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Cigar Thoughts, Game 11: Seahawks go Panther hunting, return home with trophy kill

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Don’t worry, it’s only Carolina Panthers that are facing extinction. The rest are fine. Maybe

Seattle Seahawks v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks came into this game at 5-5, looking alternately like studs or scrubs depending on the week. They had only beaten one team with a winning record (Cowboys), and that team’s wins had in turn come against equally unimpressive teams. A win today would finally stamp the ‘Hawks as unit capable of beating a playoff-quality team and, depending on the prediction model you subscribe too, could swing their playoff chances anywhere from 40%-50%.

After the coin toss, Seattle received the opening kick and you’ll never guess what they did next. That’s right, two runs. Never mind that the first one lost two yards, this team believes in establishing the run early no matter the down and distance. A 3-yard plunge set up 3rd & 9, at which point the Panthers’ D, no longer having to anticipate a run, licked their chops and blitzed every gap in Seattle’s line. The result was a two-second sack of Russell Wilson, the only redeeming quality of which was getting to watch Michael Dickson punt the ball 62 yards.

The Panthers came out and immediately began running the ball Seattle wanted to, using Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey the way they’re meant to- which is as a virtually ideal read-option combo. The result was briskly moving the ball all the way inside Seattle’s 15, and a score seemed all but imminent. That’s when the Panthers curiously eschewed their spacing-based run game and tried to hammer it up the box a bunch of times. The first attempt got 5 yards, but the next three only got 4 yards, 2 feet, and 11 inches, the final two of which were stubborn Cam keepers up the middle. Seattle’s defense stood mightily, keeping the Panthers a chainlink shy of the first down and giving their offense another chance to punt.

Carolina’s second drive was nearly identical to the first, with the only difference being opting for a field goal after the Seahawks snuffed them out inside the 10 again. Carolina even had 2nd & 2, but Bobby Wagner bent McCaffrey in half a yard shy of the mark then Nazir Jones blew him up in the backfield on 3rd & 1.

After that, Seattle finally put together a decent drive, and got inside the Panthers red zone for the first time. Then, on 3rd down, Doug Baldwin juked the nipples off the slot defender and streaked openly across the middle of the field. Wilson, gifted a touchdown, not only missed Baldwin early, he tried forcing it to him late. What should have been an easy score turned into a 10’ high hospital ball at the goal line that went incomplete and got Baldwin rocked for the effort. Doug came up yelling at Russ and it’s kinda hard to blame him. That’s the second game in a row where Wilson has missed him WIDE open in the end zone and the third I can remember this season. Seattle settled for 3 points and the tie.

Two punts later, we finally saw some offensive creativity; problem was it came from the Panthers. Two reverses and a big pass play led to Newton was pulling back a read-option handoff and zipping the ball to an open Curtis Samuel in the end zone for a 7-yard score. On the play, Samuel put cornerback Shaquill Griffin in the dirt with his move off the line. Griffin has been excellent this season, but he got shook on that one. 10-3.

Inspired, the Seahawks dusted off the other 92% of plays available to NFL coaches and proceeded to go 75 yards in 7 plays for a touchdown of their own. After two runs by Chris Carson got 7 yards, Russell hit Tyler Lockett on a short route that Lockett somehow wiggled into 27. Following a slippery little out route to Carson for 6, Wilson finally kept the ball on a read and sprinted around the right end for 7 more. Then some tasty misdirection let fullback Tre Madden get free down the right sideline. The forgotten man from a forgotten position cradled the pass and trundled down to the 1. From there, it was a simple Carson run off the left guard to tie the game.

A Panthers field goal would be the only remaining score in the matchup’s first two quarters and the teams headed to halftime with the visiting heroes trailing by 3. In that time, Cam went 14/14 without a single challenging throw. Running backs don’t matter like they used to, at least in the conventional sense, but McCaffrey is absolutely a huge catalyst for the Panthers’ offensive success because of his otherworldly abilities in the passing game. A virtually impossible cover coming out of a misdirecting backfield, Ed’s son gathered in 8(!) receptions for 79 yards in the first half alone.

The first drive of the second half looked an awful lot like the Panthers’ first drive of the game. Newton and McCaffrey swiftly moved the ball down the field, sprinkling in a little DJ Moore for flavor. The drive appeared to stall out in the red zone when a slant pass sailed over Moore’s head on 3rd down, but a flag on Tre Flowers that was ticky-tack at best and horse shit at worst kept the possession alive. No matter.

On the very next play, Newton attempted to squeeze a fastball into some no name depth chart filler in the end zone. McDougald, who drew the anonymous assignment, rode the inconsequential receiver’s back hip and elevated as soon as the pass arrived. McDougald batted the ball straight up in the air and then some how snagged it as his body hurtled through the air. When he crashed to the turf, the Seahawks had their first turnover in four games and, most importantly, the ball only down by 3. It was an effort that would have fit effortlessly into any Cirque du Soleil show and would end up being one of the most important plays of the most important game of the year.

Like their first touchdown drive, it would only take the Seahawks seven plays to answer. The seventh was a low rocket from Wilson to a sliding Lockett on top of the goal line for the go-ahead score. The TD was awarded after a review, and Lockett celebrated by juking David Moore with a crossover, sinking a jumper, and stepping over his fellow WR Iverson-style. Tyler Lockett is the NFL’s highest-rated receiver (seriously) and the highest-rated celebrator. A true blessing. It capped a drive that saw Seattle run it five times but pass when it mattered.

The Panthers answered right back with more Newton, McCaffrey, and Moore. A pass interference call on Griffin put the ball at Seattle’s one, allowing Christian to claim divine providence over the end zone. That put the Panthers up 20-17 and set the stage for an uncomfortable fourth quarter.

Seattle’s next possession was a 14-yard grinder that included two 3rd down conversions and 4th down conversion to boot. Sadly, there was hardly any excitement, with just incremental movement aided by a 15-yard facemark penalty. The 63 yards gained resulted in 3 more points and these two teams found themselves tied with about 10 minutes to go.

The Panthers would fumble twice on their next drive but, just like their first four cough-ups, they wouldn’t lose either of them. Another dozen or so dump offs to McCaffrey on this possession, with the final one going for 6 points and coming after he incredibly didn’t turn the ball over with his fifth fumble of the day.

That score put the Panthers up 27-20 in this barnburner-come-lately, and sent Russell Wilson back on the field in need of some old-timey heroics. And hoo boy, did he deliver. Again it took exactly 7 plays, and this time the 7th one was truly special. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The initial play of this possession was a stop route to the squirrelly Lockett, who picked up 13. Then it was a dump off to Ed Dickson for 9, followed by a quick out to Baldwin for 11. Despite putting their QB in rhythm for the first time all day and averaging less than 3 yards per carry, Seattle tried to run it on the next play. That went for -3, forcing Wilson to pass into a defense that doubted nothing else.

Even so, it was back to Baldwin for 5 more which, combined with a neutral zone infraction, left Seattle with 3rd & 3 on Carolina’s 35. On the next snap, Wilson’s pocket crumbled and he launched a prayer towards Jaron Brown. His pass sailed over Brown and out of bounds, putting all hope Seattle had left on the outcome of the next play.

It got off to an inauspicious start, as Seattle didn’t even look close to being ready for 4th down. After a bumbled substitution, they were forced to use a timeout to avoid a delay of game. Y’all have watched a lot of Seahawks football— what did you think they were gonna do on 4th & 3 with the game (season?) on the line? I, for one, was convinced they’d run a bunch of 2.5-yard out routes and hope for the best. Not so!

Wilson confidently dropped back and, matriculation be damned, cocked his shoulders at a 45 degree angle and threw the ball to the motherfucking sun. Wilson’s pass skimmed the bare butts of the angels and crashed back to earth towards the back left corner of the end zone, where David Moore was hand fighting with a defender. It was a true 50/50 ball, and it carried with it a massive swing in playoff probability. At the last possible moment, Moore used his brawny arms to create separation like he’d been in the league for 10 years and cradled the ball to his tummy for the game-tying score. I don’t know if that was Wilson’s designed read or not, but he needed assistance from three trainers and a wheelbarrow to carry his massive balls off the field after that throw.

That remarkable completion made the score 27-27 and gave Cam the ball back with 3:26 left and a chance to win the game. He started the drive with McCaffrey’s 11th catch of the game, picking up 10. A couple plays later it was Moore for 18 then Moore again for 11. They were now on the fringe of field goal range, needing one more first down to make the kick comfortable. Cam up the middle for 3. Then an incomplete pass out to the right after Seattle created pressure for the first time all day. That brought up 3rd & 7. Oh baby.

On this all-important play, Flowers found himself isolated on Moore, which is about the only WR-CB matchup that Cam seemed to care about. Moore cut across the field from left to right, catching an easy pass three yards downfield with only the converted 5th round pick between him and a few kneels to set up a game-winner. That’s when Flowers, who has been a truly pleasant surprise this season, made his play of the year. Trapped in an open meadow and trying to tackle a young colt, Flowers lunged, wrapped, and finished. He dragged Moore to the turf 3 yards short of the sticks and forced Carolina to attempt a 52-yard field goal.

Now, Graham Gano is one of the most accurate kickers on earth, having converted 42 of his last 44 attempts, and being one of the league’s best from 50+. The thing about sports is that when it comes right down to it, the moment never cares about what you’ve done before. Gano approached his kick the same as he always has. The ball left his foot and headed straight at the right upright. Once again, the outcome of this game would come down to which way an airborne, oblong, synthetic pig’s bladder decided to move through space. As the ball approached the intended target, it veered slightly to the right, much like Gordon Bombay’s childhood shot so many years ago. The kick stayed about 6” right of the post and Seattle took over with a chance to win their second straight game with some late-4th-quarter magic.

Pressure on snap #1, incomplete. Shit. David Moore for 5 on 2nd down. Eh. Then, with just over one minute left and facing 3rd & 5, Russ again eschewed the safe throw and pivoted his laser sights deep. Leaking out behind an over-aggressive safety, Lockett found that extra gear that only the special few have and sprinted down the right seam. Wilson flung it deep and Lockett drifted under it at the Panthers’ 10, all but sealing Seattle’s biggest win in a couple of years with a huge catch.

From there it was kneel, kneel, spike. With 3 seconds left, corn silo hall of famer Sebastian Janikowski rumbled onto the field and bashed the ball through the uprights for the win. It was a phenomenal effort from a team whose modus operandi had been stifled all game long. Faced with adversity again and again, the Seahawks answered the call every time, converting down the stretch where Carolina couldn’t. It was a backbone win and has a monumentally positive impact on Seattle’s postseason chances.

SMOKE RINGS

~After playing like shit for the first 40% of the game or so, the Seahawks offense scored on their final five drives, a ridiculous performance considering they needed every damn single one of them in order to win. That is fortitude, and they did it without being able to run the ball. As fun as 40 handoffs can be when you’re ahead, it’s not a sustainable way to win games against the NFL’s modern elite and to see them put the game in Wilson’s hands late was incredibly encouraging. That’s two 4th quarter comeback wins in 10 days for Seattle now.

~Russell Wilson, hero. The Seahawks had spent most of this season failing to convert late in games when they had the ball with a chance to win or tie. None of it mattered today though, as Seattle let it all hang out late, and treated the game’s most important moments like they had an elite QB instead of just talking about it later. After spending most of the first half sputtering (as they far too often do), they finally took the chastity belt off Russ and let him procreate a win.

By the time the sheets were getting changed, Wilson had completed 22 of 31 passes (71%) for 339 yards (10.9 Y/A), and 2 TDs with no interceptions for a fantastic passer rating of 128.3. With that effort, Russ becomes only the second QB in history with a career passer rating of 100+.

~The running backs have been the headline dominators for the Seahawks over the last two months, as Seattle has run the ball more often than any team in the NFL and have topped 150 yards on the ground in 7 straight games. None of them mattered much today. Carson inherited most of the carries, turning 16 rushes into 55 yards (3.4 Y/A) and adding 2 catches for 8 more. He did have a touchdown though, as well as an otherworldly flip in the open field. Mike Davis and Rashaad Penny got 4 totes each, with the former outgunning the latter 14-4. Neither caught a pass or scored.

~Tyler Lockett is the man now. Doug Baldwin is important, but there’s no doubt he’s limited this year. Lockett is Seattle’s WR1 this season, and he just keeps delivering. He was targeted 5 times today but he maximized every opportunity, catching all 5 of them for 107 yards and a score. He’s that dude.

Baldwin, for his part, gutted through his season-long ailments to contribute to the tune of 5 catches (7 targets) for 39 yards. It should probably have been 6 for 65 and a score but for the egregious Wilson miss. The hidden hero today was David Moore who, after a scintillating October stretch has been rather quiet of late. Wilson called Moore’s number 5 times and the youngster caught 4 of them for 103 yards and arguably the biggest touchdown of the season to date. Like Lockett, Moore ranks among the game’s elite in terms of production per target and it only makes sense that he’ll get even better as he learns the NFL game.

~The Seahawks defense forced 6 fumbles in this game and the Panthers didn’t lose a single one. This could have been a MUCH different game. Overall, I thought they were okay this afternoon, as they allowed Newton to complete a staggering 83.3% of his passes and allowed 8.4 yards per play overall. There were some fantastic individual performances (McDougald, Coleman, Wagner) but nearly zero pressure on Cam meant a lot of pressure on the defensive backs and linebackers in coverage.

They excelled, however, when their backs were against the ropes, thwarting a number of Panthers drives deep in their own territory. Seattle defenders talk a lot about defending every blade of grass and honestly, they do it better than almost everybody. Carolina left a lot of points inside Seattle’s 20 yard line today.

~A lot of the talk surrounding this game was about Russ and Cam but the real showcase for me was the game’s two best middle linebackers occupying the same field. Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly have been the conversation at MLB for years now and it was awesome to watch them trade possessions all day. Kuechly was his usual excellent self, filling the majority of Seattle’s desired run gaps and racking up an amazing 12 tackles. A great game.

Wagner came into this game having converted 69 tackle attempts into 69 tackles, which is not only nice, but #1 in the NFL. He had 11 more today and I didn’t see him miss one either. He is the best tackler I’ve seen since Ray Lewis. I bet there’s no safer feeling the world than being hugged by Bobby Wagner.

~The Seahawks went 6-14 (42.5%) on third downs today, adding 2 4th down conversions for an overall success rate of 56.8%. Tremendous, especially against a defense like Carolina’s. Seattle’s defense only allowed 3 conversions on 8 Panthers 3rd downs and thwarted their only 4th down try.

The Seattle Seahawks fully inserted themselves back into the NFC playoff picture, joining an unseemly crowd at 6-5. The good news is that they hold head-to-head advantages over two of them (Dallas, Carolina) while the other one (Washington) has lost their starting QB for the season. Seattle only has one more road game this season and looks capable of beating everybody that’s left save maybe the Chiefs. We can comfortably call this team good now, and while there’s still a gap between them and the great teams, they’re likely the last team any of those squads are looking to face in January.

So, for those counting, that’s two enormous wins over NFC rivals in less than two weeks, and the Seahawks all but completely control their playoff destiny from here on out. This team is so different from the versions we’ve seen over the last half-decade, but they’re winning their way and forcing all of us to create room in our hearts for some new favorite players. Onward and upward, my friends; there’s no reason to think otherwise.

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The 2018 season of Cigar Thoughts is proud to be sponsored by Fairhaven Floors and Brandon Nelson Partners.

This article was written by Makers Mark and a Rocky Patel Vintage 2003 Cameroon.