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Cigar Thoughts, Game 12: Seahawks lose Earl Thomas, honor his memory by stomping life out of the Panthers

Seattle thumps Carolina behind a big night from Thomas Rawls and despite a serious injury to their All Pro safety.

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NFL: Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

We all doubt, sometimes. Confined as we are to this mortal realm, it makes sense to wonder if more distant memories carry the same weight we once thought they did. It’s forgivable; after all, the world we live in is written in terms of uncertainty. Were the Seahawks, who came into this game 7-3-1, really one of the best teams in the league? I mean, they sure didn’t look like it last week. We know what they did at this time last year,* but that was last year and this year the offensive line is especially bad and this year they can’t run the ball and— and it’s a good thing the Seahawks don’t live in our world.

*and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that

Seattle came out on national TV tonight and straight up whooped the Panthers. They beat Carolina up, then they beat them down. It was the most complete display of Seattle’s considerable arsenal that we’ve seen all season, with the ‘Hawks amassing 40 points and 534 yards of offense. They gained more first downs tonight than in any game since Pete Carroll became coach and doubled their opponents’ yardage while sextupling their points. It was a prolonged, deliberate disembowelment of the team that ended Seattle’s season just 10 months ago.

Some blowouts take time to develop, to build their fatal momentum. This one took a single play. On the very first snap, Derek Anderson (yeah) rolled to his right while Cam Newton stood on the sideline with majestic disdain for the situation. Anderson made eye contact with his running back in the flat and, presumably eager to impress in the national spotlight, Joey Tryhard fired an adrenaline-fueled rocket off his intended receiver’s hands. The ball deflected up into the air, where it was picked off by Mike Morgan and returned to the Panther’s eight yard line. It was Mike Morgan’s first time on the field in nine weeks.

Seattle did their best to give Carolina a do-over, as Russell Wilson’s ill-advised third down shuttle pass was briefly intercepted in the endzone before the ground knocked the ball loose. Seattle would settle for a Steven Hauschka field goal and give the ball back, this time to Cam Newton*. Things wouldn’t go much better for Cam, as the reigning MVP ended up completing just 43% of his 32 passes for 182 yards, adding just 12 yards on the ground.

*During the game, it was revealed that Cam Newton was benched for the first play because of a violation of the team’s dress code (which is hilarious in it’s own right, given that Newton has literally worn a tail multiple times). I guess ol’ Riverboat Ron Rivera really showed his team who’s boss.

Newton was harassed throughout the game, the Seahawks steady pass rush constantly nipping at him like the final shards of a nightmare. He was unaided by a running game that never got started against a Seattle front seven that totally dominated Carolina’s patchwork OL. The Seahawks defense played like there were 13 guys on the field, plugging every gap, pursuing every angle, and putting hands in every passing lane. They tackled with sure-handed ferocity and held their feline opponents underwater until the the thrashing stopped.

Even with a 55-yard touchdown among the rubble of a regional disaster (more on that in a minute), the Panthers were only able to manage five yards per play. Take that one away and their average falls to 4.1. The Seahawks attacked like hornets at the end of My Girl, with every single Panther playing the Macauley role. In doing so, Seattle brought their league-leading points-per-game average down to 16.2. They were their best selves tonight, and they dominated an offense that worked them over twice last year.

The real fun happened on the other side of the ball. After an anemic output in Tampa last week, the Seahawks responded with the best offensive performance in recent memory. They racked up 29 first downs, netting over eight yards per pass and per run. Everything they tried worked, but the brightest bursts in their offensive explosion came on the ground.

For the first time in a year, Thomas Rawls looked like the field-shrinking game-changer that carried the offense through October and November of last year. He ran with vicious purpose, toying with various causes of death for approaching defenders. Sometimes he juked them into a tongue-lashing on film day and other times he lowered his shoulder and finished his run through the caved sternum of the tackler, depending on mood. He averaged ten yards per rush in the first half, a delicious meal garnished with a couple of explosive touchdowns.

The first came on a slashing run to the left, a startling display of running fury capped by an Olympic hurdle over two goal-line defenders. His second was a 45-yard dart to the right in which he stuck his right foot in the ground and momentarily stopped the earth’s rotation. Rawls launched himself upfield while the Panthers struggled to regain their equilibrium but the brief opening in the space-time continuum that Rawls opened was enough for him to spring into the hereafter. He had 116 yards and two TDs on 12 touches in the game’s first 24 minutes and likely would have taken a run at some of the gaudy single-game numbers he put up in 2015 had a concussion scare not capped his evening. Watching a healthy Thomas Rawls is like doing drugs.

Rawls wrapped the first half around his bulbous shoulders like a king’s robe, but he still only accounted for 44% of the team’s rushing yards. Troymaine Pope contributed 28 in his first extended action, Wilson added 29 (the majority of which dazzled), and Tyler Lockett turned his one carry into 75 yards and six points. In a game full of impressive plays, it was this one by Lockett that may have shone the brightest.

On the first play of the second half, Seattle’s radio-controlled wideout took a handoff from Wilson on a jet sweep from left to right. After clearing the defensive line and picking up the first down, Lockett angled towards the sideline so sharply that Panthers players started to clear out of his way. Then, and I’m still not sure how he did it, he changed directions a step from the boundary and re-directed himself up the sideline like ricocheting bullet. From there it was a clear sprint to the house and a 30-7 lead. It was Lockett’s first TD of the season and, more importantly, the first glimpse of the greatness that he flashed throughout his rookie campaign.

It was a beautiful victory, resplendent in it’s savagery. Seattle won in every phase of the game, re-establishing themselves in everybody’s minds as one of the true threats to the NFL throne. It’s a win that should have songs written about it while the victors toast each other with swishing goblets of their opponents’ blood. It was ubiquitous domination and yet the entire thing has been tinged with sorrow.

In the second quarter, Cam Newton stared into the face of the void and attempted a deep pass between Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. It was a brazen tempting of fate, and it brought Seattle’s two fearsome harbingers of boom together in a bloodthirsty pursuit of the ball. Thomas got their first, leaping in front of Chancellor to snag the football. His zeal, however, cost his his season. As the two geological forces collided, Thomas was spun around, the ball escaping his grasp as he hit the turf. He immediately hopped up, only to collapse. He tried again and made it a nanosecond longer before laying back down. Replay showed a gruesome scene as Earl’s shin seemed to wrap around Kam’s. He was eventually carried off the field without either foot touching the ground. He would head to the locker room for X-rays and leave on crutches. He had broken his shin and his season was over.

On the very next play, a 3rd & 17, Newton took advantage of the chaos and dialed up a bomb to Ted Ginn Jr down the middle of the field. He split the difference between Chancellor and Thomas’ replacement, Steven Terrell, for a 55-yard touchdown. I’m not comfortable saying that the TD was Terrell’s fault but I am comfortable saying that there’s no way Cam tries that throw if Earl is on the field.

Before the game, Pete Carroll talked about looking for a moment in this game that would act as a rallying point. One would assume he’d mean a big play or a particularly heroic individual performance. I doubt he meant the loss of his otherworldly free safety but aside from the big play in the tragedy’s immediate aftermath, the Seahawks defense played nearly perfect defense. In a game as one-sided as this one was, it’s easy to forget that at the time of the Ginn TD, the score was just 10-7. It was only afterward that the full manifestation of the romp took place. From that point on, the Seahawks outscored the Panthers 30-0, dwarfing them in every aspect of football.

The Seahawks season took a statistical leap forward tonight, but they will be a different team from now on. I’ve often said that Earl Thomas is the second most important player to Seattle’s success- he is the linchpin for the Seahawks uniquely productive defense, the fulcrum upon which the entire scheme balances. The loss of his on-field presence will directly affect Seattle’s chances of reaching and winning the Super Bowl. As amazing as the team was after he went down, there are tangible drop-offs that necessarily follow an injury to a player of Earl’s caliber.

Still, it is worth noting that Thomas is more than just an evolutionarily-advanced killer on the gridiron. He is an alien soul transplanted into an earthly body that struggles to contain it’s supernatural force. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ghost of Earl Thomas guides the Seahawks like the spirit of Obi-Wan; an inspirational force somehow more powerful in death than he was in life. One can hope.

Thomas’ injury is a sobering dunk into icy water. When we warm back up, the Seahawks will be 8-3-1 and in line for a first round bye in the playoffs. They played excellent football tonight and portend to do so in the future. Their offense produced at an elite level and their defense somehow outperformed their own prodigious standards. They played like a great team because they are a great team.

Other observations:

-The run game was phenomenal tonight. Yes, Thomas Rawls was crazy good but the Seahawks still got 134 yards on the ground in addition to his contribution. They averaged 8.3 yards per attempt against a defensive front that destroyed them last season. The OL hit their blocks and stuck them, and Seattle’s other ball-carriers were terrific in Rawls’ stead. They ran the ball like their mamas’ lives depended on it and the result was nearly as many yards on the ground as Carolina had altogether.

-Troymaine Pope’s final line (8 carries, 28 yards) won’t jump out at anybody, but he sure looked great on screen. He never had any daylight to work with but he ran hard and diligently, and with the kind of pop that advertises big gains when the space is there.

-Michael Bennett made his long awaited return and was as disruptive as a telemarketer during dinner. He took turns schooling the Panthers’ various linemen with a plethora of moves, finding himself in Carolina’s backfield as often as not. The Seahawks didn’t record a sack tonight, but they did destroy the majority of the Panthers plays before they matured past the gestation phase. Disruption has value.

-Between Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Frank Clark, the Seahawks might have their best, most complete pass rush in the Pete Carroll era, which is saying something.

-Bobby Wagner now has an NFL-leading 127 tackles after another double-digit performance. That dude’s talent is surpassed only by his consistency. He won’t have the turnover or sack numbers to win the Defensive Player of the Year but he has established himself as the best middle linebacker in football this season. It seems like every year there’s a new defensive MVP on this team, and to stand out among this crowd is truly impressive. Bobby Wagner finds himself at the ball like I find myself at the fridge after a night of drinking.

-Russell Wilson shook off his worst performance in a really long time to lead his team’s attack with proficiency and poise. He did have a really bad interception but he always has one of those against Carolina. On his other 35 attempts, however, he was wonderful. The stats (26-36, 277 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) aren’t gaudy, they belie the mastery with which he guided Seattle’s tremendous offensive output. He took shots when they were there, checked down when he needed to, and went all David Blaine on Carolina’s ass a couple of times when the pocket collapsed. In short, he was himself.

-Seattle had four receivers with over 60 yards tonight, which was really cool to see. They were led by Jermaine Kearse, who I’ve been hard on because he’s been hard on me. He inexplicably led the team in targets with nine but unlike his recent trend, he was productive with his opportunities. He led the Seahawks in receiving yards with 68, nearly half of which came one a sideline bomb from Tervone Boykin.

-Oh yeah, this game was so far out of reach that Trevone Boykin played. He completed two of his three pass attempts for 38 yards which is just fine. He’s just fine.

-Doug Baldwin didn’t do anything tonight until he did. After just two catches for two yards in the first half, Baldwin snagged five passes in the second half for 63 more yards. He caught all seven balls thrown his way.He’s not among the very best receivers in the NFL but he is among the most annoying to cover for an entire game.

-Jimmy Graham. Man. Six catches, 63 yards, and a TD on nine targets. Matchup nightmare. He is not only a genetic miracle, he’s a medical miracle too. Every NFL snap he takes is incredible. That he’s producing on a per-opportunity basis on par with his career highs is better than we could have ever asked for after his gnarly injury a year ago. Makes no sense.

-Tyler Lockett had 196 yards (75 rushing, 63 receiving, 58 returning) and a TD on 10 touches tonight. He looked fully himself for the first time all season. I would fucking hate to have to gameplan for a fully functional Tyler Lockett.

-Shortly after his injury, Thomas tweeted that he was considering retirement. My guess is that’s mostly a case of a hyper-intensely emotional personality that was handed his phone too early (remember Thomas admitted considering retirement after his shoulder injury in 2014), but it’s a chilling reminder of the damage that’s regularly inflicted upon NFL players. If, and that’s an enormous if, Thomas were to retire, his short career is already more decorated than all but maybe three or four safeties in history. I’m sure he’ll be back as soon as his body allows it, but I am not going to begrudge the future Hall-of-Famer some posy-injury introspection

-In seven years, the only players capable of injuring Earl Thomas have been Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.

-Marshawn Lynch was back, which is awesome.

The Seattle Seahawks are a really really good football team that played excellently tonight. They showcased all the facets of their diamond to a country-wide audience and served notice that the winningest team in the NFC over the last five years hasn’t gone anywhere. They enter the fourth quarter of the season with a three game lead in the division and a half-game lead for a first round bye. It’s not ideal, but it sure as hell ain’t bad.

Next up is a below-freezing game in Green bay against the Packers. Bring it.

Onward, upward, see you next week.

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