NFC West: Earl Thomas
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
But considering where the team is headed with it salary-cap issues one year from now, it appears unlikely Seattle would use a franchise tag on any of them.
There are three possible franchise designations -- exclusive tender, non-exclusive tender and transition player. All three are explained here.
The Seahawks know a day of reckoning is coming after next season when the contracts are up for cornerback Richard Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas, and quarterback Russell Wilson is eligible to renegotiate his original contract.
That’s going to cost $35 million to $40 million to keep all three of them. A franchise designation could make sense next year for Sherman or Thomas.
But for now, the cost is just too steep for Bennett or Tate. Bennett would receive a raise of almost $8 million, going from $4.8 million to $12.6 million. Tate’s salary would be an astronomical increase from $880,000 against the salary cap to $11.6 million.
That’s just too steep a price to pay for a team that has to plan ahead for the enormous salary issues coming soon.
However, a franchise tag for Hauschka isn’t completely out of the question. It would cost the Seahawks a comparatively low $3 million, moving Hauschka from $620,000 to $3.6 million.
It may seem a little far-fetched to use the franchise tag on a kicker, but the Seahawks have done it before. General manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll opted to use it on kicker Olindo Mare in 2010, but they haven’t used it since.
Hauschka was one of the best kickers in the league last season, missing only two attempts, and one of those was blocked. He also improved his distance on kickoffs with touchbacks on 52 percent on those kicks.
Nevertheless, it’s more likely the Seahawks will try to sign Hauschka to a multiyear deal than use the franchise tag.
Probably too much has been made of that considering that following Seattle's blueprint to perfection is a lot easier said than done. Draft and develop is the right idea but it's far more difficult in execution than elocution.
That isn't to say the Rams are trying to duplicate exactly what Seattle has done. Not that it's the wrong path to follow but with two picks in the top half of the 2014 NFL draft, there's one blueprint absolutely worth following for the Rams: doing everything possible to come up with a facsimile of Seattle's 2010 first-round haul.
For all the talk of what a find quarterback Russell Wilson was or what a steal the trade for Marshawn Lynch became, Seattle's path to the championship was largely set in motion by a pair of home run selections in the first round of the 2010 draft.
That year, the Seahawks had pick Nos. 6 and 14 and had needs at offensive tackle and free safety, among other spots. They had the additional pick from a trade the season before in which they fleeced Denver out of a future first-round pick in exchange for a second-round choice which became cornerback Alphonso Smith.
Seattle had a pair of fastballs right down the middle and hit them both of the park, selecting tackle Russell Okung at No. 6 and safety Earl Thomas at No. 14.
Okung has battled injuries but when healthy is one of the elite tackles in the game. He went to the Pro Bowl in 2012.
Thomas is the heart and soul of the "Legion of Boom" and has established himself as one of the game's elite players regardless of position. He has earned three Pro Bowl trips and been named first-team All Pro three consecutive years.
Coincidentally, of the Rams' needs heading into this year's draft, a big, physical offensive tackle and a rangy free safety rank pretty high in the pecking order. Although the sample size is too small to make sweeping declarations, the Rams did well with two first-round picks last year when they grabbed receiver Tavon Austin and linebacker Alec Ogletree.
General manager Les Snead is well aware of just how much having two first-round picks can alter a team's future.
"I even have a little chart hanging on my grease board that basically has every team that had 2 picks in the first round in the history of the draft and who they drafted," Snead said. "So basically what you're telling me is we've got to pick Hall of Fame players. We'd better prepare as thoroughly as possible."
Seattle landing Okung and Thomas is just one example of a franchise-altering first round. Perhaps the most famous two-pack of picks in league history is the 1996 NFL draft when Baltimore used the fourth pick on tackle Jonathan Ogden and the 26th selection on linebacker Ray Lewis. Ogden is already in the Hall of Fame and Lewis will join him soon after he becomes eligible.
Of course, Rams fans with a good memory might still have nightmares about that same draft. Armed with picks 6 and 18, the Rams took running back Lawrence Phillips and receiver Eddie Kennison. Those two whiffs certainly did nothing to help the Rams get back to respectability, especially considering they could have potentially had Eddie George and Marvin Harrison instead.
At first glance, this year's tackle class appears to have some elite talent with players like Auburn's Greg Robinson and Texas A&M's Jake Matthews. It remains to be seen whether any of the top safeties would merit a pick in the range of the Rams' 13th pick or if the Rams would even select one in the first round. Other positions will obviously be under consideration as well.
Expecting to land a pair of Hall of Famers like Ogden and Lewis is probably asking too much. But there's no doubt the Rams could do a lot worse than adding a duo like Okung and Thomas to fill positions of need.
But there were some players on the other side of the ball who deserve to be honored for their play this season.
The problem is deciding who deserves it more than the other players.
The NFL's Defensive Player of the Year will be named this weekend.
ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson discuss the top candidates for the award.
Wells: Bill, it appears that defensive player of the year is a wide-open race this season. There are a number of different players who deserve to win it. Robert Mathis in Indianapolis, Carolina's Luke Kuechly, St. Louis' Robert Quinn, Seattle's Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, San Francisco's NaVorro Bowman, who you cover on a regular basis. Who do you think deserves the award?
Wells: I'm sure some people will call you and I homers, but I've got to give the edge to Mathis because he was a one-man wrecking crew on defense. It was personal and team oriented for Mathis. He wanted to prove the he could still be a force without playing alongside of Dwight Freeney. Mathis had no problem talking about how that added fuel to his already flaming fire. He backed it up by leading the league in sacks with 19.5. He ended up accounting for 46.4 percent of the Colts' sacks this season because they only had 42 as a team. Mathis used his infamous chop down on the quarterback's passing arm to force a league-leading eight fumbles. Those eight forced fumbles led to 35 points for Indianapolis. The Colts struggled at times defensively during the season. They would have been really bad if they didn't have Mathis on the roster. You covered games involving Seattle's Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman three times, including the NFC Championship Game. Is there a legitimate argument for either one of them to be DPOY?
Williamson: Oh, certainly on both Seattle players. Again, lots of great candidates here. Sherman and Thomas are among the best defensive players in the league and they are a big reason why the Seahawks are preparing to play in the Super Bowl. Thomas is a tone-setter at the back end of a special defense. Sherman is probably the best cornerback in the NFL and one of the best players in the game regardless of position. The 49ers tested him with the game on the line in the NFC title game and they lost because of it. There are really no wrong answers here. I can't knock Mathis or any of the other candidates. But I just think Bowman deserves to win the award because of his overall impact on the game. There's really no way for offenses to avoid him. Mike, do you think Mathis is a complete player or is he a top candidate solely on his pass-rush prowess?
Wells: This is where the argument doesn't favor Mathis. He rarely dropped back into coverage because he's a pass-rushing linebacker. I'm not saying he isn't capable of being in pass coverage, but I haven't seen him do it enough because coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense is all about getting after the quarterback with Mathis. His ability to pressure the quarterback trickles down to players like linebacker Jerrell Freeman and the entire secondary. It allows them to gamble on the ball more defensively. Some may consider Mathis a one-dimensional defensive player, but he does that one thing well. Seattle's Russell Wilson and Manning, the two starting quarterbacks in this weekend's Super Bowl, can validate that because Mathis sacked both of them during the regular season.
Is Bowman's ability to defend pass coverage the main reason you give him the edge over Mathis?
Williamson: No, it's just his overall game. Again, he impacts it in every way. Look at his stat line: There's nothing he didn't do. He was making plays on first, second and third down. And, yes, he was just as apt to make a play 15 yards downfield as he was at the line of scrimmage. In fact, on his interception return for a touchdown, he was supposed to blitz but he read the play and darted back into coverage. He had 118 solo tackles, the second most in the NFL this season. Again, there are no wrong answers here, but for me Bowman is the best answer.
The Seattle Seahawks don't care. They won't be listening in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Seattle defense knows Manning says a lot of things while he's making his play-calling decisions before each snap, but the Seahawks won't try to translate it like some on-the-field United Nations interpreter.
"You can't be a genie and think what he's thinking," Seattle free safety Earl Thomas said. "Obviously, you don't know what's coming. That's why you just have to be ready for anything. You just have to think principled ball. Why are you out there? It's best to just line up and do what you do."
What they do, in becoming the No. 1 defense in the NFL, is play aggressively and be physical at the point of attack with press coverage. The Seahawks aren't going to change things to try to second-guess Manning's constant audibles.
"Certainly for us, we have a real style about how we play," Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. "We have to focus on our style and our football. We know that part of those checks [Manning's signals] are dummy calls at the line of scrimmage.
"So for us, it's more about how we play than the checks and the information that they're doing on the other side."
Seattle strong safety Kam Chancellor said it comes down to the communications between the guys on defense more than deciphering Manning's codes.
"It's not worth it trying to figure out what he's saying," Chancellor said. "Just play your defense, play your coverage, know what you have to do on your side of the ball and just be sound at it."
And, for the record, what's does Chancellor think "Omaha" means?
"I have no clue," he said.
Cornerback Brandon Browner is serving a one-year suspension, reportedly for marijuana use, a suspension that started, officially, last month. Browner is planning legal action against the NFL to fight his suspension.
But for now, the Super Bowl is something Browner will have to watch on TV. In some ways, Browner is the forgotten man, but not with teammate Earl Thomas.
"I check on him all the time," Thomas said Thursday. "He’s still my brother. He has shed blood like everybody else on this team. You never forget the guys you sweat with and had so many good times with. You love him like a brother.
"Of course he wants to be a part of this, but we don’t throw that in his face. He knows this team is special. We’re playing for him now. We all talk about how much we miss him. We wish he was here."
However, when the big game is over, the Seahawks have difficult contract decisions to make because they know a day of reckoning is coming when they will need to pay some star players big bucks in the near future.
It won't be this year, but soon for cornerback Richard Sherman and quarterback Russell Wilson. Sherman has one year left on a deal that counts only $690,000 against the salary cap next season. He will soon command a salary of well over $10 million a year.
Wilson will make only $662,000, next season, but after that, some big-time renegotiating is going to happen. And the day will come when the Seahawks will have to pay Wilson at least $20 million more per year than he's making now.
All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas also has only a year left on a deal that pays him $3.7 million in 2014.
So some maneuvering will be in order soon, and some players currently on the roster will have to move on because of salary-cap limits.
The immediate concerns are wide receiver. Golden Tate is a free agent who made only $880,000 this season. Doug Baldwin is a restricted free agent with a salary that counts only $560,000 against the cap. Can Seattle keep both of them and pay Percy Harvin's six-year, $67 million deal?
Maybe, but certainly not if receiver Sidney Rice stays. He has two years left on five-year, $41 million contract. It's unlikely he will return.
No doubt the Seahawks wish they had signed defensive lineman Michael Bennett to more than a one-year deal at $4.8 million. He won't be easy to keep after the sensational year he's had.
Seattle also must make a decision on starting right tackle Breno Giacomini, a free agent who counted $4.7 million against the cap this season.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. “They’re an unbelievable, record-setting offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback. That’s as good as it gets. And that’s as tough a game as you can get in the Super Bowl.
“The No. 1 defense [Seattle] against the No. 1 offense [Denver]. It doesn’t happen like this too often where both No. 1 seeds make it. It’s a testament to the hard work on both teams. I’m sure it’s going to be a fantastic game."
It may be the first snowy game in a Super Bowl. Temperatures in MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2 could be in the teens, and snow always is a possibility that time of year in New Jersey.
“We’re ready for it,” Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “Whatever happens, we don’t care about the weather. We just want to go out there and win the game."
And winning against one of the all-time greats would add to the moment for many of the Seahawks.
“Going heads-up with Peyton Manning is special," Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith said. “Just knowing all the things he’s done for football, it’s really an exciting opportunity.”
Free safety Earl Thomas can't wait to test his skills against Manning.
“As a competitor, you always want to play the best,” Thomas said. “We know what’s at stake. We know a chance like this is rare.”
Thomas said the biggest difference is the improvement in quarterback Carson Palmer.
“He’s just gotten more familiar with the offense,” Thomas said. “He’s playing at his peak right now, and their offense is doing some intricate details they didn’t do the first time we played them.”
The offensive line has improved for the Cardinals over the past two months and given Palmer more time to throw. Arizona has won six of its past seven games since the Seattle loss, improving to 9-5, and the better blocking up front has led to some big plays from receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
But stopping big plays is what the Seattle defense does best. The NFL categorizes it as explosive plays or GAP -- game altering plays. It’s any pass of 16 yards or more, and any run of 12 yards or more.
“I pay attention to the explosives,” said Thomas, when asked which defensive statistic is most important to him. “That’s my job as the free safety. I want to be the best in the league at stopping those.”
The Seahawks are No 1 in fewest GAPs allowed this season with 76. And they easily are the league best in passing explosives, having allowed only 47 in 14 games.
Seattle leads the league in interceptions with 22, but the Seahawks also lead the NFL with 13 interceptions on passes outside the numbers. Seattle has allowed only five touchdown passes this season on throws outside the numbers.
Sunday could be a big game for both players. One of Thomas' interceptions this season came in the Arizona game two months ago, and Sherman is at his best when the Seahawks play the Cardinals. Sherman's 18 interceptions over the past three seasons are the best in the NFL, something the Cardinals have seen all too often. Sherman's four interceptions against Arizona are the most against any opponent.
Sherman is coming off his second career multi-interception game, picking off two passes in the 23-0 win against the New York Giants last weekend at MetLife Stadium. But Sherman feels the Cardinals are a much better team now than the one Seattle beat in October. Arizona has won six of seven games since that loss.
"I believe they are a more confident team now," Sherman said. "They believe in what they're doing. They have executed their game plan more effectively. I think they have gotten [wide receivers] Larry Fitzgerald along with Michael Floyd a little more involved in the offense, and they have been able to get some explosive plays. And I think [quarterback] Carson Palmer is throwing with some confidence."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If the Seattle Seahawks return to this stellar, and likely frigid, facility in a few weeks for the game of games, it will be because of a defense with depth, talent and skills like no other.
Quarterback Russell Wilson is the glamour boy of this team, and deservedly so, as he showed once again in a 23-0 victory over the New York Giants on Sunday at MetLife stadium.
But posting a shutout for the first time this season, along with picking off five Eli Manning passes, at the venue where the Super Bowl takes place in seven weeks is something to remember.
This defense is the other thing that sets the Seahawks apart.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind,” middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said of playing at the Super Bowl site. “Of course it did. And it feels good to play like this here. If the time comes and we take care of business to get back here, it will matter. No doubt about it.”
Seattle, with the NFL’s best record at 12-2, entered the game with the No. 1 defense in the league in yards allowed. It won’t change after this one. The Seahawks gave up only 181 yards, including just 25 yards rushing on 14 carries.
Look at it like this: The Seahawks gave up 26 fewer yards rushing Sunday than they did on one big play to Frank Gore in the 19-17 loss at San Francisco last week, a day on which Seattle allowed 163 yards rushing to the 49ers.
“We had a chip on our shoulders about that,” said Wagner, who led the team Sunday with 10 tackles and 1½ sacks. “We wanted to show that’s not who we are.”
Who they are is a defense with such extraordinary depth that a third-string cornerback can intercept two passes against Manning. Byron Maxwell now has three interceptions in the past two games starting at right cornerback. Manning found out the hard way that Maxwell isn’t your typical backup.
“Yeah, he tested me on the very first play,” Maxwell said, referring to an incomplete pass intended for Victor Cruz. “But I feel like I’m just as good as our starters and I want people to know it.”
Manning had been playing much better in recent weeks after a horrible start to the season, but he was no match for the Seattle secondary. He made the senseless decision to challenge cornerback Richard Sherman on a sideline go-route, which Sherman picked off so easily he might as well have called a fair catch.
Sherman had two picks and assisted on another when he tipped a pass into the end zone in the fourth quarter that free safety Earl Thomas caught to preserve the shutout.
“He owed me one after I let him have that pick on the [Hail Mary] pass at the end of the half,” Thomas said. “We came prepared [Sunday]. We had a bad outing last week, but that doesn’t define us.
“You saw what happened [Sunday]. We need to keep this same mentality, because when we’re [angry] like this, we’re hard to beat. We did a lot of things right today and really disguised our coverage.”
Thomas said the Seahawks changed things up a little against the Giants by starting most plays with two safeties deep, but then one of them would close in near the line of scrimmage right before the snap. The Giants didn’t know who it would be -- Thomas or strong safety Kam Chancellor.
“Did you see some of those hits Kam made today?” Maxwell asked. “Wow. One guy for [the Giants], I won’t say who, came up to me and said, ‘That’s a man right there,’ talking about Kam.”
Almost everyone on the Seattle defense looked like men among boys Sunday. The Giants didn’t even cross midfield until midway through the fourth quarter, long after the outcome was decided.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin called New York’s offensive performance “pathetic.” The Seahawks have made a lot of offenses look that way this season, but this game stood out.
“That’s as good a defensive coverage day for us as I can remember,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “Guys really stepped up. It’s as complete a game as we’ve had.”
That includes receiver Doug Baldwin, who caught six passes for 71 yards and 12-yard touchdown on which he fought he way to the goal line. It includes running back Marshawn Lynch, who had six receptions for 73 yards, along with a 2-yard TD run that saw him break four tackles and will his way into the end zone.
And, of course, it includes Wilson, who was 18-of-27 passing for 206 yards and one touchdown, along with 50 yards rushing.
Let’s give Wilson his due. He became the only quarterback in NFL history to win 23 games in his first two seasons. He also is one of only three quarterbacks in league history -- joining Dan Marino and Peyton Manning -- to throw 50 TDs in his first two seasons.
The Seahawks would not be where they are without Wilson. But the new golden boy of the NFL would not be where he is without this remarkable defense that just played lights-out on the field where they hope to return soon.
“Good idea,” Quinn said with a chuckle.
Cornerback Richard Sherman said he has noticed teams are changing the way they attack the Seattle secondary.
“We’re seeing a lot of adjustments,” Sherman said. “You can’t just play us head-up. That’s playing to our strengths if you play us straight up. If you just bang heads with us, that’s a good matchup for us. Teams are finding ways to get around that and avoid the physicality.”
For the most part, Sherman doesn’t think it’s working.
“We still played good defense [at San Francisco],” Sherman said, and we had a good game.”
Even coming off the 19-17 loss, the Seahawks improved to No. 1 in the league in yards allowed per game at 287.1. They also are first in pass defense, allowing only 175.6 yards a game through the air.
Losing cornerback Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond hasn’t appeared to hurt the Legion of Boom. Byron Maxwell, who is starting at cornerback now, had an interception that stopped a possible scoring drive for the 49ers. Jeremy Lane had three pass breakups from the nickel back spot Sunday.
‘I think they’ve done great for us,” Carroll said of Maxell and Lane. “Our expectations were they would hold up their end of it, and have done that. The ball is going away from Sherman, so they’re getting some extra turns, but they’re doing a terrific job.”
SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco 49ers got it done, winning 19-17 over the Seattle Seahawks in archaic Candlestick Park. If you think it made a statement or caused the Seahawks to shiver with fear, think again.
San Francisco was the better team on this day, but the best team lost.
The home team, playing in front a frenzied crowd in a game it had to have against its archrival to stay in good playoff position, won it with a field goal in the final minute.
“Penalties killed us today,” Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “But you can’t make too much of it. This is a tournament, one game at a time, and the ultimate goal is the Super Bowl.”
The Seahawks still firmly believe they are on the right path to get there. Losing a close one to the 49ers didn’t place any doubts in their heads. And there’s no way the 49ers walked away from this one and honestly said to themselves, “Oh yeah, we’re better than they are.”
The Seahawks, now 11-2 and still needing only one victory in the final three games to clinch the NFC West crown, walked away firmly believing they’re the better team, despite the slight hiccup Sunday.
And they’re right. San Francisco (9-4) did nothing more than hold serve, barely, thanks to some sloppy play by the team that had beaten them by a combined score of 71-16 in the previous two meetings.
All this game proved is that Seattle can’t have nine penalties for 85 yards and get a punt blocked, and still beat a strong team on the road.
“It was a terrific, hard-fought football game, just a slugfest,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “It was one of those types of games where one play can make a big difference. But we couldn’t get out of our own way with the penalties. That dictated the flow of the game.”
Seattle entered the game with a seven-game winning streak. They now have lost twice this season, by a total of eight points.
“We should have won it,” Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said. “The penalties really hurt us offensively and got us off schedule. We play so physical that sometimes those calls are going to go against us. But we have to eliminate that.”
Neither team led by more than six points Sunday. The lead changed hands six times. Seattle led 17-16 before a 51-yard run by Frank Gore gave the 49ers the field position they needed to set up a winning field goal, a 22-yarder by Phil Dawson with 26 seconds to go.
“We fought hard all the way, but they got the big run at the end that gashed us,” Seattle free safety Earl Thomas said. “We didn’t take care of the little things today, and when that happens, anyone can beat you. We just were not disciplined enough against a good team. But you can’t let a game like this one define you, and it doesn’t.”
In the locker room afterward, the Seahawks kept saying the same thing over and over.
“All our goals are still in front of us,” defensive end Red Bryant said, a nine-word statement that was the theme of the moment. “It was a great game to be in and you have to give them credit. They made the plays to win the game, but we can handle it. We’ll lick our wounds and be just fine.”
In other words, no big deal. The 49ers won it. A soft “congratulations” came from the Seahawks, but with a look in their eyes that said, “Now, catch us if you can.”
“It’s good to get this out of the way now,” Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin said. “We knew it would be a hard-fought battle because they are a good football team. But it’s really about us taking care of our business now. That’s all that matters.”
Cornerback Richard Sherman, who was called for defensive holding twice (one of which was declined), sat at his locker without the least bit of concern.
“This doesn’t change anything for us,” Sherman said. “They got some fortunate penalty calls and that was the difference. It happens sometimes. When you lose like that it’s hard to be upset.
Maybe the worst news of the day for Seattle was that linebacker K.J. Wright suffered a broken foot, an injury that Carroll said likely would sideline him at least six weeks.
“The season wasn’t going to end today, one way or the other,” Carroll said. “Everything is still out there for us.”
Unless the Seahawks have a total collapse in the final three games, including the last two at home against Arizona and St. Louis, they are going to have home-field advantage in the playoffs. Seattle has won 14 in a row at CenturyLink Field.
Had the Seahawks come to Candlestick and stunk up the place, as New Orleans did last week at Seattle, maybe they would have some concerns. That didn’t happen. Aside from the penalties, they played pretty well in a tough environment. The defense gave up one touchdown. Wilson completed 15 of 25 passes for 199 yards and one touchdown. His only interception was a desperation deep throw at the end of the game.
This was like one hitless game in a season in which your slugger has a .350 average and 30 homers.
“We’re still in great position,” Wilson said. “There’s no panic. We just need to stay positive.”
Keeping a positive attitude is not a problem for this team.
“You can’t win them all,” Wilson said. “The goal is winning the last one.”
It’s well worth the risk for what Sherman gives the team in return, tight coverage that often forces turnovers and causes the opposing offense to make mistakes. Sherman has four interceptions and leads the team with 11 passes defensed.
That number would be higher, but quarterbacks often avoid throwing his way. Sherman completely shut down San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin and Atlanta's Roddy White this season.
He is the best cornerback in the NFL, hands down.
Hauschka hasn’t missed inside the 40, and has made 12 of 13 from 40 yards and beyond, including 3 for 3 from 50 or longer. Only 30 of his 67 kickoffs have been returned, and none longer than 40 yards.
Hauschka will be huge asset for the Seahawks come playoff time. We often shake our heads watching him in practice. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw him miss one in field-goal drills.
But Lynch is getting it done near the goal line. His nine rushing TDs is tied with Adrian Peterson for the league lead, and his 11 TDs overall (two receiving) is tied with Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson for the most in the NFL.
Having Michael Robinson back at fullback seems to be helping Lynch’s production. In the past three games, Lynch is averaging 108 yards rushing per game and has scored four touchdowns. Lynch also had nine receptions in those three games.
The Seattle offense feeds off Lynch’s relentless running style and his ability to make a high percentage of yards after contact. It’s intimidating to watch him consistently run over would-be tacklers.
He leads the team this season with 75 tackles, and 61 of those were solo tackles. Thomas also has four interceptions, but it should be five. He had one in the Tampa Bay game when interference was called, which the league later admitted was the wrong call. Thomas also has seven passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
What doesn’t show up in the stats is the number of times Thomas gets one of his teammates in the right spot by knowing what’s coming. For example, he warned linebacker Bruce Irvin to watch for a wheel route in the St. Louis game that became an Irvin interception.
And Thomas’ quickness is hard to describe without actually seeing it. His closing rate on a play makes it appear he comes out of nowhere to break up a pass or make a tackle.
To a man, his teammates believe in him. They know that whatever the circumstance of any game, no matter how dire it might look, they have a chance to win as long as Wilson is calling the signals. Three times this season, and nine times in his brief career, he has led the Seahawks to late-game comebacks.
Wilson is undefeated at home -- a perfect 13-0 in his two seasons. He also has won eight of his past 10 road game, including 5-1 this season.
Wilson has a lot of seemingly silly clichés he loves to say over and over, like this one: “The separation is in the preparation.” But he truly means it, and his teammates see it in his dedication and how diligently he prepares. Wilson often is the first player to arrive at the team facility each day and the last player to leave.
You can’t outsmart the man. He is ready for any situation, and he has the athletic gifts to make good things happen on the field when other quarterbacks would be in trouble.
What might be his biggest accomplishment this season is that he continued to lead the team to victories while under siege most of the time with a patchwork offensive line that was missing both starting tackles for seven weeks and center Max Unger in three games.
Wilson took a physical beating, but kept getting up and getting it done. That’s the kind of thing that will make your teammates run through a brick wall for you.
In last season's divisional playoff matchup, the Falcons jumped out to a 20-point lead only to see rookie quarterback Russell Wilson rally the Seahawks to a 28-27 edge late in the game. Atlanta's Matt Ryan engineered a last-minute drive that ended with Matt Bryant's game-winning, 49-yard field goal and a trip to the NFC Championship Game.
The teams are headed in opposite directions now, as the 8-1 Seahawks keep soaring and the 2-6 Falcons continue to descend.
How will things unfold Sunday in Atlanta? It's not looking good for the home team. The Seahawks nearly lost to the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, so they are sure to come to the Georgia Dome refocused.
ESPN.com's Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down the matchup between Atlanta and Seattle:
McClure: I talked to ex-Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher before the season, and he said the Seahawks were, by far, the best team in the league based on having faced them last year. He also picked them to win the Super Bowl. Do you think the Seahawks are the favorites, or did the game against Tampa Bay show they are vulnerable?
Blount: Vaughn, they've shown a lot of vulnerability this season, long before the game last week. They won several times when, statistically speaking, they should have lost. But the bottom line is they find a way to win. They are an incredibly confident bunch that believes in each other. And the Seahawks should get better down the stretch when both starting offensive tackles return and receiver Percy Harvin finally gets on the field. Seattle still is capable of reaching the Super Bowl, but a couple of things must improve -- pass protection and run defense -- down the stretch if the Seahawks are going to live up to expectations. They are living on the edge right now, maybe too much so.
The mood around the Falcons must be pretty depressing these days. I've always found the hardest teams to cover were the ones that everyone expected to be good and entered a season with high expectations but ended up having a horrible year. So what's it like around there, inside the team headquarters and around the city?
McClure: The fans, of course, are irate about the direction of the team and are calling for coach Mike Smith to be fired. More surprising to me, this being my first season around the team, is how much criticism has been directed toward Matt Ryan. Both Smith and Ryan have handled the negativity well. The closest I've seen Smith come to showing his frustration with the season was after last Sunday's loss to Carolina, when his face was bright red and he had a distraught look on his face. But team owner Arthur Blank came over and gave Smith a reassuring embrace.
Ryan has kept a positive outlook throughout, although his performance has been far below expectations. The vibe Ryan gives off -- remaining upbeat -- rubs off on the players around him. I'll be curious to see how some of the veteran players handle the second half of the season, particularly if the losses keep piling up. Speaking of Ryan, he has thrown seven interceptions over the past two games -- and he hasn't faced a secondary as strong as Seattle's. How well are both Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas playing?
Blount: Until the Tampa Bay game, I felt Thomas was the best defensive player in the league. He missed a few tackles against the Bucs, but he also had a controversial interference call go against him. Tampa didn't throw much at Sherman, a wise decision. I think Ryan is a bit of a victim of not having his starting receivers out there, but if he or anyone he throws to makes a mistake, this secondary will make them pay.
Vaughn, it looks like Tony Gonzalez, one of the all-time great tight ends, is going to end his career on a losing team. It's a bit of a surprise the Falcons didn't move him before the deadline. I know he is an extremely popular player with the Atlanta fans. Was that a factor in the decision? What happened there?
McClure: The Falcons were adamant about having no intention of moving Gonzalez. Once that was made clear around the league, no teams even bothered to inquire before the deadline. That being said, even Gonzalez understood the reason behind the media- and fan-driven speculation. He knew returning to Kansas City sounded like an enticing option, considering the Chiefs are undefeated, and it would have allowed Gonzalez probably his best chance to win a Super Bowl ring before he retires at season's end. But Gonzalez told me he only would have been open to listening to a trade if the Falcons felt it would be best for them. Obviously, they didn't.
I expect Gonzalez to go out a champion no matter how the team finishes, just because he represents everything that's right about the NFL. More players should strive to be like him. It looks like the Seahawks have a model citizen themselves in Russell Wilson. How is his development going in his second season?
Blount: It's hard to judge just how good Wilson could be, because he has been under siege most of the time with poor pass protection from the patchwork offensive line. Wilson has been under duress on 40 percent of his passes, the most in the league. But he has this innate ability to perform at his best when things seem to be at their worst. He has led the Seahawks to victories in three games they trailed in the fourth quarter. Two of those games were won in overtime. He actually seems to thrive on pressure circumstances. I've covered many great athletes, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone better than Wilson at making the big play in the most difficult moments.
The last time these teams faced each other was an exciting playoff game. Obviously, a lot has changed since then, but can the Falcons surprise the Seahawks on Sunday?
McClure: I just don't see it happening. The loss of top receiver Julio Jones to season-ending foot surgery instantly made the Falcons' offense far less potent. The offensive line isn't as strong as it was last season. Although the Falcons believed they upgraded with Steven Jackson over Michael Turner at running back, an early-season hamstring injury has kept Jackson from hitting stride. And the defense hasn't gotten much better than the one that surrendered 491 yards to the Seahawks in last season's playoffs. To win Sunday, Ryan has to be flawless and Jackson needs to rush for 100-plus yards.