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Cigar Thoughts, Wild Card: Seahawks die the way they lived, stubbornly running the ball into their own grave

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The Dallas Cowboys used a balanced offense, terrific defense, and turtling play calling by the Seattle Seahawks to win this NFC Wild Card game.

Wild Card Round - Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Playoff time, baby. The part of the season where the contenders start peeling the pretenders off the pile. That time of year where the game demands your best performance in order to keep hope alive. The Seahawks and Cowboys both came into this game on serious heaters, with Seattle winning 7 of their last 8 and Dalls ripping off 8 of their last 9. It was as even a matchup as this postseason had to offer, and I couldn’t wait to see what tricks, what gambles, what big moments the ‘Hawks had stored up for the grand stage.

About that...

The Cowboys got the ball to start and immediately began ripping off big gains with a combination of gashing runs by Ezekiel Elliott and mid-range passes to Amari Cooper and Cole Beasley. The approach quickly moved Dallas all the way inside Seattle’s 25 before the Seahawks D finally stood their ground, shutting down a designed rollout then stuffing Zeke before Tedric Thompson blew up a bubble screen to Cooper. The drive would result in a field goal but it still felt like a win for the defense, given how the possession started.

Seattle would get the ball and do the exact opposite, getting 8 yards on two Chris Carson runs before going empty backfield and having a pass batted down. After that the team would trade a series of punts, with Seattle gaining exactly 3 yards in the first quarter on just 9 plays. Right on schedule. On those 9 snaps, Seattle had three 1st & 10s, a 2nd & 18, two 2nd &6s, a 3rd & 15, and two 3rd & 6s. Russell Wilson threw the ball one time* — on 3rd & 2.

*Technically it was two passes, but one was 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage so, uh

The only real plays of note in the first 15 minutes were a nightmarish leg injury suffered by Allen Hurns and a Dallas punt return TD called back on a hold. In fact, it would take Seattle 21 whole minutes to get their first first down, but when they did, hoo boy.

On the first play of their fourth drive, Wilson play-faked then shuffled to his left long enough for Ed Dickson to get free. He lobbed it to his lumbering TE for 26 yards, then followed it up with a 40-yard beauty to Tyler Lockett on a crossing route. That was chased by two runs for 4 yards, forcing a short incompletion on 3rd down and a chippy for Sebastian Janikowski. 3-3.

The Cowboys answer was a sustained drive to field goal range that got wiped out by a Frank Clark sack. A screen pass to Elliott got them close enough to try a 58-yard field goal that Cowboys kicker Brett Maher blasted 70. Fortunately for us, the kick was pushed right and Seattle took over near midfield with three minutes to go. After an incomplete pass to Doug Baldwin, Wilson stepped into the teeth of the pass rush and unleashed a sideline bomb while getting absolutely blasted. The throw was remarkably accurate, especially given the circumstances, and it descended right into the hands of a diving Lockett for what seems like their 100th huge completion this year. It’s gotten to the point where I’m borderline shocked when a pass to Lockett isn’t completed, regardless how improbable.

Sadly, the drive would falter right there, and Janikowski came on to bang home a 42-yard field goal for the 6-3 lead. Up until then, the Cowboys’ biggest play was just 15 yards but that would all change on 3rd & 1 when Elliott took a handoff and bounced outside to his right. Akeem King, who’s been earning more playing time of late, got sucked in behind the line which left the entire space between the right hash and the sideline wide open. Zeke skirted that way then accelerated up the right side for 44 yards. A few plays later, Dak Prescott threw a perfect pass to a well-covered Michael Gallop for the first half’s only touchdown.

On the ensuing kickoff, and with just 24 seconds left, Lockett gambled on a ball he caught deep in his own endzone and blew threw the coverage up across midfield. For a brief moment, it looked like he was gonna house the damn thing, but the kicker filled up the gap between Lockett and glory, tripping up Seattle’s spritely Pro Bowl returner on Dallas’ 48 with 16 seconds left. From there, three plays gained 11 yards and cost 13 seconds. It set up a monstrous 57-yard FG attempt from SeaBass, who got plenty of distance but, like his Cowboys counterpoint, knocked it wide right. Unlike Maher, however, Janikowski immediately grabbed his left hamstring and fell to the ground, roaring like a wounded beast.

That injury would spell the end of Janikowski’s day/season/career(?), and would put the onus for kicking on rookie Michael Dickson, a punter who first touched an American football four years ago. Which is perfectly fine for a team that hasn’t scored a touchdown all day. No worries here. Nope.

Seattle received the opening kick for a touchback in the third quarter and ran it twice into no room for 3 yards before throwing an incompletion on 3rd down. Punt. I get that running is Seattle’s identity or whatever but at this point they had 13 rushes for 28 yards and 13 passes for 90. And while 6.9 yards/pass play ain’t great, it’s a hell of a lot better than 2.1.

They kicked it back to Dallas, who got 9 yards on their first two plays before lining up in a power formation. They handed it to their all-world running back but Bradley McDougald shot through the line and grabbed a leg. Then Bobby Wagner arrived on the scene and put the play to sleep with a savage finishing tackle to force the ‘Boys to punt it back to the visitors.

On this possession, Seattle would pass on first down (yay) for 9 yards, then hand it off to Rashaad Penny for 5 more. Then it was Penny for 28(!) more on the next play before a missed block caused him to get blown up for a loss of 7 on the next snap. The following play was a drop from Carson on a swing pass then, on 3rd & 17, Wilson capitulated and flipped it out to Nick Vannett on his first read for 5 yards. A shameful finish to a promising drive. Thank God for Michael Dickson who would, with the help of an incredible goal line play by Neiko Thorpe, pin the Cowboys at their own 2 with a knuckler.

Seattle’s defense bowed up once again, somehow forcing the Cowboys backwards over the next three plays and making them punt from the back of their own endzone. The result was a sliding fair catch by Lockett on Dallas’ side of the 50, and the ‘Hawks were in business. Unfortunately, that business was more of the same shoddy craftsmanship we’ve seen all day. A run for 3, then a run for 1, followed by another run for 1 and just like that the Seahawks had 4th & 5 on the 43.

It was one of those crossroads moments, a hinge in the narrative where a single decision and the accompanying execution can swing the whole game. Pete Carroll opted to keep the offense on the field and Russ, true to form this year, didn’t settle for a short get-the-first type route. Instead, he dialed up his main man Doug on a deep sideline route.

The coverage was great but the throw was perfect and the catch was even better. Somehow, Wilson placed the ball right over the shoulder pad of the cornerback and into the outstretched hands of a lunging Baldwin. Doug snagged the pass and tapped his feet in the green like a ballerina in a meadow before crashing to the turf. It was Baldwin’s first catch, and it was as gorgeous as it was impossible.

Two plays later, Wilson was converting a 3rd & 5 with a 7-yard keeper to the left and two plays after that he was celebrating in the endzone after a 4-yard keeper to the right. An amazing drive that was capped by a 2-point Mike Davis plunge in lieu of a kicker. Whew.

Our destinies are rarely defined by what happens to us; rather, by the way we respond. And the Cowboys responded. They used a huge 3rd down completion to Cooper on a slick square-in route and a few runs from Prescott and Elliott to answer right back, culminating their possession with a 2-yard TD from Zeke to put them back ahead 17-14.

Insanely, the Seahawks came right back out and continued to run it into the complete absence of space. Twice. That forced 3rd & 7 and Wilson’s deep heave to Lockett came up short. That led to an enormous Dickson punt and an enormouser return by Tavon Austin. With plus field position, Dak immediately dialed up his main man Cooper down to the 10 yard line. Carroll would challenge the tumbling reception, but replay confirmed the call and things started to look pretty grim. With only 10 minutes left, and Dallas on the doorstep of a back-breaking TD, Seattle needed a turnover. Enter KJ Wright.

With Prescott backpedaling, he lobbed a pass towards his tight end at the 2 yard line. He was covered tightly by Wright, who flung his paw up in the air at the last moment, reaching the ball at the exact moment it hit the receiver’s hands. The ball deflected up into the air while the two players crumbled to the ground in the endzone. As he fell, Wright bobbled it three times before corralling it for the touchdown and the game’s first turnover. Just a sensational play when the team needed it most.

It seemed like momentum was finally switching but Seattle managed to pull the trigger before they even removed the gun from the holster. A hold on the first play was followed by a personal foul on the second. That set up two white-flag passes and a punt back to the Cowboys.

It appeared as though Seattle had forced a three and out after that, but a pass interference call on KJ gave Dallas’ drive new life. Seattle would get another 3rd down stop but it would be waived off by another PI call, this time by Justin Coleman. Mercy. The Seahawks had only committed one penalty in the game’s first 50 minutes, but four in short order crippled their comeback try.

After that it was just Zeke Zeke Zeke, racking up first down after first down and bleeding the clock dry. For a moment, it looked like the Seahawks were gonna hold the Cowboys to a field goal, forcing 3rd & 14 but Prescott kept it on a QB draw, getting 18 yards down to Seattle’s 1 and effectively ending their season. Absolutely heartbreaking, but it was a bed they made themselves. Dak would punch it in on the next play and that was that.

Well, not quite that. For the first time all game, the Seahawks just let Russ be Russ. His response? 6 pass plays for 75 yards and a TD. That included a 53-yard strike to Lockett and a 4th & goal bullet to JD McKissic(?!) inside the right pylon for a life-support touchdown. Woulda been cool if they tried that before they were down 10 with 2 minutes left.

Unfortunately, onside kicks are never successful anymore and they’re even less successful when your punter drop-kicks a pop-up 40 yards downfield directly at a receiver. No matter, this wasn’t a game Seattle was gonna win, not the way they played it.

SMOKE RING

~This was a really fun season. I love this roster and I **love** the future of a lot of players on it. But, and this may be an over-reaction in the heat of a year-ending loss, I can’t shake the feeling that a Wild Card loss is just successful enough to convince the franchise to continue with an offensive approach that A) takes the ball out of their best player’s hands more than half the time and B) is being increasingly exposed as subpar by an ever-expanding league-wide interest in analytics.

The Seattle Seahawks did not win 10 games because they ran the ball more than any other team, although there were moments throughout the year where it helped. No, this team made the playoffs because Russell Wilson had a career year and developed into the best deep-ball passer on the planet. Any thought that future success has more to do with good RBs averaging 4.5 yards per carry than it does with an elite QB averaging 8+ yards per pass is misguided at best and insane at worst.

Their season ended not because they played a better team but because they refused to adapt despite having one of the most sensationally adaptable players in NFL history at their disposal. They ran the ball nearly 6 out of every 10 plays until the game was beyond rescue. They averaged a fantastic 8.1 yards per pass but just 3 yards per run. I’m sure there are a lot of folks, maybe even you, who believe that running the ball at the highest rate in the NFL is the reason the Seahawks won a bunch of games this year. The common argument was that they tried passing in the first two games and lost but that is never accompanied by the facts that DJ Fluker wasn’t playing and oh by the way Denver and Chicago were the two best pass defenses in the NFL this year.

I like that Seattle was good at running the ball; I’d much rather have a team that’s good at running than one that isn’t. But they were even better, much better in fact, at passing. I don’t even care that Seattle wanted to run the ball a bunch in this game. I really don’t. What I do care about is the fact that they relentlessly went back to a dry well throughout the 3rd and 4th quarter despite never taking a second half offensive snap with the lead and never at any point averaging more than 3 yards per carry. They were not unable to adjust- they were unwilling. And it cost them.

*****

Still, the future for this team is a lot sunnier than many of us thought it would be back in August. There is an incredible amount of young talent on this team and they still boast a top-5 QB and a top-5 defensive player in the world. Beyond Russ and Bobby, there are stalwart Pro Bowl-level players like Doug and KJ and Duane Brown. Frank and Tyler and Chris Carson are on the precipice of stardom while guys like Jarran Reed, DJ Fluker, JR Sweezy, Bradley McDougald, Justin Britt, Shaquille Griffin, Tre Flowers, and Michael Dickson are exactly the type of dudes every other team would be thrilled to have.

Mostly, this team is young and hungry. They have the talent that, if properly developed, can compete with absolutely anybody in this league over the next 2-4 years. It is my sincerest hope that their ceilings are not lowered by organizational philosophy and deep down I don’t think it will be. At least not much. I hope.

The Seattle Seahawks are good. That is the most important thing. Good with the potential to be great. Almost every franchise is gonna have things about them that fans don’t like, no matter how successful, but the positives in Seattle outweigh the negatives. I’m going to go to bed frustrated tonight, but I’m gonna wake up as a fan of a team that a lot of folks are gonna hate playing next year and frankly, I’ll take it. Hell they might even fuck around and win another Super Bowl. Until then, onward and upward my friends.

Jacson on Twitter | Cigar Thoughts Hub | Cigar Thoughts Facebook

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

I wrote this article while finally killing my bottle of Oban 14, pairing it with a lovely Maduro Natural from Drew Estate.