The Morning After: Seahawks Take Care of Business, Beat Browns 30-13

The Seahawks clinched a playoff spot on Sunday, but like a ripple arriving at shore, it is merely a reminder of something that happened much earlier. There have been teams that flipped their season in the second half. Improved play coming from rediscovering their old form, or welcoming a player back from injury, or just the development of young players. It is hard to imagine any team metamorphosizing into something so completely different and powerful while losing players as the Seahawks have. Pete Carroll has played the role of The Wizard, as Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett and this offensive line follow the yellow brick road. They each have found what they always wanted with Carroll helping to show them they already had it. The best part is there are no red slippers threatening to click and find out this has all been just a dream. This is real, and that playoff ripple that just came ashore is going to be followed by much larger waves. Something big is coming this way.

When special becomes ordinary

Seattle scored 30 points. Wilson threw for three touchdowns. Doug Baldwin caught two touchdowns. None of these accomplishments will get people overly excited anymore. We can try to put these performances into context to help them shine, but when they are happening every week for over a month, they start to feel like a new standard has been set.
Wilson threw for 249 yards and was not intercepted. That combination of 249+ yards, 3+ TDs, and 0 INTs is one of the more subdued performances for Wilson over the past five games. Now consider that he had only two such games in his career before these last five games. Tom Brady won three Super Bowls in his first four seasons, but only had five games like this during that early stretch. Wilson has done it five straight times. Peyton Manning only had three games like this in his first four seasons. Wilson is making the extraordinary appear mundane. That is greatness, defined.
Baldwin is doing things that only the greatest receiver in history has done. His 10 touchdowns in four games puts him in a sentence with Jerry Rice. 

There were 86 players with more touchdowns than Doug Baldwin after 8 games this season. He now leads the NFL with 13.

His 11 receiving touchdowns in the second half of the season put him next to players like Dez Bryant (2014), Rob Gronkowski (2011), Randy Moss (2007), Sterling Sharpe (1994), Rice (1987), and Mark Clayton (1984). It is no accident that those receivers had some history’s best quarterbacks throwing to them.

Anyone who has watched Brady and Gronkowski play knows that they do not look remarkable when they combine for a couple of touchdowns. It looks easy. It looks repeatable. It can, at times, look unstoppable. Wilson to Baldwin certainly has looked easy and repeatable. The unstoppable test can only be taken over an extended period of time.

One of the most encouraging parts is that we have seen these two combine for impossible throws and catches in the past, and at the biggest moments in the biggest games. That they are shredding defenses with easy pitch and catches now, bodes well for when the coverage gets tighter and the spotlight gets brighter.

Wilson has an outside shot to have a season for the ages. Only one quarterback has ever passed for over 4000 yards, thrown 34 touchdowns or more, had at least a 68% completion rate, and 7 or fewer interceptions. Aaron Rodgers did it in 2011. Wilson would need to average 231 yards and 2 TDs per game the next two weeks to join Rodgers who had what may have been the most impressive statistical season in history for a quarterback. That is, if you value efficiency over volume.

Browns better than advertised

It won’t show up anywhere on the box score, but the Browns played hard and played pretty well on Sunday. There were not gaping holes for running backs or busted coverages to exploit. Seattle had to work for everything they got. 
Wilson took a number of big hits, and was fortunate to stay healthy. The woeful Browns offense also played a hard-nosed game. Johnny Manziel was poised and mostly accurate. Duke Johnson is a nice young weapon who helped Cleveland become the first team in four weeks to rush for more than 59 yards against the Seahawks defense, and the first team all year to average over 5.0 yards per carry (5.5). 
They were let down by some dropped passes that surely left Browns fans grumbling. Seattle was clearly the superior team, but the Browns put up a better fight than any team the Seahawks have faced since the epic Steelers battle.

Committee adjourned

The Seahawks rightfully came into this game with a running-back-by-committee approach. Derrick Coleman had earned the right to see if his fullback mentality and halfback history would mesh well with the no-nonsense Tom Cable run game. He did little with that opportunity (5 carries, 10 yards). Bryce Brown was an unknown for this team, but had the profile of a good running back for what Seattle likes to do. He played okay. Although, his final tally of 43 yards on 9 carries for a 4.8 average were a bit misleading. Only two of his nine carries went for more than four yards. 
Then there was Christine Michael. The guy with all the talent who has been unable to convince any team to give him more than five carries in a game this year. He gave Seattle exactly what they needed from a running back. He was reliable, tough, and unglamorous. He was also much better than the other backs. Twelve of his sixteen carries went for four yards or more. 

75% of Christine Michael’s carries went for four yards or more, 12 in all. No other Seattle running back had more than two such rushes.

It was just one game. It was just 16 carries. That is the right reaction and the right mentality, especially for Michael. Still, if you are playing poker and are dealt a pair of jacks along with some middling cards, you know what to discard and what to keep. Michael should get the bulk of the carries against the Rams to see how he handles that.

There are no guarantees that Marshawn Lynch will be back soon or be himself when he returns. Michael is the most talented healthy runner on this roster, and the team needs to see what they can expect from him. Part of me really wants to see him run for a 100 yards in Washington in the first round of the playoffs just to hear Redskins fans lose their minds knowing they gifted him to Seattle off their practice squad. I am a little mischievous that way.

Defense still not locked in

Critiquing a defense that gave up 13 points is always tricky. Seattle is now just five points behind the Bengals for the honor of being the #1 ranked scoring defense in the NFL. They would be the first team to ever do that four years in a row.
Yet, the tackling and coverage were not quite to Seahawks standards. Kam Chancellor and DeShawn Shead were missing. Kelcie McCray, Jeremy Lane, and Marcus Burley all played reasonably well in increased roles. 
Seattle was fortunate to have some big dropped passes by Cleveland. They also had a high effort, but low production day from their pass rush. Frank Clark has not followed up his 3.0 sacks in two games highlight with any more impact plays. Bobby Wagner looked like he was regaining his form, but took a step backwards against the Browns.
The group will get a nice test from the Rams this week who put up 31 points and feature better weapons running and catching than Seattle has faced recently. The best game this defense has played this year was against the Vikings. There was an energy and ferocity in how they swarmed to the ball that has not been there consistently in other games. The offense is a snowball turned avalanche rolling toward the playoffs. This defense still has some ground to gain if they are to be a Super Bowl contender.

Ticket punched

There is a great line in the movie, The Wild. The main character’s mother tells her, “There’s a sunrise and sunset everyday, and you can choose to be there for it—you can put yourself in the way of beauty.” People can debate where this stretch of play from Wilson and Baldwin and the offense fits in the pantheon of NFL play. They can dismiss the Seahawks dominant play of late by pointing to questionable competition. They can ignore the wins over an otherwise unstoppable Steelers team and a very stubborn Vikings squad. That is them. What are you going to do?

The Seahawks are going back to the playoffs. Seattle streets are once again choked with blue and green believers. The path will be grueling and treacherous. Faith will be tested. A fall would be painful, but elation is reserved for those who put their heart on the line. It is a journey we can take together. This group of men have proven their mettle each year. Put yourself in the way of beauty. The Seahawks are rising.

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