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Cigar Thoughts, Game 16: Seahawks squeak by 49ers, win 10th game for fifth straight season

The Seattle Seahawks wrapped up their season with a close win over the San Francisco 49ers

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Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s felt a little weird over the last two months, hasn’t it? Here we are, watching our favorite team go to the playoffs again after winning the division again and yet the consternation is palpable. For all of the warts that the Seahawks have had in the past few seasons, they had always been expunged by November. We’re used to watching a dominant Seattle team roll into the postseason on the backs of blowouts, their exploits filling national air time and coaxing analysts to put them on the short list of Super Bowl favorites.

For four straight seasons, the Seahawks have changed when the weather has, morphing into a winter storm that lays freezing waste to every fiefdom unfortunate enough to be in its path. This year, however, they’ve remained somewhat lukewarm as the days have gotten shorter, even suffering their first blowout loss in a half-decade during a finishing stretch that saw them go 2-3 over their last five games before today. They’ve stumbled when they normally sprint and enter the post-season with more uncertainty than at any time since they drafted Russell Wilson.

Today’s game against a terrible 49ers team represented an opportunity to re-establish themselves as a top contender, with the NFL equivalent of a feeder fish being dropped into their tank. Remarkably, however, it was the guppy taking bites out of the shark, as the woe-begotten Niners straight up stomped the Seahawks in the first quarter. San Francisco owned the ball at the outset of this game, carving up a seemingly clueless Seattle defense for 159 yards, nine first downs, and 14 points on their first three drives. Seattle, by comparison, managed only a paltry 10 yards, zero first downs, and a gift-wrapped field goal during that span.

Colin Kaepernick, whose career numbers against Seattle are beyond dreadful, completed his first 10 passes and their read-option run game found open space on every other attempt. The creeping feeling that the ‘Hawks have built their house on shaky ground was amplified by these unexpected tremors. One week after managing just one yard in the first quarter, Seattle found themselves with only 10 against the worst defense in the NFL.

At some point in that farcical opening stretch, the players all remembered which teams they played for and Seattle quickly erased the surprising 11-point deficit. The Seahawks would score four times in a row, combining two touchdowns with two field goals to take a 22-14 lead in the third quarter. The run game never got going, as Seattle’s maligned O-line struggled to win battles against the softest run D in the league, but Russell Wilson elevated himself to that “next level” that has eluded him for so much of this season. He began delivery throws on time and on target, buying time when necessary and getting rid of the ball quickly when it wasn’t.

Wilson had a wonderful stretch in the second quarter that saw him complete eight of ten passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. He hit his receivers in stride on six of those (including a sexy dart to Luke Willson for a TD) and trusted his best weapons to win jump balls on the other two. In one beautiful sequence, Wilson lobbed a ball 40 yards down the left hash for Doug Baldwin, who skied over the defender to haul it in. Then, rolling the other way, Russ heaved a bomb down the right sideline for Jimmy Graham, who brushed aside the poor homunculus assigned to guard him, leaped, and caught the ball a solid 12’ in the air before toe-tapping the landing in bounds. It was like watching a four-year-old play Flyer’s Up against his dad and probably the starkest reminder of just what Graham can be that we’ve seen all season. That catch led to a one-yard Thomas Rawls run and everything looked like smooth sailing.

Things would stay that way until late in the third, when longsnapper Nolan Freese decided to add an element of excitement by hiking the ball like 80 yards out of the back of the endzone on a punt attempt. That safety brought the game back within six points and led to an outcome that was much closer than it had any right to be. Seattle would keep moving the ball but were done finding the endzone. A Steven Hauschka field goal got them to 25 and capped their scoring for the day, while the 49ers mustered one last surge. And that’s where things got a little baffling.

With most of the fourth quarter still to play, Pete Carroll made the curious decision to pull Wilson and replace him with rookie backup Trevone Boykin. That went horribly at first, as the offense looked completely out of sorts and Boykin dropped the ball on a simple bubble screen and narrowly avoided disaster by falling on it. SEattle went backwards with the ball and punted it back to the Niners with good field position that they translated into a touchdown a few plays later. With the Saints chipping away at a once monstrous Falcons lead (giving Seattle increased hope at a first-round bye), and even the #3 seed still in doubt, it seemed a bizarre time to lift your Pro Bowl QB for an untested backup.

After the San Fran score, I felt certain that Carroll would put Wilson back in to close it out but he doubled down on his undrafted rookie and let Boykin be the main determiner of the game’s outcome. That faith would be rewarded handsomely, as Boykin skillfully led the team down the field, wringing the final seconds out of the game clock with two impressive third down conversions. One of them was positively Russ-ian, with Boykin faking a handoff on 3rd & 1 before bootlegging out to his right. The Niners weren’t fooled and barreled down on him for what looked to be a huge loss. Instead, Boykin stutter-stepped the first defender so hard he buckled then outraced a second towards the sideline before firing the ball back across the field to his comrade Willson for the huge first down.

By the time it was over, Seattle had their tenth win of the season and locked themselves in as the #3 seed in the NFC. It wasn’t the domination we had all hoped for / expected but NFL wins are hard to come by and they all spend the same. And while the middle of the game saw the offense click really well, it was the defense that shone particularly bright- at least for the final three quarters.

The Seattle pass rush had their best game of the season, led by Frank Clark who notched a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and two tackles for loss in the first half. He was joined in his harassment of Kaepernick by Michael Bennett, who added a sack and two tackles for a loss of his own. Even the linebackers, who never go after the QB on pass plays, joined the sack party. KJ Wright got one, and Bobby Wagner got two(!). All told, Seattle managed five sacks, seven tackles for loss, and hit Kaep seven times.

Kam Chancellor had a great game, making all the tackles everyone else missed early and taking away the middle of the field in the passing game for the rest of it. Wright had seven solo tackles, and the DL trio of Clark, Ahtyba Rubin, and Tony McDaniel combined for 12 tackles- a huge number for guys who play with their hands in the dirt. It was a game rife with standout defensive performances but it was Wagner’s that was downright pornographic (and I mean that good, behind-the-payweall stuff). Seattle’s middle linebacker stuffed the stat sheet with 12 tackles, 10 of which were solo, the two sacks, two tackles for loss, two QB hits, and a broken up pass that he nearly intercepted. It was one of the best games we’ve ever seen from what might be the best linebacker the Seahawks have ever had, to cap the best season of his career. Bobby Wagner might be the best defensive player in the world right now.

And while the offense was its usual herky-jerky self, the final numbers actually sparkle- at least in the passing game. Wilson and Boykin combined to complete 23 of 38 passes for 300 yards to 10 different receivers. Graham led the way with 64 yards on four catches, followed by Jermaine Kearse with 45 on two, Baldwin with 44 on two, and Paul Richardson with 40 on four. It was an egalitarian dispersion of throws the sum of which was sufficient to propel Seattle into the playoffs on a positive note.

The run game sucked again. Not sure what else to say. Alex Collins boosted the overall numbers with a couple of nice runs late, and newcomer JD McKissic had a nice showing as well, relatively speaking. But overall, 87 yards on 25 carries against a putrid run defense isn’t exactly inspiring. Rawls couldn’t get going (again), finishing with just 14 yards on eight carries. If Seattle is gonna make a post-season push, it won’t be on the shoulders of the run game.

All in all, it was another spotty performance for the Seahawks but it was good enough to get them to 10 wins for the fifth straight season. For all of the doubts we may have about this team, they continue to outperform every previous era of Seahawks football. Check it:

This Seahawks team, who’s missing the best safety on the planet, a Pro Bowl WR/KR/PR, and featuring an offensive line that makes less combined than dozens of O-linemen make individually, won twice as many games as they lost. We think this team has changed and it has, as all teams do, but the bigger shift has taken place in our expectations. Look at us- we’re now somehow above satisfaction with a 10-win, division-clinching playoff team. It’s a great place to be as a fan base but shouldn’t distract us from appreciating the run of competitive greatness we’ve been treated to over the last five years.

There are still a lot of question marks, if not outright disappointments on this team, and I certainly don’t want to dismiss them. The running game, for one. After owning the competition in this category for the last four years, the Seahawks plain stunk at it this year. They’ll finish in the bottom third of the league in both rush yards and yards per carry, an abominable performance in the Pete Carroll scheme. It’s tempting to chalk that up to the absence of Marshawn Lynch, but I have real difficult time imagining Beast Mode doing much better given the circumstances- especially when you consider that the Seahawks racked up nearly 2,000 non-Lynch yards on the ground just last season.

Injuries have a lot to do with it, of that there’s no doubt. Thomas Rawls was rarely healthy and never looked like the guy who terrorized front sevens last year. CJ Prosise saw his season end during what was shaping up to be a historic night for the rookie RB. Most decisively, Wilson was playing on busted legs for the first three months of the season, eliminating the duality that has enabled this Seattle run game to be so effective. Christine Michael was effective for a while and was a net positive overall, but the surprising decision to release him signaled that the team felt they had wrung the last drop of usefulness from their prodigal son.

Ultimately, the blame for a broken run game comes down to Seattle trotting out an offensive line that made a combined $6 million and featured guys playing a new position at all five starting spots. They gambled on Tom Cable’s ability to transform guys who have no business starting the NFL into a unit that can help win a Super Bowl. It was a cost-saving experiment that failed badly and led to a season of Seattle running backs fighting defenders for the hand-off. I have no doubts that Seattle will focus on this aspect heavily in the offseason but for now, they’re left trying to make the best of this sweaty gross mess.

Additionally, Russell Wilson had a down year by every one of his standards. Yes, he was hurt, and yes, the OL was putrid, but he still missed a lot of throws this year that he hit with amazing consistency in past seasons. It was a regression from the cheat-code efficiency with which he played last year to a jumpier, rattled version reminiscent of his early career. Don’t get me wrong; he’s been great for stretches, but the man with the second best career passer rating in history will finish outside the top ten in that category for the first time in his career. Russell Wilson is still an elite QB, of that there is no doubt, but he’ll have to play some of the best football of his career for this team to make a playoff run.

Perhaps the most surprising struggle that this team had was the special teams. This was the worst special teams season of the Pete Carroll era- a messy, under-cooked casserole of ineptitude that stained the season from start to finish. Last year, the Seahawks return game was one of the most dangerous in the league, with Tyler Lockett cutting his teeth on the exposed flesh of opposing coverage teams. This season, with Lockett beset by various injuries, their returns had as much bite as a sleeping geriatric.

Meanwhile, Jon Ryan, punter extraordinaire and hero-jester of lore, had a dreadful 2016. His gross yardage was just that, ranking 24th in the league and his net wasn’t much better at 22nd. He had some nice punts along the way, including a doozy this afternoon, but the grand sum of his season was well below his standards. Compounding the bewildering ST performances was Steven Hauschka, who has been arguably the most consistent, reliable Seahawk on the roster over the last few seasons. He transformed from a calming, square-jawed stalwart to a baby-faced heart-attack on every single kick. He actually made an impressive number of his field goals (88.9%), but it was his extra points that were ghastly, as a staggering amount of his kicks were blocked en route to a horrific 82.8% on XPs. Part of that is probably the OL getting beat but the bulk of the blame is on Stevey Boy himself, who for some reason decided to kick everything with a perplexingly low launch angle this year. The whole season has been a round of golf in which Hauschka forgot to pack his wedges.

The entire bundle of mediocrity was held together by a fraying thread of off-target long-snaps, courtesy of some guy who isn’t Clint Gresham. The whole special teams unit has been a source of nigh-immeasurable anxiety all season long and is sure to cause palpitations in the playoffs.

All of that being said, this team’s positive’s outweight the negatives and I don’t think it’s particularly close. A defense that spent significant portions of the season without Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas still finished third in points allowed while giving up the fewest yards per carry in the NFL and the fewest TD passes (again).

Bobby Wagner led the NFL in tackles with an insane 167, while Cliff Avril and Frank Clark combined for more sacks than any pair of teammates in the NFL (at the time of this writing). They finished third in the league in sacks as a whole, and will pose a massive threat to opposing QBs in the playoffs even without Earl Thomas.

Even with all their flaws, the Seahawks will finish with the sixth best point differential in the league.

Doug Baldwin caught a team-record 94 passes this season despite being targeted just 125 times. That means that the undrafted, undersized receiver caught 75.2% of the balls thrown his way- finding himself among the elites in receiving efficiency for the fourth straight season.

The Seahawks now have 56 wins since 2012 (62 if you count the playoffs), which is more than any team in the NFC and trailing only the Patriots and the Broncos overall in that span. Russell Wilson has more wins in his first five seasons than any quarterback in history. The Seahawks are now a staggering 19-4 following a loss in the Russell Wilson era and have never had a three-game losing streak in that stretch.

The Seahawks are in the playoffs. Cherish it. This may be the Seattle team with the most question marks of an iteration in a while, but it comes in a season where nearly every team, even the good ones, are beset by inconsistencies. Everybody is beatable, and the Seahawks will be taking as much pure talent into the postseason as any roster out there.

Onward, upward, go get a ring.

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