Their avalanche of ache finally caught up to the Seattle Seahawks.
Will it cost them the chance to catch the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West?
Russell Wilson completed 20 of 32 passes and had key scrambles for gains late. Marshawn Lynch plowed for 124 yards rushing. But almost all of those came before two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger sustained a high-ankle sprain and twisted knee 6 minutes into the fourth quarter.
With second-stringer Patrick Lewis forced in at center, the Seahawks turned the ball over on downs three times in the final 7:11, including on a fourth-and-2 and a fourth-and-1 from inside Kansas City’s 36-yard line. That — and the Chiefs steamrolling a Seahawks run defense missing Brandon Mebane in the middle — is how Seattle lost 24-20 Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium.
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“Heartbreaking loss,” Wilson said of a thudding end to the Seahawks’ three-game winning streak.
“We think we could have — and should have — won it.”
Instead, the Seahawks (6-4) head home to host Arizona (9-1) while stinging over how close they came to pulling out a huge win on a 21-degree day with a wind chill of 10 in the Heartland. It was the coldest temperature for a November game at Arrowhead Stadium on record.
The reality that is hitting the Seahawks is even colder.
By failing to stop All-Pro Jamaal Charles (159 yards rushing, two touchdowns) or the Chiefs rushing game (190 yards) that came right at them knowing Mebane and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner were out injured, the Super Bowl champions have exhausted all of their mulligans in their title defense.
To ensure a return to the postseason they need to make up a three-game deficit to the Cardinals with six to play. The fact the Seahawks have five division games remaining is the hope to which they will cling all this coming week.
They were already clutching it in the locker room Sunday afternoon.
“We can go either way; we can run, or we can stay on track,” safety Earl Thomas said.
“I think we are going to stay on track.”
Thomas forced Chiefs fumbles in the second and the third quarters that led to half of the Seahawks’ points. But he also missed a tackle on Charles’ 47-yard run in the fourth quarter up the middle, past where Mebane used to be. That set up Knile Davis’ four-yard touchdown run that gave the Chiefs their 24-20 lead with 13:41 left.
Missed tackles, not Mebane missing, is what coach Pete Carroll bemoaned most.
“We have to go back and work to figure out how we can stop the running game,” Carroll said.
The Seahawks played their first game since they lost nose tackle and run stuffer Mebane for the season to a torn hamstring. Kevin Williams, the 34-year-old, 11-year veteran started for him.
Seattle felt the loss immediately — and painfully.
Kansas City romped for 190 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries, an average of 6.3 yards per rush. With Mebane over the first nine games, the Seahawks had allowed 79.8 yards rushing and 3.2 yards per carry.
Williams and second-year defensive tackle Jordan Hill got turned and pushed back early and often by double teams Mebane has devoured all season. The result, especially midway through the second quarter as Kansas City built a 14-7 lead: Seattle’s linebackers were uncharacteristically getting blocked instead of making tackles.
That put the onus of tackling on the secondary. And the defensive backs often whiffed on that onus like it was another ball carrier in the open field.
“I don’t know why we didn’t tackle,” Carroll said.
Just like against DeMarco Murray in the loss to the Dallas Cowboys last month, the Seahawks got burned by a rugged runner patiently waiting for his blocks — and for Seattle’s linemen and linebackers to overrun cut-back lanes. Malcolm Smith did that a lot.
“We tackled so poorly,” Thomas said. “Jamaal kept making yards — and making us miss.”
Asked how he thought the rushing defense fared without Mebane, his replacement scoffed.
“I mean, you can’t ask that question when they got 190 yards rushing,” said Williams, the five-time All-Pro with the Minnesota Vikings before Seattle signed him this spring. “Evidently, it wasn’t a good day for us. They controlled the game with the run game.”
Alex Smith threw just 16 passes for Kansas City. Most of those were screens.
“I mean, we expected them to stick with the run,” Williams said. “But no one expects to give up 190. That dictated the game.”
Yet the Seahawks’ offense still had three opportunities in the final 9 minutes to win. Wilson usually thrives in those situations. His 13 winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime since 2012 lead the league. He’s done it three times this season, to beat the Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers and the New York Giants.
“We had plenty of chances in this game,” Carroll said. “Plenty of chances.”
But oh they missed Unger. How much did the bedrock center’s injury change the game?
Wilson was 16-for-23 for 142 yards and two touchdowns over the first 51 minutes with his two-time Pro Bowl trigger man making the line calls and anchoring pass protection.
After Unger got hurt and left likely for weeks and Lewis entered at center with 9 minutes to go, Wilson was 4-for-9 for 36 yards and got sacked once.
The offense had 5.8 yards per rush with Unger, 1.3 without him. Seattle went from 6.2 yards per play to 1.8 after Unger went out.
Two plays after Unger got hurt, Lynch got stopped at the 2 up the middle on third-and-goal. On fourth down with 7:11 left, Wilson’s lofted pass to the left corner of the end zone sailed far past Doug Baldwin, who had caught Wilson’s first touchdown pass to tie the game in the second quarter. The wide receiver yelled for a bumping foul on Kansas City cornerback Sean Smith. It never came.
The Seahawks’ defense then picked a fine time for its first three-and-out of the day, while the Chiefs were backed up at their own goal line. After the punt, Seattle took over at the Kansas City 44 down 24-20 with 6:15 left.
But on that first full drive after Unger’s injury, Wilson had to walk from left to right to each of the five offensive linemen before the snap to make the protection call. By the time he did that the play clock was expiring. It was the day’s only delay-of-game penalty.
Instead of second-and-5 at the Kansas City 40 Seattle had second-and-10 with 5 minutes left, down 24-20. Lynch ran up the middle for two yards behind Lewis. Then Wilson’s eight-yard pass to Jermaine Kearse was one yard short, instead of being a first down had the delay foul not happened.
On fourth-and-1 from the Chiefs 36 and 3:38 remaining, Lynch tried to run behind Lewis and fill-in left guard Alvin Bailey. Three Chiefs swallowed Lynch. The Seahawks turned the ball over on downs for the second time in Chiefs territory in 4 minutes.
Kansas City ran three times into the line to force Seattle to use all its remaining time outs. The Chiefs punted again; K.C.’s Junior Hemingway made a great play to bat the ball off his goal line back into play to be downed at the Seattle 4.
That left the Seahawks with 2:47 left, no time outs and 96 yards from the win.
That was far too tough a task. After a sack and two incomplete passes, Wilson’s fourth-and-18 jump ball to Paul Richardson was too high. The Chiefs (7-3) ran off the final minute to finish their fifth consecutive win.
“We’ve got six games left. And I bet all six games will come down the wire,” Wilson said.
“And if those six games come down the wire, I believe all six games we’re going to win.”
Well, they almost have to now.