Christmas Eve was supposed to bring a Seahawks victory at home over a hated divisional rival, and tighten the vice grip on the #2 seed in the playoff race for the NFC. Instead, Hawks fans were attributed to some of the worst first half football that Seattle has played all year. The effort was so poor that fans at Century Link field actually booed. The fourth quarter was a thrilling example of what kind of expectations one can have about the offensive prowess of a Russell Wilson led team, while also reminding us of some of last seasons fourth quarter defensive struggles.
If you were looking for as weird of a game as the 6-6 tie in Arizona earlier this season, this game had plenty of that going on. Russell Wilson looked like he was being guarded by gingerbread men on the offensive line, getting sacked an alarming six times, five alone in the first half. Injuries once again played a role, with Thomas Rawls (shoulder) leaving after compiling 8-yards on 8 carries, Kam Chancellor (ankle) out for the majority of one quarter, and Tyler Lockett (leg) broken on the 1-yd. line. The ‘Hawks had a FG, PAT, and Punt blocked. It was a nerve wracking time indeed.
The ‘Hawks early offensive struggles were set up by a busted handoff from Wilson to Marcel Reese, which Arizona’s Calais Campbell recovered. David Johnson would rumble for one of his three rushing touchdowns a few plays later. Johnson had a field day against the Seahawks, rushing for 95-yds (longest 33), and adding another 41 through the air. Hasuchka’s first Field Goal attempt was blocked at :38 in the 1st Quarter, adding insult to (actual) injury. Johnson was expected to be the focal point of the Cardinal offense, but JJ Nelson erupted for a 3 reception, 132 yard, one touchdown receiving line. The touchdown came in the 2nd quarter on an 80-yard catch and go that found Steven Terrell and Jeremy Lane running into each other within the ten yard line. Arizona was up 14-0 almost in the blink of an eye.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the ‘Hawks got down on the goal line and failed four consecutive times to score points, with both Wilson attempting a sneak and Thomas Rawls trying to force his way on the ground. On 4th and goal, the Cardinals sensed play action, and sacked Wilson for a loss of 7-yards. David Johnson fumbled and K.J. Wright recovered it, giving Seattle another three cracks at the goal line They ultimately settled for another FG attempt, this one good from 27 yards, and the first points of the half, ironically right before halftime.
In the third quarter, the ‘Hawks started out strong, with rookie Alex Collins deftly running in space, and catching passes along with Doug Baldwin. That drive consisted of running plays by Collins, and bailout catches by Baldwin. After an early incompletion in the series, Wilson found Jermaine Kearse in the back of the end zone for a fantastic leaping touchdown, Seattle clawing their way back in to make it 14-10. Jeremy Lane did (technically) intercept Carson Palmer on the next play, but it was negated by a defensive pass interference penalty. Chandler Catanzaro’s FG attempt from 53 was just short, and the ‘Hawks squandered away another chance to score, with rookie tight end Brandon Maxwell getting tossed aside as Arizona blocked Jon Ryan’s punt and got the ball back at it’s own 57-yard line.
In the 4th quarter, Seattle’s offensive line stopped playing as offensively (word play, here obviously) as it did in the first half, and Wilson threw three touchdown passes. The first was to Doug Baldwin for 42-yards in which he fleetly out moved and embarrassed Arizonas’ closing corners and safeties. Wilson then later found Jimmy Graham in traffic for 37-yards, a run that took five Cardinals players with him into the end zone. After a heroic defensive stand by the ‘Hawks, Wilson again drove them back down the field and hit Paul Richardson wide open in the left corner, which tied the game at 31. Hasuchka would miss the ensuing PAT, and the ball went back to the Cardinals with 1:00 to go (and a timeout) to attempt a field goal to win the game.
Unfortunately, what many of us viewed as an ‘easily winnable’ game (versus the eliminated from playoff contention Arizona Cardinals) the Cardinals improved to 3-0 at Century Link Field. Carson Palmer succinctly found receivers and Johnson for enough yardage to set up two of Johnson’s three rushing TDs in the 4th and a pair of field goals by Catanzaro. On the last drive, big plays by Nelson and Johnson set up the field goal going through the uprights as time expired to give the Cardinals the final score of 34-31.
In spite of this, Seattle out gained Arizona in 1st downs (24-21), third down efficiency (AZ, 1 for 9, Seattle 8 for 17), total yards (313-276), and time of possession (33:42 for Seattle, 26:18 for Arizona). Both teams turned the ball over only once, on fumbles to running backs, and Arizona actually had more penalties (7 for 85, Seattle 5 for 40). Arizonas six sacks, blocked field goal, PAT and punt had an effect that even 4th quarter wizardry couldn’t overcome. Wilson looked to be pleading with Darrell Bevell to go for 2 a second time, just as Hauschka missed his PAT kick. It was a cruel irony, as Bevell’s play calling was directly responsible for the offensive juggernaut that Seattle looked like in the final quarter of the game, yet also the reason it started out so slow.
Though a casual observer would blame the struggles in the penultimate seconds on the defense, a characteristically slow and bumbling offense in the first half most likely laid the groundwork for the points cushion to not be larger. Scoring 3 points after getting seven cracks at the goal line in the span of just over 1:30 highlighted the below average play that we’ve come to know as typical.
Wilson would end the day with 350 passings yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs, and did some serious damage on an overworked and injury ridden Cardinals defense. The Cardinals knew this would happen, and set D.J. Swearinger, Calais Campbell, Marcus Golden, Chandler Jones, Alex Okafor, and Rodney Gunter at Wilson all day long with their ears pinned back. If you had to take a few seconds to read all of those names, just think that in the time it took you to finish reading THIS sentence, Wilson was sacked. He was constantly under pressure, and it appeared to work. The post halftime adjustments on the offensive line saved Seattle from repeating their egregious mistakes of earlier in the day. Doug Baldwin totaled 171 yards on a career outing, as all of the other receivers ate up double coverages and hovered around 40 receiving yards on average.
The defensive mantra of ‘bend, don’t break’, the mentality appeared to not work. Yes, Richard Sherman traveled with Nelson for most of the game, but on the 80 yard touchdown play, Nelson was the responsibility of Steven Terrell and Jeremy Lane. So when Nelson took off for the goal line again, Sherman closed in and pushed Nelson out at the 2-yard line. Michael Bennett notched the only sack for the ‘Hawks, but if you look at the tackle numbers, the players that jump out the most are those that you would expect to step up: Wagner with 10, Chancellor with 7, Wright with 6, and Sherman/Clark with 5.
Twice the defense killed key drives of the Cardinals, with arguably the most important of them coming with just over 2:00 remaining in the game. You cannot pin this totally on the defense, and after seeing the offense put up a ton of points in the final quarter, you may not totally put this on them either. That leaves special teams, whose level of play has been downright scary in a few instances this year. But for some reason, even that doesn’t seem to be like a popular culprit. It seems them, on Christmas day, all three aspects of the game gave us lumps of coal instead of the W we hoped to be wrapped under the tree.
At 9-5-1, the ‘Hawks need to win at San Francisco to have a chance to regain the #2 seed (and a crucial bye week). If Seattle can win and the Atlanta Falcons (current #2 seed) lose to the New Orleans Saints, they will drop to 10-6, and Seattle’s earlier season tie with the Cardinals will give them the slightest of advantages in the W/L record to sneak back into a first round bye at 10-5-1. Both teams play at the same time, adding nerves to an already suspicious game.
The 49ers have recently rediscovered some offense, sweeping the L.A. Rams last week. Seattle cannot afford a loss here. Another sobering note- Seattle’s chance to be the #1 scoring defense for the 5th year in a row rests on them shutting out the 49ers and hoping the New England Patriots get 33+ points hung on them when they travel to Miami to take on the Dolphins, currently playing with a backup quarterback. The game is on FOX at 4:25.