So this is what Jimmy Graham looks like in superstar mode.
It took 11/2 seasons, a debut year cut short by a major knee injury, a nine-month recovery from tricky surgery and seven-plus games of this season. But Russell Wilson showed Monday night he now, finally trusts the Seahawks’ $40 million tight end they got in a trade in the spring of 2015. Trusts him enough to throw the ball to him in traffic. In the red zone.
Graham made two one-handed catches with Buffalo defenders hanging on him, six catches on six targets for 94 yards. In between he completed one, Olympic-like leap over defensive back Stephon Gilmore before landing on his feet and running to finish off a 17-yard catch.
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And all that, his first two-touchdown game as a Seahawk, was in just the first half of Seattle’s 31-25 breakout win in front of a CenturyLink Field-record crowd of 69,084.
“He’s crazy special. He’s phenomenal,” Wilson said. “And that’s why he’s here.”
As Graham spoke on his way out of the locker room late Monday, Wilson walked by shouting “bad, BAD man!”
Monday, it looked like if Graham was within the white lines, he was open. For his first time as a Seahawk.
Graham smiled at that.
“We talked about it this week: If we’ve got a favorable matchup we’re going to throw at it,” he said. “This is the National Football League. These windows are so small and so tight that sometimes when a guy’s on you you’ve just got to throw it up. I’m 6-7.
“And tonight we did that. Hopefully we can keep doing that.”
These flawed, yet resilient Seahawks (5-2-1) moved two games ahead of Arizona atop the NFC West, and into second in the conference behind Dallas (7-1) at the halfway point of the regular season.
Seattle won for the 11th consecutive time on Monday night, the second-longest such streak in NFL history — the series began in 1970 — behind the Raiders’ 14 in a row. The Seahawks are now 16-3-1 in primetime games under coach Pete Carroll.
“We are really close to being special,” Wilson said.
Yes. And no.
The Seahawks’ rushing offense, 28th in the league coming in, finished with just 33 yards on 12 carries. That was the lowest in a game for Seattle in more than five years, since a 24-0 loss at Pittsburgh on Sept. 18, 2011. Wilson, looking better than he has since the opener when he sprained his ankle than two weeks later sprained his knee, ran for 10 of those yards and wide receiver Tyler Lockett had 13 on an end-around run. Tailback Christine Michael and rookie C.J. Prosise combined for 10 yards on eight carries ag25th-ranked run defense.
Seattle’s defense allowed scoring drives of 17, 12 and 13 plays. It allowed the Bills 425 total yards and more than 40 minutes of possession time. It should have allowed three more points than it did. But referee Walt Anderson did not call unnecessary roughness on Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman for crashing into Dan Carpenter as Buffalo’s kicker was trying a 49-yard field goal to end the first half.
Sherman was called for offsides, but Anderson told The News Tribune in a pool report: “I just didn’t feel like the actions and contact, because we were shutting the play down, warranted a foul.”
No getting those three points meant the Bills needed a touchdown on the final drive. Buffalo moved from its own 40 to the Seattle 23 with no time outs in the final 1:55. Linebacker Bobby Wagner and end Frank Clark sacked Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor to create third and 10. But Taylor completed a 22-yard pass, and Wagner got called for a roughing-the-passer penalty that added 15 yards onto that gain, to the Seahawks 23. Wagner was still incredulous about that call afterward.
The Bills moved to the Seahawks 10 with 69 seconds left. LeSean McCoy ran for 3 yards on a cutback. After a Seahawks timeout with 1:01 left, Seattle’s K.J. Wright – who had turned his ankle a couple of plays before but stayed in the game — tackled Taylor at the 8 to force third and goal. Cliff Avril then continued his magnificent season by blowing past Buffalo’s Cordy Glenn for a sack of Taylor back to the 15. Avril had 1 1/2 sacks Monday and has nine already in eight games.
“He’s just on fire,” Carroll said.
On fourth down with 30 seconds left, Taylor ran around trying to find a receiver open. By the time Robert Woods broke free, Seattle’s Clark was hitting Taylor and forcing an errant throw nearer to Seahawk Earl Thomas than to Woods in the middle of the end zone. The pass was incomplete, Thomas and Sherman ran to the railing to celebrating with the roaring fans behind the south end zone — and the Pacific Northwest exhaled.
“We have expectations. We’re not just thinking about surviving games and stuff,” Carroll said. “We’re are trying to get our guys ready to help us for the rest of the season.
“This is a long-haul thing…I have no doubt that we are going to find better football. We are going to get a little healthier coming up. Kam (Chancellor) is coming back next week, which is a great boost to us.”
The seesaw night was complete with Sherman ending a first-half interception return by woofing at Buffalo coach Rex Ryan on the Bills sideline. And a shirtless, well-sauced man running through the end zone then getting tackled by stadium security.
The Seahawks had scored one touchdown over 23 drives in their previous nine quarters coming in, including just one in four quarters against the league’s most scored-upon defense, at New Orleans the previous week.
Monday, the Seahawks scored four touchdowns in their first five drives. Wilson finished 20 for 26 passing for 282 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for Seattle’s first score.
That’s how Seattle overcame Buffalo blocking Jon Ryan’s punt on the game’s fourth play, plus the Bills’ 17-play, 10-minute drive to touchdown. That was the longest drive by plays for a score against Seattle in five years; Philadelphia marched 17 plays and 10:13 to a TD on Dec. 1, 2011 and a 12-play drive in the first half.
Buffalo cut Seattle’s 11-point halftime lead to 28-25 with 14 minutes left after a 13-play drive ended with Mike Gillislee’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Seattle answered with Steven Hauschka’s 49-yard field goal just over the crossbar. That made it 31-25 with 10 minutes left.
Then Graham took over.
His first touchdown catch, using the crook of his right arm while Buffalo’s Robert Blanton was holding his left arm down the right side of the end zone, started the Seahawks’ 21-point second quarter. How sure was Graham that play would be a 17-yard score? He was so anxious to run that out-and-up right he almost took off on it before the snap.
His second one-hander came with 1 minute left in the half. He ran to the back line of the end zone, well-covered again. Wilson threw it to him anyway, again. The former college basketball power forward had Bills cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman holding down Graham’s left arm this time, yet he reached up and across with his right paw to pull in the pass just before Blanton arrived to hit him.
Graham had his second leaping, thunderous spike of the ball in the end zone of the half. And Seattle, despite its faults, led 28-17.
At the end of it all, Carroll sound like a weathered mariner, battered by storms for three months but still at the helm at the top and coming out the other side to bluer skies.
“It feels like Russell is finally able to be running.” Carroll said. “It can’t be more obvious…We’re not the same right now. We haven’t been for eight weeks. … That (Wilson run) factor has not been there. … It’s not the same – yet.
“With a lot of upside ahead of us.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle