56baa6478971bc41a4152cc51707ac05On Saturday at their home CenturyLink Field the Seattle Seahawks overcame the wind, the rain and their own mistakes to defeat the New Orleans Saints 23-15 and advance to the NFC Championship game for the first time since 2005. For most of the first half this game was played in a driving wind and rain storm that must have had Saints quarterback Drew Brees ruing the day that the Seahawks’ old home field, the Kingdome, was ever demolished. At the old Kingdome Brees never would have seen or felt the cold and wind driven rain that soaked his players and played havoc with the simplest of his throws.

As bad as the weather was, it actually kind of aligned with what the Saints had in mind for this game, which was to run the ball as they did last week in the Wild Card game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Eight of their first twelve plays from scrimmage were running plays, a much easier and safer style to execute in the monsoon-like conditions that prevailed on Saturday. Still, it was the Seahawks who broke on top when they held New Orleans on their first possession and forced a disastrous Saints punt which ended up traveling all of 16 yards.  With the wind at their back in the first quarter the Hawks parlayed the resultant excellent field position and a personal foul penalty on Saints defensive back Rafael Bush (for a hit to the head on Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin) into a Steven Hauschka field goal and a 3-0 lead. New Orleans continued to run the ball on their next possession and, with running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson splitting the carries, moved into field goal range before the Hawks defense stiffened. With the Saints field goal kicker Shane Graham already kicking in to the wind, the situation was exacerbated when Graham’s holder Luke McCown placed the ball down with the laces facing Graham, a serious no-no for field goal kickers. The subsequent kick was wide to the left and the Hawks still led 3-0.

Hawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett

Hawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett

Through the rest of the first quarter and on in to the second quarter the combination of the elements and the Seattle “D” continued to stymie Brees and the Saints while the Hawks added another Haushka field goal right at the end of the first quarter for a 6-0 lead. Another serious Saints error occurred at the beginning of the 2nd quarter when Mark Ingram fumbled the ball after being hit by Hawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who also made the recovery. Bennett’s great play gave Seattle the ball at the New Orleans 24 yard line and the Hawks quickly scored from there on a Marshawn Lynch 15 yard touchdown run to advance the score to 13-0. Following an incomplete Brees pass on 4th down Seattle put together a drive late in the second quarter which led to a third Hauschka field goal and a 16-0 Hawks lead at the half. With Lynch making dynamic runs and the defense controlling the Saints offense the Seahawks had played an efficient and opportunistic first half of football and looked to have the game solidly in hand.

With the start of the second half both the wind and rain appeared to be slacking off and with those changes the stage was set for Drew Brees to get hot. New Orleans had run for some yards in the first half but had missed their only field goal attempt and had been, to that point, shut out. Brees had only thrown for about 40 yards in the first 30 minutes, which was unheard of for him. Down 2 TDs and then some, the Saints were at serious risk of having their season end unless they got going. It took most of the 3rd quarter for that to happen, but eventually that is exactly what Brees and the Saints did.

Saints All Pro Quarterback Drew Brees

Saints All Pro Quarterback Drew Brees

The teams traded possessions with no points being scored at the outset of the third quarter, but Brees had begun to hit a few passes. Though the Saints had been moving the ball better, with 4 minutes and 20 seconds left in the quarter Brees threw an incomplete pass on a  4th down attempt to turn the ball over to the Hawks. Seattle had a 1st and 10 at their own 44 but despite the great field possession they could not move the ball which forced a John Ryan punt. The Saints took over at their own 25 with 2 minutes and 28 seconds left in the 3rd quarter. From there Brees drove them the length of the field in 9 plays, completing all 4 passes he threw for 63 yards. The last play of the drive was a Khiry Robinson 1 yard run for the first New Orleans touchdown of the day. Trying to make it a 1 score game Saints head coach Sean Payton had his team go for the 2 point conversion which running back Mark Ingram made successful with a 2 yard blast over the left side. With just over 13 minutes left in the game Seattle held a 16-8 lead but momentum had clearly shifted to New Orleans. To make matters worse for Seattle, for whatever reason quarterback Russell Wilson was being uncharacteristically inaccurate on his throws, several times missing  receivers to stop drives. The Saints defense was beginning to assert its will on the Hawks.

Following the Saints kick off, after getting one first down, Seattle was again forced to punt giving the Saints the ball deep in their own territory at their 6 yard line. 10 minutes and 32 seconds were left in the game. Mixing runs and throws, Brees moved his team in 4 plays to his own 37 yard line. A running play was then followed by a long completed pass to Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills but the play was nullified by a holding penalty. On the next play, with 2nd down and 14 yards to go from his own 32, Brees tried to hit his tight end Jimmy Graham about 8 yards up field at the  40 yard line. Unknown to Brees, Hawks safety Kam Chancellor was in perfect position, right behind Graham, obscured from the quarterback’s view. At the perfect moment Chancellor stepped from behind Graham and Brees’ pass hit him right in the stomach; a gift wrapped interception. Unbelievably, Chancellor dropped the ball. The turnover would have thwarted the New Orleans drive and given the Hawks a first down at the Saints 40 with 7 min and 24 seconds left in the game. We’ll never know what would have happened had Chancellor made that play, but likely his drop cost the Seahawks at least a field goal. On the next play Brees tried to connect with Graham again over the middle only to have that pass broken up on a spectacular play by Hawks safety Earl Thomas—a perfectly timed dive over the back of the Saints tight end. With Thomas being 5’11” and Jimmy Graham being 6’7” you can see that it was some jump by Thomas to get up and over Graham.

With Thomas’s awesome play Hawks fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. After the Saints punt Seattle had the ball with a 1st and 10 on their own their own 20 yard line with just 7 minutes left in the game. A long drive now would run out the clock and the game would be over. Alas, two Lynch runs netted only 8 yards and Wilson once again could not connect with Golden Tate on a short, slant pattern over the middle. One more time Seattle had to punt and with 5 minutes and 31 seconds left in the game the Saints had the ball with a 1st down on their own 28 yard line. A long scoring drive of their own with a 2 point conversion and the game would be tied—hyperventilation time for “Twelves” all over the Northwest.

Pete Carroll: stay in the moment

Pete Carroll: stay in the moment

Then disaster very nearly struck the Seahawks, and it came in the form of another missed interception. On a first down play from his own 23 yard line Brees retreated to throw and fired a long pass down the left side of the field towards Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem. The Seahawks cornerback on that side of the field, Byron Maxwell, was in perfect position to make a play on the ball, as was safety Earl Thomas. Timing his jump perfectly, Thomas flashed in front of Maxwell, had the ball hit him squarely in the hands, then deflect off, over Maxwell, and settle right into Meachem’s arms who ran to the Seahawks 25 yard line before Seattle’s Kam Chancellor caught up with him and brought him down. It was a 52 yard gain and the kind of play that seemed to be dictated by fate…there is no way Thomas drops that ball unless there’s a higher power at work. The Seahawks had muffed two sure picks within a 3 minute span of the 4th quarter, and this last one surely looked to be leading to a Saints score.

As I sat in despair, looking at my TV screen and not believing what I had just seen, I then spotted something that restored my hope. There on the TV was the image of Earl Thomas, the man who had just blown that interception, getting ready for the next play and clapping his hands, exhorting his teammates and urging them on. Here I was, mired in the budding disaster and fearing the worst, and there was Thomas, who had already left that terrible moment behind him and who was now doing what Pete Carroll had been preaching the whole season:

“Stay in the moment!

That is the mental side of sports and that is what champions do! If Earl Thomas can do it, then I, sitting there watching my TV, could do no less. I began to feel optimistic again.

As suddenly as the Saints had struck, things went into reverse for them just that fast. On the first play after Meachem’s catch Brees couldn’t get the play off in time which cost the Saints a five yard penalty. The next play was a short pass over the middle that fell incomplete. With  2nd and 15 from the Seattle 30 yard line and the “twelves” at “the Clink” yelling wildly to drown him out, Brees once again could not get his team on the same page and had to call a time out to avoid another penalty. The Saints had already used a time out earlier in the quarter, and now using another one left them only one more for the game. Two more incomplete Brees passes followed leaving the Saints with a 4th and 15 and still parked at the Seattle 30. Saints head coach Sean Payton opted for another field goal attempt from 48 yards out but Saints kicker Shane Graham missed this one wide left worse than he did the first one. The Seahawks now had the ball with 3 minutes and 51 seconds left and a first down at their own 38. Unbelievably, the Saints had been unable to profit from either of the muffed Hawks interceptions.

Doug Baldwin making clutch catch

Doug Baldwin making clutch catch

The Seahawks then struck with two dagger-like plays to take control of the game. With a 3rd down and 3 yards to go from their own 45 yard line the Saints stacked the box with 8 defenders to stop an expected Lynch run. Recognizing this, Russell Wilson knew that his receivers would have one on one coverage and immediately checked to a pass play. Hawks slot receiver Doug Baldwin ran a beautiful deep corner route, got a step on his man, and Russell Wilson hit him with a perfect pass for a 24 yard gain and a first down at the Saints 31 yard line. Wilson had been struggling with his passing all day, but with the game on the line was money; and Baldwin, as he has done all season, made the clutch catch when it was needed. Saints head coach Payton challenged the play feeling that Baldwin did not get both feet in bounds, but the replays showed otherwise. The play stood and because of the failed challenge the Saints lost their last time out. On the very next play Marshawn Lynch took the handoff from Wilson, ran to his left and, behind a great block by Jermaine Kearse, got to the edge and broke down field. With all of “the Clink” erupting in another seismic cheer, Lynch stiff armed the last Saints defender in his way and waltzed into the end zone to give the Hawks 7 more points and a 23-8 lead. There were 2 minutes and 40 seconds left in the game and “twelves” everywhere thought they could relax.

Marshawn Lynch stiff arm on way to end zone

Marshawn Lynch stiff arm on way to end zone

No such luck. Out of time outs and with only the two minute warning to stop the clock, the Saints took the ensuing kickoff and, from their own 20 yard line, proceeded to move down the field. On this drive Drew Brees was his All Pro self hitting something like 9 of 11 throws, the last one being a 9 yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Marcus Colston. The extra point brought the score to 23-15 with 30 seconds left on the clock. We all knew what was coming next.

Pete Carroll pulled his team to the sidelines and issued instructions for what surely would be an on-sides kick by New Orleans. The Seahawks, like all teams in this situation, had their “hands” team on the field, a group that is composed of players, like receivers and running backs who are used to handling the ball. Most “twelves” watching in person or on TV still felt confident. I mean how often does an on-sides kick really work? And then we all watched the play unfold in stunned disbelief. The Saints kicker hit the ball sharply and at an angle towards the Seahawks line. Seattle’s Golden Tate took one step forward, was hit squarely in the chest by the ball, and before he could clutch it watched it carom away into the waiting arms of the Saints Marcus Colston. New Orleans had the ball with a 1st down at their 41 yard line and 24 seconds left on the clock.

I sat in front of my TV trying to simultaneously stay in the moment and fight off shock. It was like some post traumatic stress disorder from last year’s Atlanta playoff loss. This can’t be happening to us again, can it? Some higher power keeps messing with our destiny. The Hawks are supposed to go the Super Bowl, Goddamn it!

But then, almost as quickly as the Saints had hope, it vaporized again.  With about 10 seconds left on the clock Brees threw to Marcus Colston once more, who hauled it in near the sideline at the Seahawks 38. There were 7 seconds left when Colston caught the ball and he should have simply stepped out of bounds which would have given the Saints one more shot at the end zone.  Instead, apparently suffering from vapor lock, Colston cut back toward the center of the field and launched a forward pass to a Saints player standing near the opposite sideline. Of course we educated “twelves” instantly recognized that a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage was against the rules and would be an obvious penalty which brought with it a 10 second clock run off. Suddenly, there being only 2 seconds on the clock after Colston’s gaffe, with the 10 second run off the game was over. The Seahawks had their win and also their ticket to the NFC Championship game, which will be played in Seattle at CenturyLink Field next Sunday.

Making it to the Conference championship game is rarefied air for the Seahawks. In their 37 year history this will be the third time they have done it. They won the NFC Championship on the way to a Super Bowl berth in 2005 and lost the 1983 championship game to the Oakland Raiders. But for this team making it to the Conference championship game is not enough. They and us “twelves” have our sights set on the Super Bowl. It won’t be easy. We now know that we will be facing our arch-rival the San Francisco 49ers in this game; and they are currently the hottest team in the league and are playing great.

But I don’t think the Seahawks would have it any other way. They want to be the best and to do that you have to beat the best. In the NFC, if that isn’t the Seahawks, it’s the 49ers. Seattle will need to play its best to win.

So gird your loins Hawks fans, and get ready for battle. It’s the Seahawks and 49ers next Sunday at “the Clink” for supremacy of the NFC and a trip to the Super Bowl—winner take all!

In our heart of hearts, we all knew it would come down to this!

Go Hawks!

 

Copyright © 2014

By Mark Arnold

All Rights Reserved

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