Hope is a precious commodity. Heroes surround us, but are often obscured by the villains who too often dominate headlines. More than a football game was played on Sunday. More than an NFC Championship was won. Men, paid millions of dollars to move a leather ball around a fake grass field, redefined what is possible and lifted a city. Lessons were learned. Teachers who urge their students to never give up have a new well of proof to draw from. Parents who try to inspire their kids to overcome doubts and reach their potential can point to a true story that will resonate with young minds. Fittingly, on a day when we are remembering Martin Luther King Jr., the line between possible and impossible has been redrawn. Fifty-three young men and their coaches fought through pain, suffering, and odds as long as the NFL has ever seen, to prove the power of belief and brotherhood. Legends are born of miraculous deeds. This one started with a theft.
1st Quarter (11:16 to go): Richard Sherman picks off Aaron Rodgers
Seattle won the coin toss and deferred as they always do. Aaron Rodgers and his top-ranked scoring offense took the field and drove the ball 51 yards from their own 20-yard line to the Seattle 29-yard line. The drive was aided by two boneheaded penalties on the Seahawks. Passes to Davante Adams (1 rec, 7 yards on the day for the Packers new secret weapon) and Jordy Nelson fell incomplete setting up a 3rd and 10 for Rodgers. He scanned the field for an open receiver and found nobody, so he chose to test Richard Sherman by throwing to Adams in the endzone. He apparently missed the memo about what happens when you test Sherman with a mediocre receiver in that endzone in the NFC Championship. Sherman poetically started the game in a similar fashion to how he ended the last championship game by picking it off. Perfect start for the home team.
1st Quarter (10:28): Russell Wilson throws an interception
Seattle took their first snap and handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch for three yards. It was the type of run that begged for more. This is a Packers defense designed to stop the pass and incapable of stopping powerful running attacks. The Seahawks chose, instead, to pass on second down and quickly found themselves in a 3rd and 7 at their own 23-yard line. Russell Wilson scanned the field and saw nobody open. He chose to fire a pass into a tight window and Jermaine Kearse was unable to secure it. The ball floated into the hands of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for an interception that he returned to the Seahawks 4-yard line. A taunting penalty on the Packers moved the ball back to the 19 for what was their first red zone attempt of the day.
1st Quarter (8:56): Seattle holds, McCarthy elects for a field goal
Momentum was swinging like a wrecking ball at this point. A perfect start for Seattle had become a golden opportunity for the Packers. After picking up a first down to the Seahawks 7-yard line, Green Bay ran the ball for six yards to set up a 2nd and Goal at the 1-yard line. John Kuhn’s plunge was initially ruled a touchdown before replays reversed the call. The Packers brought in two additional offensive lineman and gave the ball to their bruising tailback, Eddie Lacy, who was stuffed for no gain by Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin. Packers coach Mike McCarthy made the questionable decision to kick a field goal. Even if the Seahawks had stuffed them on fourth down, the offense would have taken over inside their own 1-yard line. The decision seemed oddly conservative then, and seems even more questionable now.
1st Quarter (8:01): Doug Baldwin fumbles the kickoff
Seahawks fans have seen their team weather a lot of storms, but just about everyone had to feel a little doubt creep in when sure-handed Doug Baldwin fumbled the kickoff, giving the powerhouse Packers offense another possession deep in Seattle territory.
1st Quarter (5:10): Packers stopped at goal line again, settle for another field goal
Three straight runs put Green Bay at the Seattle 6-yard line. Lacy was getting yardage he was not in the first matchup between these teams. It was another ominous sign in a game that was quickly being littered with them. Rodgers, though, was held in check. Incomplete to Nelson and then Randall Cobb was tackled at the 1-yard line by Earl Thomas and Green Bay kicked another field goal.
At this point, I turned to my friend and said, “Green Bay has to be feeling like crap to only be up 6-0 here. A touchdown by Seattle puts them ahead.” This was just an ugly start for the champs, but far from time to panic.
1st Quarter (3:48): Seattle continues to pass
Lynch ran again for three yards on first down, and because it worked so well on the first possession, the Seahawks went away from the run and passed on second and third down. Wilson looked confused and frantic. The suspect Packers run defense remained happily untested. Two possessions, six plays, three yards for the Seahawks.
1st Quarter (0:00): Touchdown Packers, walls start to close in
A short Jon Ryan punt was fumbled by Micah Hyde, but quickly recovered by Green Bay to start their next drive. They had terrific field position once again at their own 44-yard line. Seven plays later, they were in the end zone. Rodgers hit Cobb for what was only his second touchdown pass in three games against the Seahawks.
It felt like the game was on the cusp of getting away from Seattle. One quarter, two turnovers, no first downs, and three yards of offense. Special teams, offense and defense had all taken turns playing below their standard. Green Bay had not done anything extraordinary, but were in command.
The Seahawks started the second quarter with 12.7% chance of winning the game, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. Little did they know those would be considered the good times.
2nd Quarter (9:42): Packers go up 16-0
Another Seahawks possession without a first down was followed by another Packers scoring drive. To this point, the Seahawks had more turnovers (2) than first downs (0), and more penalties (3) than passing yards (0). Green Bay returned the short and low Ryan punt 29 yards to the Seahawks 33-yard line.
The defense was once again asked to hold the line. They appeared to get off the field on 3rd and 13, but an illegal use of the hands penalty on Cliff Avril gave the Packers a first down. Three runs resulted in nine yards and Green Bay had to settle for another field goal.
Four Packers possessions inside the Seahawks 30-yard line in the first 20 minutes of the game and just one touchdown
It was the type of performance that would usually get lost in a game like this, but even one more touchdown early in this game likely would have ended all hope of coming back.
Down 16-0, and without a first down, the Seahawks took the next possession and threw deep on first down. Interception. It felt desperate. It was desperate. The champs were showing signs of doubt. This was playing out exactly as the Packers wanted, with no commitment by Seattle to the run game.
Rodgers gladly took the gift and fired a 23-yard strike to Nelson to put his team right back into scoring position at the Seattle 33-yard line. Inexplicably, his next throw was right to Byron Maxwell who showed great hands in catching a low pass.
Aaron Rodgers has been intercepted just seven times this season. Three of them were by the Seahawks.
It was the wake-up call the Seahawks needed. They finally got the message and ran the ball six straight times for 32 yards. Seattle got their first 1st down with 6:45 remaining in the first half. Wilson completed his first pass with 3:58 remaining in the first half. They reached the red zone at the two-minute warning and seemed poised to at least get some points before halftime. Not today.
Another forced throw by Wilson and uninspired effort by Kearse resulted in the third interception of the half for Seattle and fifth pick combined between the two teams in one half. The Seahawks have started slowly before in the playoffs.
They trailed the Redskins 14-0 and the Falcons 20-0 in 2012. They were behind the 49ers 10-0 in last year’s NFC Championship. This was different. The team was listless and lost. They were facing the league MVP. And then, their most talented player on the only unit playing anywhere close to their potential, left the field injured just before half.
The odds were dwindling
Earl Thomas hurt his shoulder and was taken to the locker room as Green Bay had their final drive of the half. The half ended like it was scripted by a masochistic 49ers fan. Wilson was sacked. Robert Turbin had a false start. Then Wilson threw to Turbin in the flat for a two yard loss. And that was not even rock bottom.
The home team entered halftime with a 4.9% chance of winning the game. The halftime show was perfectly selected as Alice in Chains took the stage with William DuVall as the lead singer in place of Layne Staley. It felt like a great band was covering itself. Wilson and the Seahawks looked like imposters up to this point as well.
3rd Quarter (4:56): Hope returns
Seattle started the second half with another three and out. This time, they ran the ball three straight times. Green Bay had their first three and out of the day. Then the Seahawks put together their first miraculous drive of the day, but it was not without more adversity.
After driving to the Packers 39-yard line, a false start moved them back five yards. Wilson was then sacked and J.R. Sweezy was called for unnecessary roughness to leave the team with a 2nd and 30. This was a team that barely had 30 yards of offense at this point. Somehow, Wilson found Baldwin on 3rd and 19 for a 29-yard throw and first down. The team was eventually stopped on third down at the 19-yard line before Pete Carroll did his best Jeff Fisher impersonation and called a fake for the ages.
Ryan took the snap and rolled out. He floated a pass perfectly to former collegiate tight end Garry Gilliam for a touchdown that infused the stadium with life. It felt like a shooter in basketball that finally saw the ball go through the net. This was going to be the start of a comeback. Except, it wasn’t.
They did nothing on their next possession. The Seahawks win probability at the end of the third quarter was just 4.1%.
4th Quarter (14:20): Another warrior injured
Thomas had returned to the field in the second half wearing a brace on his injured shoulder. His All-Pro teammate, Sherman, was blasted by Kam Chancellor at the end of a long James Starks run. He was in clear pain. His arm was rendered inoperable, but he refused to exit the game. Nothing was going right for the Seahawks. This game was almost a certain loss. The pain had to be excruciating. Nobody could have convinced him to leave the field.
Green Bay would go on to reach the Seahawks 30-yard line once again, and once again left with just three points. Seattle trailed 19-7 with 10:58 to go in the game. Their win probability was down to 1.9%.
4th Quarter (5:13): Hope is lost
Seattle had one last chance to make a game of this. They took the ball at their own 46-yard line with enough time to mount a comeback. Wilson and Kearse, though, combined for their fourth interception of the afternoon.
The Seahawks win probability was 0.0% at that moment
I could not watch any longer from my seat. I grabbed my stuff and started down the stairs. I grabbed my phone and started a tweet that said something along the lines of, “Now we know the recipe for beating the Seahawks at home in the playoffs is to give them a gun aimed at their feet.” I thought better of sending it and better of leaving. I settled in from a new vantage point to watch how things would end. Best decision ever.
4th Quarter (2:13): The zombies spring to life
There was literally no chance that the Seahawks were going to win this game. Green Bay knew it. Morgan Burnett slid down with his interception as if it was the end of the game. The Packers then ran three straight times for a net loss of six yards and had to punt.
Win probability: 0.1%
Lynch runs for 14 yards and Baldwin catches a pass for 20 yards.
Win probability: 0.4%
Wilson hits Lynch on a wheel route for 35 yards, initially ruled a touchdown, but brought back to the Packers 9-yard line. This was the closest the Seahawks offense had been to the Packers end zone all day.
Win probability: 1.3%
Wilson walks in for the first offensive touchdown of the day for Seattle after 12 straight scoreless possessions (special teams got the only score before this point).
Win probability: 2.9%
Steven Hauschka executes a nice onsides kick and Packers tight end Brandon Bostick could not hang onto it. He was supposed to be blocking on the play, but tried to catch the ball instead. Nelson was sitting there waiting for it to fall in his lap and watched helplessly as Bostick blundered. Former Canadian Football League star Chris Mathews lept high in the air and came down with the ball.
Win probability: 24.8%
Wilson runs for 15 yards and then Lynch for three. Two-minute warning. Quick pass to Luke Willson for 8 yards and a first down, and then Lynch rumbles 24 yards for touchdown to take the lead. Pandemonium.
Win probability: 67.4%
Seattle goes for two. Wilson scrambles, twisting and turning away from pressure as he has done so many times before. He heaves a pass all the way across the field, breaking every rule of quarterbacking in the process. Somehow, someway, Willson is allowed to make a play on the ball and does it. Seattle 22. Green Bay 19.
Win probability: 91.2%
Rodgers takes over from his own 18-yard line with 1:25 to go and all three timeouts. Fifteen yards to Nelson. Fifteen more to Cobb, and they are in Seattle territory. The gimpy Rodgers scrambles for twelve more yards to the Seahawks 36-yard line.
Win probability: 45.4%
Incomplete to Lacy. Incomplete to Richard Rodgers. Six yards to Nelson. Green Bay is forced to kick a field goal and Mason Crosby makes it to tie the game and send it to OT.
Win probability: 50%
Seattle wins the coin toss. Matt Hasselbeck mutters, “We’ll take the ball and we’re gonna score,” somewhere in Foxboro. Lynch runs for four yards. Baldwin races for another ten. Lynch for four more and then, as if they had to suffer one more setback before finishing the job, Wilson is sacked for the fifth time in the game. On 3rd and 7 from their own 30-yard line, Wilson throws a perfect pass to Baldwin who had run a perfect route to beat a very good corner in Casey Hayward for 35 yards and a first down.
Win probability: 70%
The next play was inexplicably one of the easiest on the day. Wilson noticed the Packers were in a coverage that offered no safety help over the top and checked to a play that had Kearse going deep down the middle. It was a miracle ending on a very matter-of-fact play.
The message from this game was clear. You can take the ball away five times. You can win the turnover battle. You can injure our best players. You can run down this team’s mathematical chances of winning to zero. It will not be enough.
This is a group of legends who do not obey the laws of this Earth. Numbers cannot measure their resolve. Gravity cannot contain their heart. They are champions bound together by a belief so powerful that the fallout may only be measured in the rings on their fingers.
Teams may step on the field with them, but they do not occupy the same space. Their dedication, camaraderie, and talent transcends the sport.
The same Richard Sherman who overshadowed the team last year after a post-game tirade left the field quietly as the team celebrated their NFC Championship. It was a hidden moment that came in part due to his injury, but in larger part due to a conscious decision by Sherman to let his teammates take center stage this time around. Russell Wilson and Jermaine Kearse were in tears as the weight of their journey sunk in.
It is not just that this team wins, but how they do it. A city celebrates victory today. A nation prepares to be educated once more.