All systems are go for the Seattle Seahawks’ quest to compete in the Super Bowl.
They own the top seed in the NFC. They’ll be home for the divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, and barring a surprise — OK, a shock — they’ll be back at CenturyLink Field for the conference championship game on Jan. 19. They’re reasonably healthy and, thanks to a first-round bye, fully rested.
And yet as idle minds probed various but uncertain playoff possibilities last week, a question was brought up regarding some ultimate “What Ifs.”
What if the Seahawks get to the Super Bowl and the Lombardi Trophy is presented to an owner other than Paul Allen? Will their season be remembered as the disappointment?
I’ll offer a daring hunch here and answer maybe, it sorta depends.
I can’t imagine that losing in the last minute of a tense, well-played game won by, say, the Denver Broncos would erase all the Seahawks accomplished in 2013. On the other hand, if the Hawks are beaten because of an array of unforced errors — a false start on first-and-goal here, a fumbled kickoff return there — fans will be looking at a long, cold, lonely winter.
Now consider the Mother of All Doomsday Scenarios: What if the Hawks don’t even reach the Super Bowl? How will their otherwise terrific season, which found them either setting or tying nine team records, be judged?
It will be judged harshly by a sports community where attention spans are short, and memory banks are long.
Seahawks fans might be unfamiliar with the experience of watching substantial favorites unraveling in the postseason, but those who followed the Mariners and SuperSonics know all about stunning collapses.
The 2001 Mariners won 116 times — no team in Major League history won more — and yet the magnitude of that achievement was mitigated by their elimination from the league championship series in five games. A World Series defeat to the Arizona Diamondbacks (whose ace pitcher, Randy Johnson, shared Series MVP honors with Curt Schilling) would have been a tough way to close out a magnificent season, but there are degrees of tough.
Losing the World Series is tough. Failing to qualify for the World Series, after six months of dominating opponents, is tougher.
The 1995 Mariners, by contrast, began September with no logical playoff aspirations. But they went on a roll as the Angels regressed, and carried the momentum through their epic division-series comeback against the Yankees. The ’95 Mariners didn’t make it to the World Series, of course, but that team, liberated from the pressure of having to prove itself, is more fondly recalled than the 2001 powerhouse forever tethered to its unfulfilled destiny.
George Karl’s 1994 Sonics are experts on the pressure of great expectations. They finished the regular season with a 63-19 record — 37-4 at home — easily worth the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
After two games of toe-stubbing in Denver, where the eighth-seeded Nuggets drew even in the first-round, best-of-five series at 2-2, the Sonics returned home to seal the deal, and seal it emphatically: A No. 1 seed never had lost to a No. 8 seed.
The Sonics were beaten in double overtime. During the months that followed, any mention of their 63-19 regular-season record was interrupted by a please-change-the-subject wince.
Two seasons later, the Sonics finished 64-18 and survived three rounds of playoffs before taking on Chicago in the NBA Finals. The Bulls were almost invincible during the regular season (72-10, best in NBA history) and had staked a 3-0 lead in the Finals, pushing their playoff record to 14-1.
Presumed victims of one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled, the Sonics beat the Bulls twice in three nights, by an average margin of 17 points.
The Sonics ended up losing in six games, but by forcing the issue back to Chicago, they won the hearts of fans from coast to coast.
Along the way, the Sonics revealed the curious dynamic of playoff expectations.
They finished 63-19 in 1994, and a season’s worth of stellar work was determined to be a crushing disappointment. They finished 64-18 in 1996, and were described as heroic.
As for the 2013 Seahawks?
The season has been a blast, but 13-3 won’t mean a thing if they don’t take care of business on Saturday, and it won’t mean much more if they don’t play at home the following week and win again.
The bar is set high, very high, high to the point of wondering about whether it’s unfair.
The bar is set for firstname.lastname@example.org