2015 Seahawks Re-Watch, Wild Card Playoff: Little to the Left
By utilizing home field advantage, the Seattle Seahawks had propelled themselves to consecutive NFC Championship wins. As a sixth seed in 2015, they would have to win out on the road to experience Super Bowl glory. While historically an inconsistent road team, this year’s Seahawks, after losing their first three away games, had actually won out the regular season at San Francisco, Dallas, Minnesota, Baltimore and Arizona. This playoff game was hosted at a locale the Hawks surely remembered, but not exactly how they remembered it. TCF Stadium was home to the Minnesota Vikings, the exact stadium they had played in on December 6th, save on December 6th the temperature at kickoff was 37 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas it was minus-six degrees for this January 10th matchup, making it one of the coldest playoffs games ever.
Cold weather and its effects had been a hot topic. In 2014’s playoffs, the New England Patriots had been using under-inflated footballs during a game against the Indianapolis Colts. Some argued that taking a football from room temperature to forty degrees could naturally-but-not-significantly change its air pressure. If so, then a ball at below freezing temperatures faced far greater challenges than just its inflation. The characteristics of the ball—its feel, weight, and grip—could change so dramatically that quarterbacks struggle to intuitively know how hard to throw a ball and how to put an appropriate arc on it. Likewise, receivers may not correctly anticipate how a ball will handle when caught or may find that errant passes exceed their catch radius. Players who handle snaps faced the same challenges. But, if the cold so affected the football, what it did to the field conditions was worse. Fortunately, this would present no issue during the wildcard game, as TCF had had a hydronic heated field installed prior to the Vikings moving into the facility.
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Clearly affected by the weather, Russell Wilson was floating throws from the start, beginning the game 1 of 4 for 7 yards. The inability to reach the second level put caution in offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who abandoned his timed passing system for shorter passes. The offensive improved but the consequences were damning. The Seahawks who lit up the Vikings for 35 points would no show the wildcard game.
Doug Baldwin injected early life in the offense with a 22-yard reception, and eventually caught the game’s sole touchdown, but his greatest feat occurred early in the second half. On 3rd and 10, Baldwin came up from the slot. He shimmied before heading inside. It was not the greatest route, nor was Baldwin necessarily open, but Wilson fired at his go-to receiver anyway. The throw was high and behind. Baldwin stopped hard before jumping backward, twisting himself to face the pass. At the peak of his leap, Baldwin extended his arm, his hand, his fingers to the furthest his joints would allow. He tamed the wild throw in his grasp, securing it in both hands as he rolled to the ground.
Having vastly improved as a pocket quarterback, what set Wilson apart was still his creativity under duress. In this slugfest, it would again be his greatest attribute. At the beginning of the fourth, with the Hawks down by nine, center Patrick Lewis joined the long list of players who struggled controlling the football. He sent a corkscrewing snap at Wilson that went over Wilson’s shoulder. The ball bounced backward, and Wilson chased it, sliding to establish possession. On his hands and knees, five Vikings were closing in and not a one had a Seahawk in his path. Two-handing the ball, Wilson planted his left foot. His first step was so fast that cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was turned around by it. Suddenly free of this purple net, Wilson took off for the sidelines. With linebacker Eric Kendricks barreling down on him, Wilson located Tyler Lockett, whom the Vikings secondary had lost in the confusion. The sixteen yard pass was off-target, but Lockett leapt to catch it. With only cornerback Xavier Rhodes in his way, Lockett circumvented Rhodes by taking a wide run-around past Rhode’s flank. Jermaine Kearse came down to assist, splitting Lockett and Rhodes as they passed, a very savvy football move on Kearse’s part. Lockett reached the four yard line before cornerback Josh Robinson brought him down by the neck, dragging Lockett out of bounds.
The drive resulted in a touchdown.
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The unanticipated wrinkle of the week was not only the weather, it was the sudden loss of Marshawn Lynch. Absent the team since week 11, due to his rehabbing of a surgically repaired abdomen, Lynch rejoined the Hawks for the playoff run. He had practiced with the team and taken the majority of snaps. By week’s end, Lynch was supposedly ready to go, with Pete Carroll saying, “He’s going to play.” But then, under vague circumstances, Lynch benched himself and did not board the plane to Minnesota. For the eighth consecutive week, Lynch did not dress, and with this latest setback, many wondered if Beast Mode was gone forever.
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The fuel that kept the Vikings offense operating was Adrian Peterson. In week 13, Peterson was held to 18 yards, a feat the Vikings knew could not be repeated. Well, try as they did, the Seahawks defense was too suffocating for even the legendary tailback to thwart. The Hawks were committed to run stuffing, holding Peterson to 45 yards on 23 carries.
On the game’s first play, the defense played run with Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor at the line of scrimmage while the linebackers were two yards off the heels of the defensive line. At the snap, Michael Bennett shed offensive lineman Brandon Fusco like he were swatting away a bee. Using his right arm, Bennett wrapped up Peterson, displaying the strength of a bear. Peterson’s attempted escape was shut down by Sherman, who had come from the edge to complete the tackle. Later in the drive, on 3rd and 1, Bennett shed his blocker and dove into the backfield, grabbing onto Peterson’s ankle. Peterson escaped by backtracking. As Peterson did so, Bobby Wagner leapt over Bennett, grabbing ahold of Peterson’s shin. Kam Chancellor leapt third, clawing at Peterson’s shin, as well. Peterson escaped both by running backwards, but he stumbled. KJ Wright put an arm into him, followed by DeShawn Shead standing Peterson up, followed up Earl Thomas knocking Peterson backward. Jordan Hill got in on the fun, pushing Peterson back further. Mercifully, the play was whistled dead.
Low scoring games could often be decided by a critical turnover, something Chancellor understood well. Earlier in the year, his forced fumble on Calvin Johnson prevented a loss against the Detroit Lions. In the fourth quarter against the Vikings, Chancellor found himself before a charging Peterson. With the ball held poorly, Peterson lowered his shoulder, but Chancellor, who had a physique that closer resembled a linebacker than a safety, accepted the blow, prying free the ball while doing so. Plays like these were Chancellor at his best, using his strength and size to impose his will, complimented by his high-risk, high-reward playing style. Kam was always looking for the big turnover, in any situation. But things didn’t always go according to plan. Chancellor often lined up out-of-position, trusting his athleticism to overcome any disadvantages his opponent may exploit. He could blow easy tackles by attempting to pick-pocket receivers and tailbacks. As easily as Kam’s gambling on Peterson created the deciding turnover, leading to a one-point lead, 10-9, it swung the game back in the Vikings favor. One play after giving up 19 yards on a pass interference penalty to tight end Kyle Rudolph, Chancellor was set to guard Rudolph again. Rudolph ran a dig, heading toward the sideline. Chancellor chose not to attack Rudolph’s legs, instead reaching in the cookie jar for either a pass deflection or a strip fumble. Chancellor never established his footing, but Rudolph did, and he shed Chancellor, running the sideline for a 24 yard gain.
Before these two plays, the ball was on the Vikings 39 with 1:38 left in the game. After them, the Vikings offense was 1st and 10 on the Seahawks 18 yard line with 1:26 left. And just like that, the defense was no longer solely facing the Vikings, but also its yearlong nemesis: losing a fourth quarter lead.
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Special teams was the most affected by the chill. During the second quarter, with the score at 0-3, Pete Carroll passed on a forty-seven yard field goal attempt for a 4th and 13 dump off pass to Fred Jackson. This decision was costly, as Hauschka later made a forty-six yard field goal with little trouble; however, Carroll had reason to be concerned. Halfway through the first quarter, long-snapper Clint Greshman snapped the ball so low that punter John Ryan had to bend at both knees to control it, like he were fielding a ground ball. About to kick, Ryan’s motion was interrupted by Vikings receiver Adam Thielen. Ryan committed to a run, securing the football and heading forward. Somewhat forgetting himself, Ryan attempted to hurdle not only defensive back Melvin White but linebacker Jason Trusnik for the first down. The result was Ryan going bottoms-up and landing square on his facemask, leaving his nose bloody.
The Vikings special teams unit was excelling. Placekicker Blair Walsh converted field goals of 22 yards, 42 yards and 47 yards, accounting for all nine of Minnesota’s points. With 26 seconds left, he was set to kick a 27 yard field goal for all the marbles. The ball was a clean snap, though holder Jeff Locke presented the ball to Walsh with the laces in, a fact that many would say resulted in Walsh’s hooked attempt, missing the uprights. One player had a different theory. Walsh’s previous attempt was a fingernails length from being blocked by cornerback Richard Sherman, who had coiled up his body on the line of scrimmage as if he were a sprinter, a stance Sherman duplicated on the final kick. Sherman stated, “I think how close I got on the last one might have factored [into the missed field goal].” Walsh seemed to agree, stating, “When you pull it to the left like that you didn’t stay long enough into the kick and commit through it enough.”
The Seahawks survived a hard game, and avoided a fourth-quarter implosion, adding another tale to their long list of playoff highlights, including the Beast Quake, Sherman’s Tip, and Matthew’s onside recovery.
The divisional round will post next Tuesday, July 5th. Thanks for reading!
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Week 1, The Rams…Again | Week 2, The Pack Attack | Week 3, The Good News Bears? | Week 4, Kam’s Big Comeback | Week 5, The Cincinnati Heartbreaker | Week 6, Lockette’s Great Grab | Week 7, Karper-can’t | Week 8, Sherman Shines | Week 10, The Tales of Two Halves | Week 11, My Name is Thomas Rawls. | Week 12, The Youth Movement | Week 13, A Complete Win | Week 14, Baldwin Blows Up | Week 15, Wilson Makes History | Week 16, One Of Those Days | Week 17, Lockett Goes Light Speed