(Overheard thought to Seattle fan)-“Are Russell Wilson’s hands going to fall off? It’s going to be like, negative 15 in Minnesota. Oh yeah, and AP. ‘Hawks are one and done this year.” (Response, to Minnesota fans)- “Guy, you have Teddy B at the helm, no deep threats, and the ‘Hawks held AP to 18 yards last time. It Ain’t happening. We got Beast Mode back!”
In what could only be loosely characterized as the second battle of Hoth (Star Wars, the Empire Strikes Back), TCF Stadium in Minneapolis was a balmy -6 at kickoff. Yes, most Seattle players (since the teams prolific run dating from 2012) have enjoyed the sweltering 40-degree home field advantage that only Seattle brings. This game felt a lot like watching Rocky IV. The Vikings and Seahawks continued to slug it out, with Minnesota looking to rebound from a 38-7 thrashing in December. Seattle was looking to survive a retooled Minnesota defense that completely had Wilson’s cadences down pat. Neither offense could get much of anything productive going early on, and in the fourth quarter Seattle was down three field goals.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, but this game held an ominous, St. Louis Rams like feeling to it. On a botched snap, Seattle punter Jon Ryan opted to run, and ended up with a bloody (and broken) nose. When Russell Wilson scrambled, it was often due to ubiquitous pressure from a pair of Viking hammers named Shariff Floyd and Everson Griffen. Imagine getting sacked. Now imagine getting sacked on a turf field when it’s -6 out. Wilson took two of those, and spun out of a lot more situations than my blood pressure was prepared for.
One such play was a botched snap with 13:00 to go in the fourth quarter. Patrick Lewis picked up a blitz, and hurried the snap. As he did, Wilson’s head was coming back around and he was putting his mouthpiece in, only to see the ball sail clear by his face. In what was a mystifying turn of events, Wilson bailed on lying on top of the football like a grenade. Instead, he opted to juke a Minnesota defender, ran a bootleg and found the defense asleep and wide open Tyler Lockett. Lockett would take the ball all the way to the 5-yard line. Doug Baldwin did the rest.
Baldwin’s magnificent earlier in the third quarter (paying homage to Odell Beckham Junior’s catch of last season), helped Seattle convert another Mt. Rainier sized third down, of which there were plenty in this game. (Re-watch the 2014 NFC Championship game in the 3rd quarter. Baldwin caught an equally high ball when it was crucial there too) Even when Wilson faced intense pressure on a key drive, he found a way to get the ball to fall incomplete, saving a potential 20-yard loss on the play. Steven Hauschka came in and knocked a 46-yard field goal to give the Seahawks a 1-point lead. Ultimately, Seattle’s win was granted both off of another Superhuman play by Kam Chancellor, stripping Adrian Peterson of the ball (recovered by Ahtyba Rubin, in his first playoff game ever), the magic of Wilson, and standup run defense.
No sooner had Seattle fans prepared their responses for the critics lambasting the ‘Hawks for losing another fourth quarter lead, the Vikings players all thought the game was there, and it certainly looked that way: a defensive pass interference call on Chancellor, and another ensuring run play that brought the Vikings on the doorstep of the end zone. It felt a lot like sharpening a knife and taking your eyes off of the whetstone for just a second. You feel a jarring pinch, and then voluminous amounts of red stuff starts squirting around. Chancellor leapt out for the tackle, but just like in Week 10 against Arizona, the runner zipped away from him. Seattle stood up against AP twice in the red zone, and the Vikings had to settle for a field goal attempt after bleeding the clock down, and AP failing to convert a 3rd and inches.
What came next was exhilarating. The Vikings kicker Blair Walsh shanked a 27 yard field goal wide left with :26 remaining to seal another postseason victory for the ‘Hawks. While the Internet collectively took Walsh to task, without his early cushion, the Vikings risked another shutout at home in front of their fans. Minnesota fans probably feel some semblance now of what Seattle felt then trying to throw on 4th and 1 in Super Bowl 49; nothing ‘easy’ is ever guaranteed, no matter how many times you practice it. It does get better, Vikings fans. Just batten down the hatches.
I’m sure you’d love to tell me that Minnesota won the game, and defensively, they made a strong case for why they could have. Minnesota’s inabilities to keep their offense in the game, or answer Seattle’s stout defensive line were the agents of their implosion. Cliff Avril, Bobby Wagner, and Michael Bennett were like a trio of USPS mailmen who had certified mail that Adrian Peterson needed to sign for. Peterson doubled the amount of yards he tallied against Seattle during the team’s first outing, but ended the day with only 45 yards, no scores, and (arguably) the most costly fumble of the year. He had nowhere to run.
Teddy Bridgewater’s inability to throw at least a TD left the game hanging perilously in the balance. He may have earned some credit as a ‘game manager’, and there’s a serious chance Walsh’s three kicks get overlooked entirely, especially had he missed them from the other side of the field earlier.
I’d also love to tell you that Seattle’s offense won them the game, and when you look at their two scoring drives, it would be hard to argue against the case. When the odds were stacked against the ‘Hawks more than their chance of reaching Super Bowl 50 (currently at 6% chance before this game), Wilson decided to combine his elusiveness on his feet with the unquestionable talent of his arm. He didn’t earn the leagues highest regular season passer rating at 110.1 by just hitting check downs. The offense landed the first few punches, but it was the defense that continually landed haymakers to send the Vikings to the mat. The ‘Hawks defense held Minnesota to 186 total yards. The ‘Hawks offense was able to rush for almost twice as many yards as the Vikings (97 SEA -58 MIN), and they were nearly matched with passing yards (129 SEA- 125 MIN). Minnesota dominated time of possession (32:26 MIN- 27:34 SEA), had an extra first down, and two more field goals than Seattle did going into the 4th quarter.
His lob to Lockett under arguably the most crushing and terrifying pressures will not erase all of the early season memories of the hits he took, yet it validates he’s still the marquee scrambler of the NFL. His $86 million contract extension though, is really beginning to look like it’s worth every penny after the last six weeks and these two scoring drives on Hoth (with no light sabers to cut open taun tauns to keep warm). Most people will disagree with me, stating that Minnesota’s kicker is the real ‘12th man’.
Walsh was the lone bright spot in a ‘Rock-em, sock-em robots’ game played by both sides, but the Vikings had likely never felt the pressure that Wilson or the ‘Hawks have since beginning their rollercoaster 2015 NFL season. Seattle leads the league in lowest scoring defense for four years in a row under Pete Carroll (it’s never been done in the post merger era). Three field goals for Minnesota only highlighted the strength of the ‘Hawks defense. For what it’s worth, the weather forces Seattle to miss a few throws too. Neither team played perfect, but the ‘Hawks played with less defects in their respective phases.
No one else (except maybe the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos) will likely play in a game that weather strips talent away from just about everyone this postseason. They will play in domes, or maybe cold, windy, or rainy days that are well above freezing. None of them will likely get the chance to display as much courage, audacity, or fight as Minnesota and Seattle displayed in this game. Minnesota’s future should scare everyone, including the Green Bay Packers.
Pete Carroll took out a whiteboard. Marshawn Lynch ruled himself out before the team could travel, putting everything (plausibly) in serious trouble. Mother nature made for temperatures that felt like outer space had been brought to planet earth. On it, two teams duked it out and left bloodied and battered. While the scoring wasn’t high, I got shivers just watching every breath the players took trying to freeze in the air. This was a game.
Yes, Walsh missed a potential game winning field goal. The stats no one is talking about though, may surprise you. He was kicking into the wind on that last drive (and this is why Steven Hauschka didn’t attempt kicks in that direction), and Richard Sherman almost blocked the second to last field goal Walsh had made. Walsh, according to ESPN’s Sports Center, is 2-5 now when kicking the game winning field goal when there is less than 2:00 to go in a game. Walsh is 30-40 since 2014 in regards to field goals. So it doesn’t seem so out of reach that Minnesota was banking on a chip shot field goal like the Seahawks were attempting a pass play on the 1-yard line. It’s easy in theory, but still requires completing the play.
Seattle travels to Carolina next. Both team’s quarterbacks are on fire as of late. The last time these two teams met this season, Seattle squandered a fourth quarter lead and allowed Greg Olsen and Cam Newton to carve the ‘Hawks up in convincing fashion at Century Link Field in front of the 12s. Neither team now resembles the teams they were then (Seattle was missing many defensive players).
Carolina enjoys a slim 2.5-point advantage against the spread (now down to 1.5), but if there’s one thing you can count on this season, it’s that Seattle has played just as well at home (5 wins, 3 losses) as they did on the road (5 wins, 3 losses). Seattle will have to win out and play exponentially better than they did at Minnesota (though a lot of it can be attributed to the weather), if they are to make it to their third consecutive Super Bowl. The offensive talent is in favor of Seattle. All three of their receivers have turned up the dial late in the season, with Doug Baldwin exorcising some ‘anger’ issues en route to a 4 game streak that saw him catch 10 touchdowns. Three of those came against the Steelers at home.
Carolina’s strength is their defense. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis aren’t just linebackers, they might as well be a pair of T-800s from The Terminator. Though Kuechly is the defensive captain, Davis compliments him. One of them can stay cemented in zone coverage, and the other can blitz, block running routes, spy on the quarterback, or provide immediate run coverage. Because both are versed enough in the defensive scheme, either can assume both roles if need be. This presents a very specific problem when you factor in Russell Wilson’s running ability.
If Carolina’s secondary is all Josh Norman (due to ACL injuries of Benewikere and Coleman) and Corteland Finnegan, than Wilson has a chance to give the other Willson (Luke, the backup tight end), Kearse, Lockett, and Baldwin match ups to exploit. The X Factor for Carolina is not Cam Newton. It is very much Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. There is likely not another pair of linebackers in the NFL as precise, ferocious, or capable as these two. Whether or not Marshawn Lynch plays this weekend, the running game and return to basics is what the ‘Hawks need the most. The Panthers defense will look to continue to keep runners (including Wilson) bottled up.
Seattle brings an equally formidable pair of linebackers with Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner (Irvin sacked Netwon twice in Week 6). Wagner, Lane and Frank Clark did not play the last time these two teams squared off. They also possess the leagues best 4-3 defensive ends in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennet. Carolina’s offensive line will be in for a long day for sure. Seattle boasts a trio of cornerbacks that appear inter changeable in DeShawn Shead, Jeremy Lane, and Richard Sherman. This group is responsible for many passes defensed, and quite a few interceptions. When you add in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, it’s obvious; the Legion of Boom is still just as lethal as seasons past. Seattle will need to find a way to contain Greg Olsen, Cam Newton, AND Jonathan Stewart, who put four touchdowns on the board in Week six. Olsen alone caught seven passes for 131 yards, and the go ahead touchdown.
The Week 6 win in Seattle supercharged Newton’s prowess and made the league raise its eyebrows and accept that Carolina was a legitimate contender (even if their strength of schedule says otherwise). The ‘Hawks are not simply looking to return the favor here; they are looking to finish the hottest team in the NFL, with a nearly undefeated 15-1 record. Newton has made players that were counted out, relevant. Seattle has played its best football when pitted as the underdog and on the road this year, and that’s what they will be when they play at the Bank of America Stadium this weekend.
I cannot accurately guess what the score will be, but if the Panthers get out to an early lead, Wilson lays it all on the line to bring the game to OT, and the ‘Hawks win, 26-20. If the Panthers mount a fearsome fourth quarter comeback, Seattle could lose by a field goal, 23-20, or 26-23 (or Graham Gano could miss a kick like Minnesota, and it could be the ‘Hawks 23-20, or 26-23), or one kneel down after an interception by the L.O.B seals a monumental upset. Kam Chancellors 90 yard pick six, and blocked field goal in the Divisional round of the playoffs last year still remain in the minds of Carolina. At this point in the season, the only thing that is certain is the intensity these two team will play with.
The road to Super Bowl 50 is heating up. Here’s to the ‘Hawks can keep it going, limit their mistakes, and play complete games just like they did in the last stretch of this season. As a superstitious guy, I’d like to make one small suggestion to the team: If the ‘Hawks get up early on the Panthers, don’t dab on ‘em until :30 to go, and you’re up two possessions. With two or more timeouts remaining. Then, maaaaaybe dab on ‘em.
…Till next time