When an NFL team starts 4-0, finishes 13-3, then wins two playoff games, it’s a little hard to make a case for seasonal turning points. The Seahawks started well, stayed good and now are on the verge of greatness.
The highway to New Jersey had curves, but no turns or exits.
What the Seahawks did have were milestones, important moments in seasonal preservation that proved something to themselves and the NFL. Their three losses were by a combined 15 points, but Seattle also had three harrowing wins by a combined 11 points. A slip or two would have cost them home field advantage, or the division title that coach Pete Carroll has held sacred.
The NFL emphasis on parity means that, more than any other team sport, there is a better chance of a bad team beating a good one in the NFL. So 13-3 teams in the Super Bowl is something to talk about.
The five crucial milestones in the Seahawks’ regular season:
Sept. 8 – Seattle 12, at Carolina 12-7. In the opener, Carroll’s formula – big-play defense, special teams, then offense – was tested and proven. Prevailing over the ancient Seattle bugaboos of a long flight and the Eastern time zone, the Seahawks dispelled the myths in a tooth-pull of a game against a team that became the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
Carolina’s defense held Marshawn Lynch to 43 yards and rolled out a blueprint for stopping quarterback Russell Wilson on the read-option, the weapon Seattle deployed to great success late in the previous season.
Trailing 12-7 midway through the fourth quarter, the Panthers seemed on the verge of a go-ahead touchdown. But at the end of a 16-yard run by DeAngelo Williams inside the Seattle 10-yard line, Earl Thomas punched out the ball from behind and DT Tony McDaniel recovered with 5:25 remaining.
Four first downs later, the Seahawks killed the clock and preserved the large expectations that preceded the season.
“No one takes more pride in knocking the ball loose,” Carroll said of Thomas’s strip. “They had a lot of momentum. It was a gigantic play for us.”
Sept. 29 – Seattle 23, at Houston 20 (OT). The first of four road tests in five games began disastrously as the Seahawks, plagued by injuries in the offensive line, fell behind 20-3 in a first half that produced four first downs and 88 yards of total offense.
But a 14-play, 98-yard touchdown drive, the season’s longest, drew Seattle back in the game early in the fourth quarter. Grimness returned after a Wilson interception, but the defense again responded. Richard Sherman picked off a Matt Schaub pass and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown with 2:40 remaining to tie, forcing overtime.
On the second possession of the extra period, Steven Hauschka, reliable as sunrise, drilled a 45-yard field goal. The Texans had 476 yards of offense, which proved a season high against the Seattle’s defense, but three turnovers saved the Seahawks. Patience and resourcefulness, again.
Wilson said he got permission on the sideline to start calling the run.
“Marshawn and I talked about it,” he said. “He told me, ‘Russ, just take over.’”
Nov. 3 – At Seattle 27, Tampa Bay 24 (OT). The winless Bucs raced to a 21-0 lead to stun the Seahawks and the home crowd, requiring the greatest comeback in club history to avoid national embarrassment.
The Seahawks picked up one touchdown before the half, but were down 24-7 when Wilson helped lead another epic drive, this one 86 yards, the final 10 on his scramble for a TD. After a 71-yard punt return by Golden Tate, a field goal made it 24-17. But an end-zone pickoff of Wilson with 7:51 left looked ominous for Seattle.
Again the defense held – the Bucs had to punt on their final five possessions, managing only 21 plays – and the Seahawks went 59 yards, the final 10 on a TD throw to Doug Baldwin to tie with 1:51 remaining.
In overtime, a final Bucs punt set up Seattle at its own 40, from where Lynch had runs of 10, 14 and 13 yards that allowed Hauschka an easy strike from 27 yards.
The game was the only one of the season where the Seahawks didn’t start ready to play, but proved they had the capacity to overcome in-game shortcomings.
“There really is no panic on the sidelines,” said fullback Michael Robinson. “Guys were like, ‘All right, we’re going to go down there and make it happen.’ Talking to the guys the sidelines you wouldn’t have thought we were down by 21 points.”
Dec. 2 – at Seattle 34, New Orleans 7. The match between the teams with the NFC’s best records – the Monday night game hadn’t seen such a matchup so late in 28 years — was a rout from the first play when the Saints lost four yards after coach Sean Payton later admitted he called a dumb play.
It was Seattle’s most complete game and Wilson’s best – 22 of 30 passing for 310 yards, no turnovers and QB rating of 139.8, nearly double that of his idol, the Saints’ Drew Brees. The Saints finished with 188 yards of offense.
Among a handful of elite teams, the Seahawks emerged as the most formidable team, especially at home. The beatdown was influential because in the second round of the playoffs, the Saints had to come back to the Clink. Apparently, their ears still were ringing. They lost 23-15.
Said Carroll: “For the defense to hold that quarterback, that coach and that team to that kind of production . . that’s an incredible night for our guys.”
Dec. 29 – At Seattle 27, St. Louis 9. This was less about a big victory than recovery from defeat. The previous week the Seahawks were shocked at home 17-10 by division rival Arizona, the Cardinals gaining revenge for a 58-0 thrashing at the Clink a year earlier.
Home invulnerability breached, the Seahawks need a persuasive win in the final regular season win to re-establish their cred after losing two of the previous three, as well as lock up the No. 1 seed.
In a testy game pickled with personal fouls and an ejection, the defense held the Rams, who rushed for 200 yards in the first meeting, to 13, tying Seattle’s all-time opponent low. Lynch ran for 97 yards and Golden Tate had a career-best 129 yards in receptions.
The outcome proved the Seahawks were who we thought they were, as the subsequent two playoff wins showed.
“I’m really proud of this day,” Carroll said after the clinch. “We get a chance to start this playoff thing here . . . our fans have just been extraordinary.”
A winning equation: 5 milestones + 12th man + 53 = XLVIII.