If the Seattle Seahawks fulfill their potential and qualify for the NFL playoffs, they’ll look back at Brandon Browner’s strip-and-seize Sunday afternoon as the effort that saved a season.
There’s a lot to savor about the Hawks’ 16-12 victory at Carolina, beginning with a defense that didn’t give up a touchdown for the second time in two weeks. And yet Seattle is 2-3 today if Browner, a cornerback once exiled to the Canadian Football League, doesn’t sniff out a Panthers option and force a DeAngelo Williams fumble – and then recover the ball.
“That was the play,” fellow Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman told a TV interviewer afterward, “that flipped the momentum.”
Late in the third quarter of a game during which they were dominating every statistical category but the only category that counts – the scoreboard – the Seahawks’ litany of self-inflicted mistakes had them on the verge of losing what little mojo there was left. Overcoming witless penalties was tough enough, but overcoming three quick turnovers after the second-half kickoff put the Panthers in position for a knockout punch.
Carolina was beginning a drive on its 30, looking to add to a 10-6 lead, when quarterback Cam Newton tossed the ball to Williams on an option pitch. It’s a play that has served college offenses well since leather helmets were worn, and the Panthers, taking advantage of Newton’s superior running ability, aren’t averse to using it against unsuspecting cornerbacks.
Except Browner, whose coaches had schooled him on stopping the occasional option last week in practice, wasn’t duped. The 6-foot-4, 221-pound Browner not only stopped Williams, he dislodged the ball from the running back’s grasp and then pounced on it.
Suddenly, all that had gone wrong Sunday – for that matter, all that had gone wrong during the Seahawks’ other two road games, which were winnable but for mental miscues and frustrating breakdowns in execution – was briefly forgotten.
Quaterback Russell Wilson, who had resembled an authentic NFL quarterback during an impressive first half but had thrown interceptions on back-to-back drives in the third quarter, zipped a crisp pass to receiver Golden Tate open on a third-and-8 at the Carolina 24. Tate did the rest, crashing into the end zone as if he were a human pinball, and the Seahawks had a lead they wouldn’t surrender.
Yes, things got dicey toward the end, when Newton looked like the 2011 Cam Newton, the most productive rookie quarterback in NFL history. He had his offense perched a few feet from the Seattle end zone when, on fourth-and-goal, the Panthers renounced a quarterback sneak and chose to throw a roll-out pass.
The Seahawks were happy to see the imposing Newton – he’s 6-5 and 255, the size of a tight end – rolling to his right instead of bulling forward. Carolina coach Ron Rivera will not enjoy the next few days of second-guessing from the home front. Even so, Panthers tight end Ben Hartsock was open, in position to catch a touchdown pass, but Newton short-hopped the ball.
The goal-line stand presaged still more drama and chess-match maneuvering, with the Seahawks devoting three downs in an effort to avoid a safety before intentionally taking one on fourth down. Smart call. Instead of punting in the throes of an all-out rush, with Jon Ryan taking the snap deep in the end zone, the Hawks gave up two inconsequential points for the opportunity to punt unchallenged at the 20 yard-line.
Ryan booted the ball to the Carolina 31. With no time outs and the game clock reduced to seconds, the Panthers went into a hurry-up mode. So did Bruce Irvin. The rookie “defensive end” – that’s his official position, but in reality, he’s a quarterback terrorist – hurried up to Newton and forced a fumble recovered by defensive Alan Branch, sealing a victory a more disciplined team wins with a two-touchdown cushion.
But then, these are the 2012 Seahawks, who’ve got the talent to beat anybody, anywhere. They’re also flawed enough to lose to anybody, anywhere. The defense didn’t just contain Newton in the first half. It chased him and haunted him and hectored him, holding him to 3 of 15 on passing attempts. It’s safe to assume the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn never has experienced 30 minutes as frustrating as Sunday’s first half.
And for all that, the score was 6-3 at halftime in favor of Seattle, and when the Panthers’ Captain Munnerlyn scored an easy touchdown after picking off an off-target Wilson pass intended for tight end Anthony McCoy, the Seahawks were trailing.
It had all the makings of another Bad Day at Black Rock. The best pass Wilson has thrown during his five-game pro career – a deep strike that Tate caught in stride – was called back because of a holding call on right tackle Breno Giacomini. As if to prove it wasn’t a fluke, Giacomini was flagged for another 15-yard penalty on the sideline – this time for unnecessary roughness – that put the serial-momentum killer on the bench for a breather and a lecture.
Between the penalties and the usual third-down inefficiency in the red zone, there’s much to clean up. That said ...
The Seahawks are 3-2 and going places, and when they get there, in January, they’ll remember Brandon Browner’s strip-and-seize as the pivotal play that saved a season.