The Morning After: Seahawks Stun Panthers in Thrilling 30-27 Victory
The script seemed set for a gut-punching loss. Seattle had fought hard, but their defense had been shredded all day and the Panthers had the ball in field goal range with under two minutes to play. Grab another first down. Run down the clock. Bleed the Seahawks of their final timeouts. Then, kick the game-winning field goal and watch electric blue gum-chewing, mirror-loving, Cam Newton trot off the field with that big grin. I could taste the aggravation. The missed opportunities were easy to pick out. The logical end to what has been a season of unlikely hope was upon us. Instead of a logical end, logic ended. Carolina chose to pass on second down and a Seahawks pass rush that had done nothing all day forced a throwaway incompletion to save a timeout. Third down. The Panthers run a pick play to free up speedy D.J. Moore and Tre Flowers brings him down short of the line to gain. Fourth down. Graham Gano, who had made 42 and of his last 44 field goals steps into a makeable 52-yard kick and misses it wide right. Seattle ball at their 42-yard line with 1:40 left to play. Incomplete pass on first down. Five yard pass on second. It is now 3rd and 5 with just over a minute to play and still on Seattle’s side of the field. Wilson takes the snap and his initial reads are not open. He steps to his left to avoid pressure, and sees a clever Tyler Lockett breaking upfield. He unleashes that signature parabolic deep ball that seemingly has no choice but to find its target, and as the camera pans to see what Wilson saw, there is Lockett waiting for the ball to land in his sure hands. Ball game. The simultaneous euphoria of winning paired with the pouting of Newton is like vanilla ice cream and hot fudge.
When the clock hit zero, all sorts of odd things became true. The Panthers lost their first game at home despite having their highest yardage total of the season. Carolina lost for the first time when rushing for 220 yards or more, having been 14-0 in such games before this one. Seattle beat a team despite giving up over 475 yards and over 8.4 yards per play. This was just the fourth time a team had done that since the merger, and the first time since—guess who—the Seahawks did it to the Chiefs in 2002. Said another way there have only been two times in the past 30 years a team has won a game like that, and the Seahawks did it both times. Seattle had lost six straight when an opponent scored 27+ points and were 3-35 since Pete Carroll started in 2010 in such games. They are now 4-35. That final flurry was not even the unlikeliest play of the day.
When Wilson uncorked that 35-yard pass and David Moore caught it for a game-tying touchdown on fourth down and three, they did something that only one other duo has done since at least 1994. Chris Chandler threw a 40-yard touchdown to Chris Sanders on 4th and 25 to help the Houston Oilers tie the game on the road in the 4th quarter. Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green for a 51-yard touchdown to tie the game on the road on fourth down in the fourth quarter, but that was a hail mary as time expired, which is pretty different. Think of all the great players and great plays you have seen over the past 25 years, and let it sink in that what you saw Wilson and Moore do on that play has been done only one other time. Bizarre and awesome: the motto of the 2018 Seattle Seahawks.
The cliché is that football games are always decided on four of five pivotal plays. This game could have swung on far more. If…
The Seahawks don’t stop Newton for 2 yards on 3rd and 4 on their first drive
The Seahawks don’t stop Newton for 1 yards on 4th and 2 on the next play
Naz Jones doesn’t tackle Christian McCaffery for a 3-yard loss on 3rd and 2 at the Seahawks 4-yard line on their second drive
Flowers doesn’t tackle McCaffery short of the first down on another red zone trip before the half to force a field goal
Bradley McDougald doesn’t tip and intercept a pass in the red zone on the first drive of the second half
Wilson doesn’t hit Moore for 54 yards on 3rd and 12 at their own 33-yard line
Wilson doesn’t hit Moore for that 4th down touchdown
Frank Clark and Jarran Reed don’t force Newton to throw it away on that 2nd down on their final drive
Flowers doesn’t make that tackle on Moore on 3rd down
Lockett doesn’t adjust his route and Wilson sees him and throws to him on the last drive
the Seahawks do not win.
I would come up with a similar list of plays that could have been the reason the Seahawks lost. It starts with the five Panthers fumbles that Seattle did not recover, and then includes another super basic touchdown pass Wilson missed to Doug Baldwin in the second quarter. Wilson and Moore also failed to hook up on another should-have-been touchdown in the fourth quarter. When you total up all the 3rd and 4th downs and the red zone opportunities, the Seahawks converted 10/20 (50%) and the Panthers converted 6/16 (37.5%). That was ultimately the difference. (Note: I am excluding the final red zone possession for the Seahawks where they were not trying to score a touchdown and ran down the clock to kick the winning field goal)
This game was about more than the numbers. Brian Schottenheimer had not proven he was both willing and able to set aside the run and lean on the passing game when the situation demanded it. Carolina is the best run defense the Seahawks have faced since the Cowboys in week three. They were the worst pass defense Seattle has faced since the Lions. Then they lost defensive backs to injury. Oh, and your defense had little chance of slowing the opposing offense. You could not have a game that screamed more for passing the ball. To his credit, he leaned on Wilson and the receiving crew to carry the day, and they did it.
Consider that the Seahawks ran for over 270 yards two weeks ago, and threw for over 330 yards yesterday. When Carroll talks about balance, it is not always about achieving it in the same game. It is about being capable of running or passing when the situation calls for it.
Wilson is on pace to have his best season. His passer rating is a career high 112.0, and he looks like he is going to finish with a career high in touchdowns. There is a sizable contingent of Seahawks fans who believe Schottenheimer is holding Wilson back. There seems to be at least as much evidence that he is creating an environment where Wilson thrives.
We are seeing so much more of the deep play action passes that are a specialty of Wilson. There are fewer total dropbacks, giving defenses less opportunity to focus on the rushing the passer, which creates fewer hits on Wilson and fewer turnovers through fumbles or rushed throws for interceptions. Look at how focused the Panthers were on stopping the Seahawks rushing attack. You cannot focus on stopping one thing without leaving yourself more vulnerable on others.
I am nowhere close to pledging my loyalty to Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator. He was a disaster in the Chargers loss, shows questionable strategic thinking, and seems to play defense instead of offense too often. It would be pig-headed, though, to ignore the positive results he has helped the team achieve. Seattle has scored 27 or more points in three straight games, for the second time this season. They had not scored 27+ points three games in a row since the 2015 season. They have now done it in six of the past seven games. They lead the league in rushing yards and have the fifth-rated passer in football.
They are doing all that with questionable talent. Baldwin has been injured all season and nowhere near his normal self. The offensive line has been playing well, but I would argue that is largely in spite of the talent as opposed to because of it. Moore can be great, but he is still incredibly raw and only in his second season. George Fant has been forced to play tight end, and Nick Vannett has been the only other option much of the year. Most fans look at that situation and give all the credit to Wilson. The problem with that logic is that Wilson played in the first two games of the season and threw three picks on his way to two losses.
What changed in week three was not that Wilson entered the picture, but that Schottenheimer changed the way he called plays and helped this team find its identity again. They became predictable, but there was strength in that. Opponents knew what Seattle was going to do, the Seahawks knew what they were going to do, and they repeatedly overpowered the opposition anyway. That mentality has been the single biggest positive of this season. The Seahawks have gotten back to being bullies, at least on offense.
Now, they have shown they can float like a butterfly after stinging like a bee. Schottenheimer and Mike Solari deserve praise for that.
The defense, on the other hand, is in trouble. The secondary has been atrocious when facing offenses that know how to throw the ball. Thankfully, three of the final five games do not involve such offenses. Neither Flowers nor Shaquill Griffin are making plays on the ball with any consistency. Barkevious Mingo is a disaster tackling. Austin Calitro is in over his head. Even McDougald has fallen back to the pack after a blistering start to the season. There is reason for some hope when Mychal Kendricks returns to the team after this next game. He will help.
But there is an upper limit on this group. The Seahawks will go as far as their offense will take them. That might be to 10 or 11 wins and even a playoff victory. This season has never been about winning big. It has been about finding footing to stop a slide and begin a new ascent. Part of what had been lost was the toughness associated with running the football. Another part had been the late-game magic that Wilson created so often. After a series of missed opportunities to pull out close wins, the Seahawks now have two straight fourth quarter comebacks against quality opponents, including one on the road.
I don’t see them finding their dominant defense this year, but that is what the offseason is for. This year, we celebrate each step forward. Four of the final five games will be at home. Seattle has the tiebreaker over many of the teams they are competing with for the wildcard spots in the playoffs, including Newton’s Panthers. They have gone toe-to-toe with the Rams twice and lost by 2 and 5 points. Give the Seahawks another shot at that team and I like their chances. No team is better suited to fill the role of wildcard in the playoffs. Logic has tried to define these Seahawks, and repeatedly failed. Carolina is left muttering to themselves after this latest Seahawks surprise. Pull up a chair. This is going to be some kind of ending.