Hour after hour during the Monday Night Football countdown show, analysts fawned over the Seattle Seahawks.
One of the great defenses … Legion of Boom … Beast Mode … Russell Wilson, Russell Wilson, Russell Wilson.
But when the game started, the St. Louis Rams, with a backup quarterback, decided to show up anyway. And the Seahawks spent a lot of time tripping on their superlatives.
They couldn’t run, didn’t always tackle, broke nearly every rule in the book — and they certainly couldn’t pass-block — as the two-touchdown underdog St. Louis Rams led early and threatened until the game’s final play before the Seahawks pulled out a 14-9 win.
So it is in the National Football League. When you’re carrying around the reputation as one of the top teams, and you go on the road in the division, the underdog is going to have a creative game plan and the players will bring every ounce of motivation they can muster.
This was an ugly display, with penalties and mistakes and dropped passes on both sides.
But there was no reason to think overconfidence played a role in this Seattle performance, because the Rams had a terrific defensive scheme and quarterback Kellen Clemens was not nearly the liability he was expected to be.
And simply, without injured Seattle starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini, the Rams were able to punish Wilson all night.
The confident Seahawks rarely show up uninspired, and that helps them avoid the occasional stinker that plagues even the best teams.
Usually, put the ball on the tee and it’s showtime.
But the Rams made it difficult by targeting a weakness the Seahawks have managed to mask the past few weeks: pass protection. Until Monday night, Wilson had managed to use his resourcefulness to escape pursuit.
The Rams blocked his escape routes, though, and it brought the Seahawks to a halt on offense.
The temptation is to suggest that the Seahawks took the game too lightly. Don’t believe it. These guys cherish prime-time exposure. And for much of the night, it was as if ESPN had been hired as the Seahawks’ PR firm.
One feature showed clips of quarterback Russell Wilson when he was miked up against the Jaguars. It was an inside glimpse of his charisma and composure.
Mike Ditka raved about back Marshawn Lynch because “this guy is a real beast.” When Mike Ditka praises a player’s toughness, take it to the bank.
Jon Gruden couldn’t stop gushing. “This is as good a defense as I’ve seen.” About safety Earl Thomas: “I think he’s an MVP candidate on defense.” And of Wilson’s elusiveness: “Some of these scrambles, I get tired just watching them. It’s unbelievable how demoralizing he is to defenses.”
Suzie Kolber told a story about Wilson’s dedication after the loss at Indianapolis. He had overthrown Golden Tate on a scramble pass on a key play. When they got home, Wilson ran that play 50 times with Tate to be certain they’d never miss it again.
As Kolber said: “What’s not to love about the guy?”
None of this seemed like undue praise. Since deciding to cut loose Wilson at quarterback and tinker with the rushing game a bit, the Seahawks have played 16 regular-season games, and are 14-2 in that span.
They’ve beaten good teams and bad teams, but they have rarely been challenged like this.
The tone of the commentary changed quickly, because Seahawks linemen sometimes failed to even touch Rams pass rushers.
And the most valid criticism came from Gruden when Golden Tate, on his way to the end zone with an 80-yard touchdown reception, began taunting defenders when he was still 20 yards away from the end zone.
“Just play your position, be a professional,” Gruden said. It cost the Seahawks 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff.
He was right, the Seahawks had no room for taunting on this night.