November 25, 2014

Seahawks 19, Cardinals 3

Late November, 1999. The Seattle Seahawks were the surprise leaders of the AFC West at 8-2. They confounded expectations by pulling off big road upsets in Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Kansas City. Their aggressive defense was among the league leaders in takeaways, and young quarterback Jon Kitna unexpectedly shined over the season's first two-and-a-half months. The Hawks seemed to be on a trajectory that would land them in Atlanta for Super Bowl XXXIV. In week 12 they faced the 6-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Seattle was favored by a touchdown to prevail at home.

Then it all fell apart.

The Tampa defense terrorized Jon Kitna, sacking him three times and forcing him to commit six turnovers. The Bucs won 16-3, and they began a hot streak that would get them all the way to the NFC Championship Game. The Seahawks, now exposed (particularly in Kitna's case), imploded. They limped to a 9-7 finish, backed into the playoffs, and closed the Kingdome with a heartbreaking Wild Card loss to the Dolphins and the decrepit Dan Marino. A severe beating from a Championship defense irrevocably wounded the 1999 Seahawks.

On Sunday, Seattle was on the other end of a similar equation. The Arizona Cardinals rolled in at 9-1, riding an opportunistic defense and the surprisingly solid performance of a young quarterback to the top slot in the NFC. Despite being a middling team in terms of advanced statistical measures, the Cardinals streaked to the NFL's best record by winning every "coin flip" game they played. The rival Seahawks came in at 6-4, needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. After a dominant 19-3 win, I think it's fair to ask: Did the Seahawks just break the Cardinals?

They certainly delivered their best defensive performance of the season, holding Arizona to three points and a paltry 204 yards of total offense. The narrative all season has been "what's wrong with Seattle's defense?" The statistics no longer support that narrative. At this point, with that unit inching closer to full health, they lead the NFL in total yards allowed and are 7th in scoring defense. They relentlessly pressured Drew Stanton with their front four while the Legion of Boom had a radar lock on his potential targets. First the first time since September, the Seahawks defense looked as overpowering as they did in 2013 (in no small part thanks to the return of Bobby Wagner), and capable of smothering the enemy.

Special teams also approached their stratospheric performance of a year ago (with the exception of on blocked Hauschka field goal attempt), blocking a punt and dominating field position with exceptional punt coverage and workmanlike returns from Bryan Walters. Offensively, the Hawks still lack a real vertical threat (which is my main source of concern about their Super Bowl prospects), but they've built the most potent ground attack in football. With Marshawn Lynch battling a stomach ailment, Russell Wilson led the team in rushing with 73 yards on 10 carries (Wilson is on pace for 937 yards rushing on the season), and had one of his best passing performances of the season (17/22 for 211 yards and a TD for a 121.6 rating). Play-calling and Red Zone efficiency are still grave concerns, but it's hard to consider Seattle's offense punchless when they are 11th the NFL in scoring.

The formula that led Seattle to the Super Bowl last season was a punishing ground game punctuated by the occasional deep shot, plus a suffocating defense that consistently won the turnover battle, and otherworldly special teams. It appears that they've restored the rushing attack and the elite defensive performance. If they can find a way to stretch the field (Please step up, Kearse and Richardson), find consistency on special teams, and force more turnovers, they have an excellent chance of repeating as World Champions.

Seattle has no chance to savor that season-saving win as a trip to Santa Clara looms on Thanksgiving Night, with the winner pointed towards winning the NFC West (I predict Arizona will stagger to an 11-5 finish. It won't be as spectacular a collapse as the 1999 Seahawks, but it will keep them from winning the NFC West) and the loser left to desperately claw uphill towards the playoffs. The Hawks have won 4 out 5, and I think they're set to author the franchise's greatest Thanksgiving moment since their 1986 upset win at Texas Stadium. After that? Look out for a '99-Bucs-esque deep playoff run. The difference will be Seattle won't fall in the NFC Championship, and the Cardinals will have to watch their feathered northern rivals celebrate a Championship on their home field.

Would You Like To Know More?

No comments: