After two rebuilding seasons under coach Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks had put together a team that was turning heads and changing minds. And it had become clear what was driving the turnaround, the 2012 draft class. Going into the draft, the consensus was the team needed a pass rusher, a linebacker, a quarterback and a running back. Six weeks into the season, it appeared general manager John Schneider had hit a grand slam. First-round draft pick Bruce Irvin was terrorizing the backfield, second-round draft pick Bobby Wagner had the football instincts of a veteran, third-round pick Russell Wilson was the difference-maker he was projected to be, and fourth-round pick Robert Turbin was contributing as the second back behind Marshawn Lynch. Anytime a team saw a talent upgrade of this magnitude, good football followed, but it was still a young team, and the challenge ahead could’ve easily overwhelmed them.
The New England Patriots were a machine of football, perennial contenders who had been part of five Super Bowls since the 2001 season. Quarterback Tom Brady was once again having a stellar year, leading the top-ranked offense in the NFL, which was setting a blistering pace with its no-huddle offense.
It was the feisty rookies against the seasoned veterans, little brother versus big brother, David vs. Goliath. The Patriots would be the Patriots, but could this young squad find the heart to claw away the signature victory they so sorely needed?
Finally, The Offense Answers The Call
During the first five contests of the season, the Hawks had registered only one +20-point game, and that anomaly was due to a special teams touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys. Against the Patriots, the Seahawks’ needed to score, and in all likelihood, it would take Russell Wilson to do so. The specialty of Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick, a defensive guru, was to take away what an opponent most relied on, and it was no secret the Seahawks’ best player was running back Marshawn Lynch. (Lynch finished the game with 15 carries for 41-yards). It was time for Wilson to take control, and he did just that, finding some flavor with second-year receiver Doug Baldwin.
Baldwin (89) was in the slot on the top side of the formation. At the snap, Wilson dropped back, safe and comfortable in the pocket since the Patriots pass rushers had chosen a game plan of trapping Wilson in the pocket. The extra time was valuable, as Baldwin’s start was abysmal. Cornerback Kyle Arrington (24) squared up Baldwin and put a hand into Baldwin’s either shoulder. Paired with the wet field conditions, the push dropped Baldwin to his knee. In a comical form of luck, Baldwin landed as if he were a sprinter in a crouched starting position. He exploded out of the stance, using the inside leverage the fall had afforded him to spear Arrington’s collar. Baldwin had now flipped the script, having won position and pace. He located the ball and twisted around before leaping so high his pad level was considerably above Arrington’s, preventing Arrington from making a play on the ball. Baldwin brought in the catch and held it through the ground for a touchdown.
Up to his point, Baldwin’s season had been rather quiet, netting him only seven receptions, a departure from his statement rookie season, where he snagged 51 receptions for 788 yards. For the day, he turned in two fantastic catches and logged 74-yards.
As great as Baldwin’s play was, it was the second best of the drive. Russell Wilson had been generating praise for his poise and maturity, but the “circus” plays, downs that had become improvisations, had not followed Wilson from college. He had played within the Seahawks’ offense, never trying to do too much. Yet the opportunity to defeat the New England Patriots was too enticing, and the young quarterback decided to take a chance on his athleticism and instincts.
Out of five receiving targets, none of them were open. Faced with such a situation, many quarterbacks would go into “protect the football” mode. Don’t throw an INT. Don’t allow a strip fumble. Don’t lose yardage to a sack. Nonetheless, Wilson took fate into his own hands. The Patriots had only sent three, keeping back Jermaine Cunningham (96) as a spy on Wilson. In doing so, free space was established between Cunningham and defensive end Chandler Jones (95). Wilson escaped through the vacancy and found his first obstacle was his own offensive lineman. James Carpenter (77) had crossed back from helping on Cunningham. Wilson stayed in the play, trying to find Sidney Rice (18) but Rice was smothered. It was once again an ideal time to go into “protect the football” mode. Instead, Wilson spun around, and in a savvy move, circumvented the official, which blockaded both Cunningham and Jones. Offensive lineman Russell Okung (76) came in for cleanup. Crossing over the field, Wilson looked for an open receiving target and still found none. The Patriots’ defensive backs had stayed glued in coverage, with no one dropping for a gang tackle. Wilson made it past Vince Wilfork’s (75) attempted ankle grab and then performed an eye-popping spin on linebacker Jared Mayo (51). Wilson sprinted for a first down.
While playing a solid game, the Seahawks had struggled to score and were in need of some magic. On fourth down, Pete Carroll decided to go for it. And go for it, the offense did. Not just for the first down marker, but for the end zone. Wilson capped a three step drop with a beautiful throw. It was pinned so well to the back shoulder of Braylon Edwards (17) that it was near undefendable.
The Defense Digs Deep.
As a play caller, Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was a mad scientist, keeping a defense on its heals instead of its toes by asking his players to make relatively simple plays that were masked by using a mixed-bag of offensive philosophies.
Outside of budding-star Richard Sherman, the defense was bleeding yards, as a young defense found itself being schooled by the wise masters. In response, they matched the Patriots brains with blows. Tight end Rob Gronkowski closed the first quarter with consecutive receptions for 20, 11 and 5 yards. The five-yard completion was a quick-out. Gronkowski was dragging Bobby Wagner upfield when KJ Wright came off his outside assignment and drove a shoulder into Gronkowski’s back. Gronkowski left the game, but returned and was less effective. Later, slot receiver Wes Welker ran a five-yard out, and was upended by cornerback Brandon Browner, in a hit that sounded as brutal as it looked. Welker left the game, but returned and was less effective. To close the third quarter, defensive end Chris Clemons came around the edge, wrapping Brady up. As defensive end James Jones came in to assist, his helmet collided with the falling Brady. Brady missed no time, but started throwing passes into the dirt.
Some might have found the strategy controversial, but the defense had made it clear: If you throw underneath or over the middle, we’re lighting you up. The Patriots rolled the dice, anyway.
The goal line stand that “won” the game both displayed the defenses’ struggles and strengths.
At the high side of the field, Gronkowski (78) was at the end of the offensive line, Danny Woodhead (39), a fairly reliable receiver, was in the backfield, and Deion Branch (84) was a wide-out. Since only six seconds remained in the half, some messy coverage handoffs were likely on the menu. If KJ Wright (50), Earl Thomas (29) or Richard Sherman (25) were late on a shift, someone would be open. At the snap, Branch ran inside. Sherman let him go to pick up Woodhead. Wright did get twisted around by Woodhead and was fortunate to get away with bear hugging Branch. Thomas flubbed on Gronkowski, with Gronk breaking to the high corner, opening a window for a touchdown pass that was never thrown.
Chris Clemons (91), on the bottom of the defensive line, put both hands into Nate Solder (77), opening a lane to Brady. Feeling the heat, Brady looked to dump the ball, save he could not fling the pass into the dirt. Defensive tackle Jason Jones (90) had not rushed the passer, but dropped back and was occupying the throwing lane. Brady launched one out of the end zone, far above Jones’s reach. He was flagged for intentional grounding, which required a ten-second runoff, ending the half.
The Game Winning Drive.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the score was 20-10, a lead that had been partially built on Seattle’s continued inability to protect the football. Russell Wilson had fumbled at his own 49-yard line. Punter John Ryan mishandled a snap, fumbling at his own 24-yard line. Zach Miller fumbled at the Patriots 30-yard line. Miller’s fumble felt particularly catastrophic, as it happened in the middle of the fourth and cost points, but the defense won the offense another opportunity. With two minutes and thirty-eight seconds left, harboring only one time out, the team needed a touchdown and this was the last realistic opportunity.
As had been the case many times this season, kick returner Leon Washington delivered in a crisis, tip-toeing down the sideline to set up the offense at midfield. Plays later, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell decided to go for the win.
The offense lined up with a running back, a fullback and a tight end, intent to bleed the clock and set-up the play action, as was the Seahawks’ MO, except the Hawks sprung the trap early. As the Patriots’ defense shifted to Lynch, Wilson faked the handoff and spun around. Tight end Zach Miller (86), who had come in motion to protect Wilson, held off defensive end Jermaine Cunningham (96), giving Wilson the room he needed to go through his throwing motion.
The Patriots’ defensive backs had stuck to their assignments all day, rarely being lulled into allowing Wilson to create a big pass with his feet. In this instance, their discipline may have become their undoing. Cornerback Devin McCourty (32) did not stay with wide receiver Sidney Rice (18), and while one could not accuse McCourty of being “wrong” in handing Rice off to the safety, situationally, having seen Wilson sweep around with the ball, and knowing only tight end Miller was a potential second target, McCourty might have decided to bend the rules and stay hip-to-hip with Rice in an attempt to create a contested catch. Instead, Rice ran his route uninterrupted and faked out rookie Tavon Wilson (27), splitting center field as he brought in the touchdown.
The Seahawks won by one point.
The Seahawks had not “out-footballed” the Patriots, but like when a kid beat his dad for the first time on the basketball court, it usually wasn’t pretty. It involved a lot of frustration on defense, getting hot on offense at the right time, and getting most of the lucky breaks. It was a grind it out game. A young, growing team proved to themselves that, if they continued to work hard, they could one day be considered a team as dominate in the NFC as the Patriots were in the AFC. These Seahawks may still have been a little green, with its first four drafts picks putting in considerable time, but they were tenacious and tough, winners in their hearts and minds, and they were making believers out of themselves and the league around them.