybody. At some point you gotta block them. The run game, as I mentioned, continued to struggle. Some of that was C-Mike’s magnetic attraction to tacklers but most of it was simply missed or beaten blocks that shut down the avenues to success in the ground game.
The lack of a rushing attack meant a lot of passes, or, at least, as many as you can squeeze into 19 minutes of possession. Seattle called 32 pass plays against 10 designed runs, and Wilson was officially pressured on 17 of them. That’s a suicidal rate that resulted in four sacks and a bunch of throws on the move. Still a long ways to go.
-Cliff Avril was a dominant force again tonight. He has taken his already impressive game to a whole new level this season, as he racked up another sack and a half to give him nine on the season and keeping him on pace for the Seahawks single-season record. On the other side of the line, Frank Clark stayed hungry as ever getting two half-sacks to bring his impressive total to 6.5, and he’s only halfway through his second year. When they weren’t getting sacks, they were forcing Taylor to either be magnificent or die trying. Combined with a few well-timed blitzes, the ‘Hawks notched a season-high five sacks and were unrelenting despite the crazy amount of time spent on the field.
I just realized Avril and Clark are on pace to combine for 31 sacks this year. That’s ridiculous.
-The secondary struggled today. Earl seemed good, and DeShawn Shead continues to be almost completely ignored by quarterbacks (which is a massive compliment to him). Beyond that, however, the pass defense was less than stellar.
Kelcie McCray still seems a little unsure of himself when it comes to adjusting to routes mid-play, and Taylor repeatedly and successfully threw passes in his vicinity. That said, he was fearless as a tackler and notched an impressive 13 takedowns. Any reprieve McCray got was because Jeremy Lane was getting smoked by Robert Woods. Woods would finish with 10 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown, as he consistently broke free from coverage (usually Lane’s) to make catches with a soft two-yard bubble around him. I still really like Lane but he played his worst game tonight.
Richard Sherman was involved in the game’s biggest moments and acquitted himself pretty well, but even he was caught on a few routes, giving up at least a couple of first down grabs and getting goaded into a defensive hold. Still, he had the pick and it’s not like anybody is torching him. He’s just not playing perfectly, which says more about our expectations than it probably does about him. Fortunately, Sherman seems to have morphed back into the fired-up-about-petty-shit version of himself with the come-at-me-bro attitude that made us all fall so intensely and shockingly in love with him just a few years ago. I’m thrilled about it.
-The linebackers were terrific. Bobby Wagner continues to stunt on every team he plays, logging a career-high 16 tackles tonight, giving him a staggering 58 in his last four games. He even added three QB hits and half a sack for good measure. He’s been the best middle linebacker in football this year and the heart of a defense that’s had to rely on grit as much or more than they have on talent. Maybe the second most important player on the team behind Wilson right now.
KJ Wright was awesome. In addition to his sack, he garnered 11 tackles including two of the best open-field tackles we’ve seen all season. On a night where Taylor and McCoy were at peak-shiftiness, Wright tackles like an octopus, wrapping himself around the ballcarriers and dragging them down.
Brock Coyle got the start today and made a bunch of bad plays as well as a bunch of good ones. To be expected, I suppose. Despite losing contain at least twice (I think three times), and not picking up the stunt on the blocked punt, he still had a bunch of tackles and a sack. I’d be curious to see how the coaches grade him.
-The running game was non-existent. Tyler Lockett (who was awesome in the return game), was the team’s leading rusher. With 13 yards. Seattle only handed the ball to their running backs eight times, with Michael gaining just one yard on five carries and Prosises contributing nine on three. Blech. The line needs to improve, no doubt, but I don’t think there’s any arguing that this team could use a healthy Thomas Rawls pretty quick.
-The Bills ran 82 plays against Seattle’s 42. The time of possession splits are now firmly planted in the domain of the absurd.
-This game was played in front of the largest crowd in Century Link Field’s history, some 69*,000+ people strong. It’s pretty cool that that many people were treated to a game this exciting with as many big plays as it had.
-If any of y’all watched the beginning of the broadcast, you saw local artist Logan McQuaig hand-painting some gorgeous custom shoes and hats. Logan happens to be a close friend of mine up here in Bellingham and is insanely talented. He is an increasingly prolific artists who owns Novato Shop & Studio and the guy responsible for the cover art on the Cigar Thoughts e-book. Pretty crazy to see Matt Hasselbeck wearing his handiwork and to have Randy Moss and Charles Woodson pleading for pairs of shoes on national TV. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, considering Odell Beckham Jr wears shoes Logan painted for him last year.
Anyhow, if you’re interested in commissioning him for a project, you can reach out via his shop’s Facebook page here.
Look, there’s still lots of stuff for Seattle to get better at and their track record strongly suggests that they will. In the meantime, this flawed team finds themselves at the halfway point with a 5-2-1 record, a full two games clear of the rest of their division, and in second place in the conference. At this time last year, they ranked 28th in offense and then strung together the most statistically efficient two-month stretch of offense the league has seen in a real long time. Wilson looked awesome tonight, Graham and Baldwin were unguardable, and Rawls should be back next week. The defense can be forgiven, especially since they came through with the game on the line, though it won’t get any easier next week when they travel cross-country on a short week to take on the Patriots coming off a bye.
Wins are hard, enjoy them. In the meantime- onward, upward, and remember to vote if you haven’t already.
Cigar Thoughts is proud to enter another season sponsored by Famous Smoke. They've been my go-to for cigars for a long time so it's really cool to have them involved. The benefit for you, beyond access to just about every type of cigar ever rolled, is that you can receive 15% off orders of $75 or more when you enter promo code: FIELDGULLS. You also get their killer new Cigar & Liquor Pairings adviser. My choices today were this lovely Cohiba Nicaraguan and a glass of Old Overholt Straight Rye to balance out the kick.