SEATTLE — The Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints played all four quarters of their anxiously awaited showdown Monday night at CenturyLink Field, but only because NFL rules require games to go the distance.
By halftime, a national television audience learned all it needed to know: The Seattle Seahawks are the best team in the league, and quarterback Russell Wilson is the best player on the best team in the league.
In football, as in the other major sports, a term often is applied to describe the best player on the best team. He’s called Most Valuable. And while there are exceptions — Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson was named the NFL’s 2012 MVP by The Associated Press, even though the Vikings barely squeezed into the playoffs — the best player on the best team is always a candidate for the award.
Wilson was a legitimate MVP contender before the Seahawks’ 34-7 beating of the Saints on Monday night. And then AP voters saw the second-year pro use his arm and legs to slice and dice a well-regarded New Orleans defense, which began the night ranked No. 3 in the league against the pass and No. 5 in points allowed.
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is a proponent, as his father Buddy was, of pressuring quarterbacks with more pass rushers than can be blocked. And on some level, Ryan’s determination to torment Wilson early and often made sense: Quarterbacks two years removed from college generally are challenged to diagnose a blitz, much less make the defense pay for its aggression.
But Wilson made the Saints pay. It didn’t matter if they brought five, six or seven pass rushers at him. The first three times Wilson went to the air against their blitz, he completed passes totaling 114 yards and a touchdown.
“They pressured Russell with a blitz package, and then they didn’t do it any more,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “It really illustrated his maturity. He saw it, and executed absolutely perfectly.”
Said Wilson: “They have a great defensive coordinator, and we knew he’d bring some pressure. But we like that sense of pressure, because there’s a lot of green grass behind it. We can capitalize on those plays.”
Wilson finished 22-for-30 with 310 yards and three touchdowns. His quarterback rating of 139.6 — definition of 139.6: insane — didn’t factor in his eight rushes for 47 yards.
What was particularly impressive is that the numbers weren’t accumulated during garbage time. To the contrary, he was at his MVP best after Saints tight end Jimmy Graham caught a touchdown pass that cut the Seahawks’ second-quarter lead to 17-7.
After Graham, the former college basketball star, ambled to the goal post and slam-dunked the football over the cross bar — a bit of cross-sport artistry, Graham decided, worthy of a prolonged pose in front of the south end-zone fans — the tension level at the Clink increased.
Could the Saints still make it a game? Would the Seahawks let them?
Then Wilson went to work, leading a 10-play, 82-yard drive that culminated with a field goal and, maybe more important, kept Drew Brees and the Saints offense on the sidelines for more than five minutes just as they were threatening to gel.
On the Seahawks’ next possession, with 2 minutes 5 seconds remaining in the half, Wilson took over at the Seattle 12. A kids-don’t-try-this-in-front-of-your-high-school-coach shovel pass on first down lost four yards, and it appeared as though head coach Pete Carroll was content to run down the clock and go to halftime with a 10-point advantage.
Carroll might have done that, until the Saints called a timeout to stop the clock with 1:52 left.
Your move, Russell.
On a third-and-9 from his own 13, Wilson took advantage of a Saints blitz and connected with Jermaine Kearse for a 19-yard gain. The Hawks were on their way to a touchdown executed in 12 plays, including five Wilson completions and two Wilson scrambles.
In 25 years or so, if you’re ever trying to describe Russell Wilson to somebody who never saw him play in person, the two-minute drive at the end of the first half would be as apt an example of his MVP contention as any.
“I want to be the best one day,” said Wilson. “But I’ve a long way to go. It’s a journey, but I respect the process.”
The process soon could find Russell Wilson winning the first of what could be several MVP awards.
A few minutes after the teams cleared Monday, hundreds of fans gathered in the drizzle to chant whatever sounded appropriate to them. When Wilson sat down with the ESPN crew on the sideline, the chant turned to three letters.
“MVP! MVP! MVP!”
Part of the process.