The Seahawks' offensive disappearing act
January, 11, 2014
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsRussell Wilson passed for a career-low 103 yards as Seattle's offense struggled against the Saints.
SEATTLE -- There is the end, and then there are the means. On Saturday, the former justified the latter for the Seattle Seahawks. After watching their 23-15 victory against the New Orleans Saints, however, it seemed more than fair to question the capacity of their offense to complete a widely anticipated coronation as Super Bowl champions.
Is your glass half full? Then you believe the Seahawks played a smart, largely mistake-free game after taking an early lead in brutal weather conditions even by Seattle standards. You're not worried that quarterback Russell Wilson completed only nine passes, for a career-low 103 yards, or that the Seahawks managed 44 total yards for the first 26 minutes, 11 seconds of the second half. Why? Because on the most important play of the game, Wilson threw a perfect pass to receiver Doug Baldwin to convert a third-and-3.
You're a half-empty type? OK. You understand that the Saints acted and played like absolute fools for most of the game. The Saints never, ever should have been within one score in the final minutes of this fourth quarter.
The Seahawks’ disappearing act allowed the Saints back into the game, you half-emptiers are thinking, and demonstrated how some season-long offensive issues could in fact impact their playoff fate. On this day, it gave the Saints a genuine opportunity to steal a victory had they not neglected the tenets of game management -- and then forgotten some basic rules of football. (Two 45-plus-yard field goals attempts into the wind? Throwing into the middle of the field with 26 seconds remaining and no timeouts? Two downfield passes on one play?) Had the Seahawks played that way against a sharper opponent, they would be packing up their lockers instead of preparing for the NFC Championship Game.
Those are the two sides. Consider my glass half empty. NFL teams and their fans rarely pause to question the means of a playoff victory. They're hard to come by, no matter how they happen. But do you realize how close the Seahawks were to a divisional round knockout at the hands of a lesser -- and much dumber -- team? And do you agree that it provides at least a pause in anticipating a Super Bowl championship?
"In the third quarter, we were going against the wind," Wilson said, "so we played it conservative. We played it smart. We had the lead. We wanted to make sure that we got to the fourth quarter without taking any risks. ...
"I knew how the game was going, that it was going to come down to a big-time throw. I wasn't my best all day or whatever, but I knew it was going to come down that. I knew I was going to have to make a big-time throw and someone was going to have to make a big-time catch, and Doug Baldwin made that catch."
Look, I don't want to minimize the impact of the weather. The rain was sideways from CenturyLink Field's south end zone to the north. There were moments when I thought the "12th man" flagpole was about to topple. But the Seahawks started that third quarter with a 16-0 lead, and the score hadn't changed when it ended. The Saints did all of their scoring in the fourth quarter with the wind advantage reversed.
Did the Seahawks play it safely and conservatively? Or were they simply unimaginative and ineffective? Were they too reliant on their dominating defense? Or were they smart to let their best players lead the way?
"With Russell Wilson, you have a guy who takes advantage of the opportunities when they're there," Baldwin said.
From my vantage point, however, the Seahawks looked like they were struggling more than they were just waiting for the right moment to strike. They lost whatever momentum they gained by the brief return of receiver Percy Harvin, whose concussion puts his availability in doubt for the NFC Championship Game. The Saints play good defense, but are they better than the San Francisco 49ers or the Carolina Panthers, one of whom will stand between the Seahawks and the Super Bowl? By my count, Wilson missed on two easy slant passes that would have converted third downs during that 26:11 stretch. Running back Marshawn Lynch, meanwhile, managed only 33 yards on 11 carries in that span.
"There were some plays where the Saints had 11 in the box," fullback Michael Robinson said. "You're not going to shake off two or three guys on every run. ... It's kind of like boxing: Early in the fight, you want to hit them with body punches. Eventually, when you take that shot in the fourth quarter, you knock them out."
Indeed, there is no doubt that Wilson made the play when it counted, changing the call when he noticed the Saints set to blitz seven men on third down with 2:57 remaining. He knew that meant single coverage, and he placed a perfect ball for Baldwin to haul in at the Saints' 31-yard line. On the next play, Lynch ran for a touchdown to put the game out of reach -- or, at least, beyond anything short of the miraculous comeback the Saints nearly pulled off.
"Our plan was to run the ball," Seattle center Max Unger said. "We needed to run the ball to open the pass up. We'll go back and look at what went wrong on that part, but in the end we got where we wanted to be and thought we would be."
Yes, the Seahawks are in the NFC Championship Game, just like everyone thought they'd be. What we saw Saturday was a winning formula against the Saints. But does it provide a path to a Super Bowl victory? The Seahawks don't want to find out.
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