November 30, 2015

Seahawks 39, Steelers 30

I love Mike Tomlin.

Oh, I DETEST the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's Super Bowl XL, obviously. There's those obnoxious fans, who have been spread through the nation like colonists fleeing Cylons since their main local industry collapsed. They wave their banana-yellow snot rags and rationalize rooting for their probably-a-rapist quarterback. And I'm SURROUNDED by them here in Columbus, where the Steelers are probably the most popular NFL team in the city (particularly when the Browns are having a down year, which is... usually). When you combine the fact that a TON of Yinzers ended up in Columbus basically as economic refugees from Pennsylvania with the reality that lots of Steelers either are former OSU Buckeyes or from Ohio (like Ben Roethlisberger), you end up with far too many Myron Cope idolaters here in the Arch City.

So yeah, fuck them. But Mike Tomlin? I love that guy. I'm sure if I was one of his players, he could get me to gargle boiling tar and bend rebar with my bare hands. Beyond that, the Steelers play an aggressive, entertaining style of football, and I love how he approaches in-game decisions. He goes for 2! He goes for it on 4th down! He fakes field goals! He goes for winning touchdowns when the meek settle for field goals and overtime! If the Steelers logo on his hat didn't send me into blind, irrational rage, I'd have to grudgingly admit I wish more coaches managed games the way he does.

With all that said, it was puzzling to see Tomlin kick a field goal with his team down 32-27 and facing a 4th-and-goal from the 3-yard-line with three minutes left in the game. All day, the Steelers had cut through the Hawks' defense like a lightsaber slicing through, well, anything else. Roethlisberger had thrown for 456 yards, and 3 more would give Pittsburgh the lead against a Seattle team that hadn't shown any ability to close out elite opposition all season.

But the Legion of Boom still has that killer rep (and deservedly so). Fail on 4th down and Seattle probably wins. The Seahawks' offense? They don't have that killer rep, do they? Russell Wilson? He's not elite, right? That offensive line? Nothing special (at best). Marshawn Lynch? Injured. Jimmy Graham? Injured. Seattle's wide receivers? Mere jaywalkers in a game of Frogger if they try to go over the middle (What's that other word for people on the street who aren't riding in cars? It's escaping me right now).

Tomlin bet big on the Seahawks going three-and-out and giving Pittsburgh the ball back with plenty of time to kick the winning field goal. He bet perhaps Pittsburgh's entire season. He bet it ALL against Russell Carrington Wilson.

1st down? A penalty, of course. Pittsburgh only declines because it saves clock.

2nd down? Bad exchange, fumble. Thank the Maker that Thomas Rawls fell on it.

Same old (2015) Seahawks... 3rd and 9. Tomlin's gambit was going to pay off.

Then Tomlin lost so big he ended up begging for bus fare back to the Keystone State.

Pittsburgh blitzed. Why not? It had worked against Wilson all season. RW3 faced down the pressure and fired a blaster bolt to The Angry One, and Doug Baldwin caught it in stride. I yelled at the TV "STAY IN BOUNDS, DOUG!!!" Well, he did. He also escaped two Steelers' defenders (utilizing a Beast-Mode-esque stiff arm to shed one of them) and galloped 80 yards for a game-clinching, season-turning, incredibly-fucking-cathartic touchdown.

In my heart, I know Baldwin's rage-fueled romp will go down as one of the most memorable and important moments of the Pete Carroll era, a pivotal play ranking up there with Sidney Rice's OT winner at Soldier Field in 2012 and Richard Sherman's pick-6 in Houston in 2013. Those were singular moments that redefined what we thought was possible for those teams. Baldwin's score wasn't just a knockout punch for Pittsburgh- It was a warning to the rest of the NFL. The Seahawks are coming. Have that go-bag ready, because a storm is approaching.

The Seahawks offered up a strange-but-stirring performance leading up to Baldwin's score. The defense surrendered more passing yards than any Seattle defense ever had before (and hoo boy, have I seen some shaky pass defenses from the Hawks over the last three decades), but they still snagged four interceptions. DeShawn Shead was picked on all day, but he made play after play that was beyond Cary Williams' skill set. Richard Sherman held the explosive Antonio Brown in check and gathered in his first interception of the season. In the 4th quarter, the front four finally started putting pressure on Roethlisberger, and slowed down that meatheaded goon just enough to give Russell Wilson the chance to win the game.

The Wolfbadger was stupendous, turning in the best performance of his career. Five touchdown passes. 345 yards. 147.9 passer rating. Almost all of it from the pocket, which is supposed to be the hole in his resume. Faced with multiple 3rd-and-longs, he converted every single one of consequence. This is just about when Wilson elevated his play in 2012, 2013 and 2014, and if he can sustain it this time around there's no limit to what Seattle can accomplish.

Doug Baldwin had a career day too, hauling in 6 catches for 145 yards and three TDs. That's some Steve Largent shit, y'all. Baldwin's numbers are constrained by the nature of Seattle's offensive system, but it's reasonable to argue that when he retires Angry Doug will be remembered as the second best wide receiver in franchise history. With Jimmy Graham lost for the season, he's more indispensable than ever. The much-maligned Jermaine Kearse stepped up as well, snaring Wilson's two other TD strikes.

Thomas Rawls wasn't as dominant as he was against Santa Clara, but he still offered hope that Seattle can contend for a Super Bowl 50 win even if Marshawn Lynch can't return to the field this season. ALL of the above was made possible by an offensive line that is still flawed but clearly improving every week. Tom Cable deserves some credit this week, as does everyone's favorite punching bag of an offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell.

The Seahawks are 6-5, and currently in position for a playoff berth for the first time all season. As I've said before, this is the exact moment where Seattle starting napalming the rest of the NFL in 2012 and 2014. Huge road challenges against Minnesota and Arizona lay ahead. If the Hawks even just win one of those two games? Not only are they a very safe bet for postseason play, they would also offer "proof of concept" that they could take the rarest of routes to a championship: Win three playoff games on the road, then win the Super Bowl (last done by Green Bay in 2010).

After what we saw yesterday, do you think Charlotte wants any part of us in the playoffs? Do you think Arizona relishes the idea of having to get past us in a 3rd dust-up to get to Santa Clara?

The next couple of months are going to be a fucking blast, aren't they? I'd love to see Pittsburgh again in SB50... assuming Mike Tomlin's bet against Russell Wilson doesn't keep them from even making the playoffs.

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November 24, 2015

Seahawks 29, Santa Clara 13

I've talked a lot in this space lately about how this season has felt like 2004- That forlorn, torturous campaign that ended with a Bobby Engram drop in the end zone and a excruciating playoff loss to the hated St. Louis Rams. We've certainly seen the same sort of spate of blown 4th quarter leads and nauseatingly familiar inconsistent play, but maybe we don't have to reach that far back in history to find a template for comparison. 

Four years ago this week, the Seahawks were in a similar position. They were 6-5, and they had already lost to the division leaders (San Francisco that year), so the NFC West title already seemed out of reach. In all five of their losses, they blew a lead. In three losses, they squandered a 4th-quarter lead. They were talented. They were tough. But something wasn't clicking. 

We know what happened next. The Seahawks posted an upset win at Chicago (in a game NO ONE gave them a chance to win), and then went on a spree of wanton demolition not seen since the cops went on strike in Old Detroit during the 3rd act of Robocop. They won their last 4 regular season games by an aggregate score of 170-43 (including a 42-13 thrashing of the 49ers). They upset DC on the road in the Wild Card game, and were thirty seconds away from a 3rd contest against the Niners (but this time for a trip to the Super Bowl). The team that got to the precipice on the NFC Championship Game bore little resemblance to the team that lost to 4-12 Detroit and 7-9 Miami. 

These Seahawks? They're 5-5. They haven't beaten a team with a winning record yet. They haven't beaten a team with an elite quarterback yet. They've blown BIG 4th quarter leads multiple times. The offensive line has been more putrid than an Arby's grease trap. Their identity-defining, mercilessly punishing All-Pro running back might not play again this season (or ever again for the Seahawks). They're no longer invincible at home, having already lost in Seattle twice. Their All-Pro safety held out for two games and he hasn't been quite the same since. Their franchise quarterback has underperformed on a "Wild Thing Vaughn in most of Major League II" level. They haven't played a complete, impressive 60-minute game yet this season. They are clearly suffering from a post-Super Bowl loss hangover, right? They are done. They are cooked more thoroughly than most Thanksgiving turkeys, right? 

That's the fashionable conventional wisdom, but it might also be deeply wrong. They're still talented enough to build huge leads on teams like Cincinnati and Charlotte, and to erase a huge deficit against Arizona. They have the second best overall defense in the NFL (and also the second best one against the pass, despite some maddening late-game collapses). They have the best rushing offense in the league, even with Marshawn Lynch missing three and a half games so far this season. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are still the best pair of edge pass rushers around, and Jeremy Lane is set to return in order to bolster the Legion of Boom.

Russell Wilson, despite a growing heap of mostly misplaced criticism, just had his best game of the season. That maligned offensive line has vastly improved in recent weeks, keeping Wilson cleaner in the pocket and creating wider running lanes for Seattle ballcarriers. Doug Baldwin is perhaps having the best season of his career. The biggest sources for optimism on offense come in the form of two rookies: WR/KR Tyler Lockett and RB Thomas Rawls. Lockett made an instant impact as a kick returner, but he's becoming a dangerous weapon as a receiver as well. Flash had 2 TDs Sunday, and the last Seahawks rookie wideout to score twice in one game was Joey Galloway all the way back in 1995. 

Lockett, hopefully coupled soon with a healthy Paul Richardson, makes defenses vulnerable to the deep ball on play-action. That only works if Seattle is effectively running the ball. With Thomas Rawls darting into holes and exploding through defenders, that doesn't appear to be a problem for the Seahawks.

The undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan is playing Willie Beamen to Marshawn Lynch's Cap Rooney right now. Sunday he touched the ball a whopping 33 times, and stacked up 245 yards while conquering the Santa Clara end zone twice. Not only does he already have three 100-yard rushing performances- He has averaged a ridiculous 6 yards per carry! Could it be a fluke? Could it just be that he's relatively fresh and healthy compared to the defenses he's flaying alive? Maybe. But the kid is starting to look like another stunning UDFA find by John Schneider, and Life After Shawn is looking slightly less bleak and terrifying all of the sudden.

Next up is Pittsburgh. Fans might want "revenge" for Super Bowl XL, but the players couldn't give less of a fuck about that. They just want to prove they can still beat a playoff-worthy team. In a similar spot 4 years ago, those '12 Hawks stunned the football world with an unexpected triumph in Chicago. With a win over the Steelers, Seattle would serve notice that they're still a legit NFC contender. It's not hyperbole to state that a win this Sunday would change the entire tenor of this season.

Seattle should (and will) beat Baltimore, Cleveland, and St. Louis. If they want to make the playoffs, they'll need to win 2 out 3 from Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Arizona. I don't know about y'all. but I'd prefer to have a playoff spot locked down before that rematch with the Cardinals, if possible. On a totally selfish tip, I'm going to be at the games against Cleveland and St. Louis that bracket Christmas, and I'd like those games to be meaningful. Don't let me down, boys.

You might be thinking "So what? So what if they sneak in as a wild card?" Well, six Wild Card teams have won the Super Bowl, one as recently as 2010. And you don't want another shot at the Packers? At the Panthers? I do, and you KNOW the Hawks do, too.

Oh... Fuck Pittsburgh. Obviously.

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