The Morning After: Seahawks Plant Flag, Topple Mighty Patriots 31-24
It started with the predictable and ended with the sublime. Tom Brady began with a touchdown drive of such ease that Patriots fans exchanged knowing nods and smirks. There is only one Brady. There is only one Bill Belichick. New England fans are so comfortable with their dominance that they watch their football games as if they were choir concerts. Noise is measured in whispers instead of decibels, with the silence only disturbed by a song blaring through the speakers reminding fans “This is our house,” over and over and over. You may want to check the deed. Seattle walked into the king’s court and smacked the crown right off his head. Your unsolvable offense can be solved. Your unbeatable quarterback can be beaten. The untouchable can be touched. Comfortable no more, Patriots fans, along with the rest of the NFL, were left to come to grips with a new reality. The Seattle Seahawks are back, and they intend to take back what is rightfully theirs.
Seattle declares intentions early
Seahawks fans had to share a moment of resignation after the Patriots started by driving 75 yards in 9 plays, facing only one third down, on the way to an opening touchdown. It was so easy. Unless the Seahawks offense showed up, this was sure to be the game when the streak of 81 straight games without losing by more 10 was sure to fall. Russell Wilson and the offense made their presence felt on just the second play from scrimmage when he connected with Tyler Lockett on a gorgeous 36 yards pass down the right side line. This offense is so much more fun and dangerous when Lockett is involved.
Seattle moved the ball all the way down to the Patriots 8-yard line before facing a third down. A short third and four appeared to be converted before Jermaine Kearse decided to try and stretch for the endzone and dropped the ball. It was the first of four trips to the red zone that resulted in just three points.
My son turned to me after the Patriots first touchdown and asked, “What does it look like when you stop the Patriots offense?” I shook my head and said, “I don’t know.” The Seahawks defense showed us on the next drive with a three and out that included some pass pressure to move Brady off his spot, suffocating run defense, and solid third down tackling.
Wilson took the ball back and after a sack and intermediate pass to Paul Richardson, once again targeted Lockett streaking down the sideline. The defender, not wanting to get beat again, pulled Lockett backwards and the officials threw the flag. Patriots fans in the building hated the call. It was a clear penalty, but one I have seen go uncalled. The important part there is the impact taking deep shots has on this offense. When the Seahawks were near the top of the NFL in opponent penalty yards, much of it came from pass interference calls from players attempting to defend Golden Tate and Sidney Rice down field. Those calls only come when the shots are taken.
The next third down saw Wilson find C.J. Prosise for 18 yards. It was a sign of things to come as the rookie made his mark in this game. More on that in a bit. Another failed red zone conversion targeting Kearse had most Seahawks fans pulling their hair out wondering how the team had gone two straight red zone possessions without targeting their 6’7″ tight end who catches passes without the use of limbs and leaps tall football players in a single bound.
I realize it is not as simple as throwing it to Jimmy Graham in the red zone no matter what. Actually, no I don’t. Why can’t we do that again? At least once? Like the pass interference call Lockett drew because the team gave him a chance, Graham cannot make special plays unless the team gives him opportunities to do so.
A second field goal in two red zone possessions felt like the game story was already being written. You cannot show up to a Patriots touchdown fight with field goals in your pockets. Surely, Brady would take the ball back now and put his team up 14-6 to show how adult offenses operate. After all, their team was scoring a touchdown on nearly every other possession (41%) since he returned.
Nope. Three plays. Three yards. Punt. The Seahawks got the ball back and completed an 11 yard pass to Graham for a first down to end the first quarter. Spectators in the stadium were stunned. They shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Game on.
Run game emerges, Brady picked
Seattle mixed in Christine Michael and Prosise for 33 yards rushing on that drive. That matched their complete game total from Monday night against the Bills. It ended in the first of three touchdown passes to Doug Baldwin. A poor snap led to a blocked extra point. The kicking game mechanics continue to be an issue. One of the most automatic parts of the team has become a question mark, and it still is confusing why Clint Gresham is sitting on a couch at home instead of making perfect snap after perfect snap to Jon Ryan.
Still, the Seahawks now led 12-7. Thoughts of a Patriots blowout were fading. Brady got the ball back, and after the Seahawks stuffed LeGarrette Blount for a yard on first down, Rob Gronkowski caught a slant pattern and absorbed a big hit and appeared to fumble the ball on a strip by Kam Chancellor. The call was reversed, and Brady converted the first of many quarterback sneaks for a first down. The Brady Sneak is considered the NFL’s most unstoppable play.
Thankfully, Brady throwing the ball deep is not nearly as certain. He made a terrible decision to throw one up for grabs on the next snap and was intercepted for the first time all season by DeShawn Shead.
Seattle was unable to score on their next possession and had to punt for the first time. There were only six minutes left in the first half. That turned out to be plenty of time for these two offenses.
Brady took his team 81 yards on 11 plays for a touchdown to momentarily put the Patriots on top 14-12. Those botched red zone attempts were looming large. Seattle had controlled the game to this point, but were looking up at the Patriots. Wilson got the ball with 1:05 left on the clock and three timeouts. He only needed 59 seconds to drive 75 yards and find Baldwin for his second touchdown to retake the lead heading into halftime.
Kam makes his presence felt
New England came out in the second half more committed to their run game. That should have been music to Seattle’s ears, but in a troubling twist, they struggled to stop the plodding Blount. He would wind up with just 69 yards and 3.3 yards per carry, but his ability to get 3-7 yards on carries in the second half made this a closer game than it should have been.
The teams traded field goals on three straight possessions, exchanging the lead each time. Frank Clark ended the Patriots last drive in the chain with the manliest of sacks, bulling straight through Nate Solder and then grabbing hold of Brady’s jersey with one hand and dragging him to the ground with Solder still blocking him.
Separation cam next. First, Chancellor separated the ball from Julian Edelman on a short pass in Seahawks territory. Richard Sherman recovered and returned it 14 yards. Chancellor was as jubilant as I have ever seen him. He raced over to the sideline and collapsed on his back kicking his feet and punching the air. That play. This game. It meant something to him. The team can say that every game is a championship contest, and I truly believe that is their approach. Still, this one was special. It was not just Chancellor.
Wilson matriculated the ball down the field on short passes, capping it with a gorgeous looping pass to Baldwin for another score. Wilson roared at the moment. It was a rare show of emotion for a guy who typically jogs off the field with nothing more than an occasional fist pump.
This has been a trying season for the Seahawks trigger man. His legs have always been there to bail him out and devastate defenses. First the ankle, and then the knee injury, have made merely taking a three step drop a painful endeavor. Wilson was poised to enter the next echelon of football elite with legitimate MVP aspirations. Those dreams may have to wait, but this game represented a restatement of who he is as a quarterback. This opponent is inextricably linked to arguably his most heart-wrenching moment as a pro. It was nice to see him recognize and celebrate the significance of that moment.
A final drive
Five offenses have had the ball with a chance to win the game on their final possession against the Seahawks defense this year. They have scored a grand total of zero points. That includes the top-ranked Falcons and the Brady-led Patriots. This drive was a little different than the others.
Brady moved the ball almost unchallenged down to the Seattle 2-yard line. For a team that had been running effectively, including the most unstoppable play, a touchdown seemed an eventuality, not a question. The Seahawks had different expectations. It is really remarkable if you think about. Where do they get off thinking they can stop a team from traveling six feet when they just let them travel 73 yards in a flash?
Brady sneaked the ball for a yard. Second down. Blount went up the middle and met Chancellor with a slew of his best friends for no gain. Third down. Brady tries to sneak again but fumbles the ball to lose a yard. Fourth down. Seattle, perhaps as a symbolic gesture, is charged with having twelve men in the huddle. The defense is incredulous. They are sure they have only eleven, before finally sending a confused player to the sideline.
Would the Patriots dare sneak it again? Go with bludgeoning Blount? No. The Seahawks had answered that question on the previous three plays. Seattle had earned the respect necessary to force a throw.
Brady obliged and lofted the ball toward the far corner of the end zone as his favorite target strained to reach it Gronkowski pushed Chancellor to the ground as the ball fell harmlessly to the ground. Patriots fans screamed for a flag. It was clearly offensive pass interference, but no Seahawks fan would have been surprised to see it called the other way. Finally, mercifully, the officials let the players decide the outcome.
Seattle earned that win. They were the better team.
One of the most striking aspects of my trip to Boston was just how confident the Patriots fans were in their team. This was not 49er fan absurd macho bravado. It was a level of certainty in their team that I have not experienced elsewhere, except maybe Yankees fans back in the Joe Torre heyday. When I would ask what they thought about the game this weekend, most either seemed confused by the question or smirked, as if to indicate there was nothing special about this matchup. There is Brady and Gronk, and then a nameless, faceless team on the other side there to take the punishment and be discarded.
It is understandable. Their team and their coach are a true dynasty. It also makes them vulnerable, especially against a team like the Seahawks who are intimidated by no one. Fans are one thing. The Patriots team is not outwardly arrogant the way the Panthers team of last year were. They are just so accustomed to being the best that facing teams that do not melt in their presence is almost confusing for them. Don’t you know who we are? It’s cute how you think you are in this game. Wait…what…we lost?
That is part of what makes their 16-year run so remarkable. Winning drains teams of that competitive desire. New England has managed to maintain their level of play due in part to rare talent at key positions, and in part due to quenchless thirst for winning. Still, this is a team that has never lost a division title with Brady at the helm. True adversity is foreign to them, and cannot be manufactured. Seattle emerged from the primordial muck of Tim Ruskell and Jim Mora Jr. They know what it feels like to enter games overmatched and without a clear path to victory. It serves them well even now, when their talent and accomplishments would justify a different mindset. These nuances matter when the talent and coaching edges are negligible. Believing the throne is your birthright versus believing you have to scratch and claw for every inch shows up when times are toughest.
Newcomers make their mark
Prosise was easily the most exciting fresh face to join the fray for Seattle. He became the first Seahawks player to have at least 66 yards rushing and 87 yards receiving in a game since Shaun Alexander in 2002, and this was only his first start. His running style was a rare combination of sleek and physical. He took hits and delivered them. He spun around defenders and caught passes behind them. It is unclear how the return of Thomas Rawls will effect Prosise’s role, but we now know that he is a weapon that teams must account for. That can only help moving forward.
A less heralded performer was defensive lineman Damontre Moore. He was once again a disruptive force along the line, finishing with half of a sack and getting into the backfield multiple times. He was used sparingly, but is earning more snaps. The thought of him combining with Michael Bennett in a few weeks should have Seahawks fans salivating and opponents shaking.
The young offensive line deserves praise as well. Wilson only was able to throw for the yards he did because the line was giving him time on most dropbacks. Sure, there were sacks, but there were also plays where Wilson was bouncing on his toes for long stretches of time as his line kept him totally clean. They also made nice strides in the run game and had very few penalties. I’ll have to take another look on replay, but Germain Ifedi appeared to have his most consistent game, and George Fant took a step forward even if he still has a long ways to go.
Here we go again. Seattle has taken the punches and survived injury. They have faced the three best offenses in football (two on the road) and held them to 25 points or less. This offense is getting healthier and looks more than capable of scoring more than any offense facing this Seahawks defense.
A dependable running game is the only missing element, and that is showing signs of gaining steam. This was the fourth-highest scoring offense in the NFL last season. They have more weapons now. There was no Graham. No Prosise. No Rawls. No Richardson.
The road ahead is a rugged one, with another contender coming to town next week. The Eagles, the Packers, the Panthers, the Cardinals and the Rams are all still on the docket. None of them can beat the Seahawks when they are at this level.
Super Bowls cannot be won in November, but the confidence needed to win one can. Past seasons have proven that when this Seahawks team captures the belief that they are the best team in the NFL, their pace becomes supersonic. The rest of the world blurs around them. This feels like one of those moments. The mighty have fallen. Your Seahawks have slain them. They are a league of extraordinary gentlemen who have completed the toughest task before reaching full strength. Those bemoaning the lack of parity in today’s NFL may have been right, but about the wrong team. There is no ceiling for this Seahawks team, just steps back to the throne.