John McGrath: Balanced Seahawks kept their balance at windy CenturyLink

Staff writerJanuary 11, 2014 

A mighty wind howled from the start to the finish of the Seahawks-Saints divisional playoff game Saturday at CenturyLink Field.

It also rained off and on, more on than off, but it was the 20 mph wind out of the south that proved advantageous for a Seahawks team built to survive the inclement weather of playoff season.

The wind turned every pass into a chore, every punt into an adventure and every kickoff into a challenge. When the simple task of putting the ball on the tee — and keeping it there — takes almost as long as the halftime show, it's an indication of cruel and unusual conditions.

And though intermittent gusts hassled both teams, they were less of a hassle for the Seahawks because, for one, they are more familiar with playing football outdoors than the Saints are, and, for two, coach Pete Carroll believes that ball-control offenses, stout defenses and sound special teams are a recipe for championships.

"This is exactly why you make a commitment to be a balanced offense and a balanced football team — so that when you have these kinds of opportunities and situations, you can play D, you can stick with your kicking game and you can run the football," Carroll said after the Hawks' 23-15 victory sent them to next Sunday's NFC championship game.

"We just played good, grind-it-out football. We kicked the ball and relied on defense and all of that, and it worked out."

A sign the Seahawks might be the beneficiaries of the winter storm came on the Saints' fourth play, when Thomas Morestead attempted a punt into the teeth of a swirling gust. The teeth prevailed, steering the punt out of bounds at the New Orleans 40-yard line.

"Thomas is one of the best punters in the NFL. I kind of got the idea it was gonna be one of those days when I saw that," Seahawks punter Jon Ryan said of Morestead's 16-yard shank. "The wind was as tough out there as it's been during the six years I've been in the NFL."

Game plans were adjusted accordingly. The Saints' Drew Brees, who seemed to have more trouble with the wind at his back than throwing the ball into it, relied for three quarters on high-percentage screen passes deftly anticipated by the Hawks defense.

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, meanwhile, attempted only 18 passes, completing nine for 103 yards — unimpressive numbers, but not as bad as they look. Just as Wilson appeared to establish Percy Harvin as a target, the hard-luck receiver took the second of two blows to the head and left the game with the concussion he avoided after the first hit.

By the third quarter, with the Seahawks holding an apparently comfortable 16-0 lead, Wilson was content to hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch — to feed the Beast — rather than risk throwing wind-battered passes that had no probable destination.

"There's definitely certain circumstances where I have to be conservative throwing the football and making sure that I'm not taking any shots down the field, because it's tough to throw when the wind is that bad," said Wilson. "I'm never really worried about the rain, but when the wind is that severe, you have to be smart. I thought we did a good job of being conservative in that fashion.

"But when we needed one and we had the wind to our backs, that really helped us, and we got a huge conversion."

That would be Wilson's 24-yard completion to Doug Baldwin, whose sideline-straddling catch, with just under three minutes remaining, turned a third and 3 at the Seattle 45 into a first and 10 at the New Orleans 31. And after Saints coach Sean Payton decided to risk his team's last timeout by challenging the call — it was upheld — the wind seemed to go out of the sails of the Saints, who on the next play barely touched Lynch as he raced to the end zone. "Tough sledding out there today," said Wilson.

Actually, sledding was one of the few winter activities that didn't come to mind Saturday. But if snow should fall next week in Seattle, the Seahawks will be equipped to deal with that, too.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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