Finally safe from the San Francisco defenders who had menaced him all game, Russell Wilson stood on a podium with his celebrating teammates and told a nation of viewers that the Seattle Seahawks’ road to Super Bowl XLVIII started with a simple question he asked way back last spring.
“Why not us?”
The quarterback bluntly asked his teammates if they saw any reason why they couldn’t be the ones who played their way to the Super Bowl.
Early in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, Wilson and his teammates supplied some answers to “why not.” The offense was sporadic, ineffective and couldn’t capitalize on opportunities, and the defense couldn’t tackle San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The Seahawks were behind and struggling, and they looked to be the inferior team, despite the contributions of the frenzied fans at CenturyLink Field.
But they came back to win, 23-17, and earned the franchise’s second Super Bowl trip by accomplishing something they’ve been working on since coach Pete Carroll got to Seattle four seasons ago: Finishing.
“In the second half, we outscored them, 20-7,” Carroll said. “Regardless of how it came about and how it looked, that was a great finish for these guys. We needed to take the next step, finish this football game.”
They learned the secret the hard way, by failing to finish in last season’s playoffs at Atlanta. They learned it again this season on the road against San Francisco when they lost a late lead. And they learned it at home against Arizona in December when they discovered they really weren’t invincible after all at CenturyLink Field.
“It’s something we’ve been preaching the whole year,” wide receiver Golden Tate said. “We never felt like we were going to lose that game. We were so confident that it was just a matter of time until we started figuring it out ... and we did.”
Never any doubt, he claimed.
“Oh, it was not pretty,” Tate said. “Especially late in the game when we were fumbling and all that, but we found a way.”
In the second half, they remembered the strengths that took them to 13 regular-season wins and the NFC’s top seed.
They remembered that when they ask the strong-willed Marshawn Lynch to carry them, he often answers with the kind of third-quarter performance that reawakened the team. In the third quarter alone, he had seven carries for 70 yards, including a 40-yard, tackle-blasting breakaway that effectively defibrillated the offense.
They remembered that while Wilson might bobble the ball and overthrow some receivers, he also can, in a moment of greatest need, find a Jermaine Kearse with a dart in the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown.
After Wilson lost a fumble on the first Seahawks snap, a play that could have rattled a veteran, he thought, without panic: “I’ve still got a lot of game left.”
And they realized it’s rare that a team can fool Seattle’s top-rated defense for an entire game. Kaepernick shook loose for 98 yards on scrambles and designed runs in the first half, but he finished with 130 and was not a threat in the second half.
“We had to play more zone just to make sure we could see him and come out of coverage to tackle him,” Carroll said of keeping Kaepernick in check.
The Niners helped out when the game was on the line, with 30 seconds left, when they threw to the end zone in the neighborhood of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. It was the biggest challenge of Sherman all game, and he deflected the ball back to linebacker Malcolm Smith, who pulled it in to end the San Francisco threat.
“I don’t know what they were thinking,” fullback Michael Robinson said of throwing it near Sherman, who led the NFL in interceptions during the regular season.
But that’s how you finish. That’s the kind of play they didn’t make in last year’s playoff loss to the Falcons, or earlier this season against San Francisco.
“I think the Atlanta game last year helped a lot,” Robinson said. “To be able to push through a game like this.”
Said Sherman: “None of us wanted to feel what we felt in Atlanta again. We felt we let our team down.”
This game was physical, and it was raw and flawed at times.
“But these guys didn’t blink,” Robinson said. “They handled all the adversity and distractions.”
And it allowed them to finally overcome a fierce rival, a Niners team that was playing as well and as tough as any team in the NFL.
Center Max Unger said that definitely made this a win worth celebrating ... briefly. Because they haven’t totally finished their work yet.
“Don’t forget, we still have another game to play.”