So how did they do that?
How did the Seattle Seahawks (11-4) annihilate the first-place Arizona Cardinals by 29 points on the road to seize not only the NFC West but also put themselves one home victory Sunday against St. Louis (6-9) from having home-field advantage throughout the conference’s playoffs?
How have the defending Super Bowl champions won five consecutive games? How have they won eight of their past nine after a 3-3 start? The start that had Sports Illustrated write this just last month under the heading “Season’s story lines:”
“Seahawks repeat. DIED: WEEK 6”
How have they done it? With the superb. The sublime. And the subtle.
The football world will remember Marshawn Lynch’s cutting, bulldozing, sideline-stepping, 79-yard touchdown run for the ages Sunday night in the desert (pictured above, and viewed again here:)
“Twenty years from now we are going to look back and say that was one of the best runs ever,” Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. “In the National Football League. In football, period. From Little League all the way up. You’ll probably never see anything like that again. And if you do, Marshawn will have done it.”
What won’t be nearly as heralded will be the effort by Ricardo Lockette to get Lynch there.
The undrafted wide receiver from Division II Fort Valley State in Georgia began Lynch’s astounding run lined up outside on the right. After the snap he slanted inside to block Arizona safety Rashad Johnson while Lynch put on a sharp jump cut right past three stunned Cardinals. As Lynch ran to the right sideline, Lockette cut inside his rampaging teammate and ran along with him. More than 30 yards from where the play started, Lockette lowered his shoulder and bulled Johnson again into the boundary. Lockette’s momentum carried him across the sideline — where he blocked another Cardinal, star cornerback Patrick Peterson, into the Seahawks’ bench area.
Lockette spun around and raced back onto the field. He escorted Lynch the final 35 yards to the goal line. Once there, Lockette wasn’t done. He bumped into the last Cardinal around, Antonio Cromartie. That freed Lynch to do his back-first Nestea plunge into the end zone, mimicking his celebration in the 2010 home playoff win over New Orleans. That seismic run is becoming known around Seattle as “Beast Mode 1.” What Lynch produced in Glendale, Arizona, is now “Beast Mode 2,” so anointed by teammate Richard Sherman in the locker room in Arizona.
The Seahawks say the play exemplifies the unity and selflessness to which they committed in a meeting last month led by veterans Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson, Lynch and Sherman before the first Arizona game. That was days after Seattle’s last loss, at Kansas City, left the Seahawks 6-4 and on the brink of missing the playoffs.
“We are just out there playing for each other, trusting each other,” linebacker K.J. Wright said. “It took a little fighting, but we figured it out.”
Lockette might not have been on the field for Lynch’s phenomenal run had Jermaine Kearse not injured his hamstring during the first half Sunday. Lockette might have earned more time on offense this weekend with his wowing effort because Kearse may be out a while.
Coach Pete Carroll said during his weekly Monday appearance on Seattle’s 710 ESPN radio that Kearse is unlikely to practice this week. That makes Seattle’s No. 2 wide receiver unlikely to play against the Rams. Rookie Paul Richardson and Lockette are poised to move up in the receiver hierarchy behind Baldwin.
Kearse, a graduate of Lakes High School, pulled up at the end of a second-quarter kickoff Sunday while on the coverage unit. He did not return. Carroll said after the game Kearse’s hamstring didn’t “pop” but was strained.
Beyond Lockette’s selflessness, there was another subtlety that proved decisive in Seattle’s pounding of the Cardinals.
In the previous game, Arizona’s blitzing often overwhelmed Wilson, fill-in center Patrick Lewis and Seattle’s entire offensive line. The Cardinals sacked Wilson seven times and hit him on 11 other plays. Defensive end Calais Campbell had three sacks and six quarterback hits by himself that day, speeding past rookie right tackle Justin Britt and left tackle Russell Okung.
Sunday night Campbell had as many sacks and hits as you and I did.
In that first meeting, Wilson often held on to the ball too long, though he avoided at least a half-dozen more sacks with scrambles. Last week, offensive line coach Tom Cable said improving the pass protection would have to be a coordinated and shared effort. He sought better communication between Wilson and the blockers, plus the quarterback simply throwing more quickly.
Widely maligned for the line’s porous pass protection, Cable deserves credit for his preparation for the Cardinals rematch. He made the decision to start Lewis at center. It was a risk: Lewis struggled along with the rest of the line last month against Arizona after being signed off Cleveland’s practice squad in October. Plus Lemuel Jeanpierre, Seattle’s primary backup the past few seasons, had started the previous three games with starter Max Unger still out and was fully healthy and available to do so again.
“I felt like going with Patrick would give us more stoutness in there,” Cable said of the shorter but stronger Lewis.
“He’s not real big or nothing, but he’s a really strong kid. I made the decision to make the change and go back the last time we played these guys.”
In fact, had guard J.R. Sweezy not been able to play because of the sprained ankle that had kept him out of practice until two days before the game, the Seahawks had been preparing a contingency to have Lewis play center, yet still have Jeanpierre make the calls, from guard.
That proved to be unnecessary.
“It all started with Patrick Lewis and what he was able to do in terms of communication and passing it down the line,” Wilson said.
Second-year undrafted free agent Alvin Bailey had perhaps his best game, replacing Okung and often stonewalling Campbell outside.
“Alvin Bailey really stepped up,” Cable said.
And most important, Wilson did a far better job of throwing the ball quickly to the areas vacated by Arizona’s constant corner and linebacker blitzes. The result: Seattle had two 100-yard receivers, Baldwin and Luke Willson, for the first time in three years (when Ben Obomanu and Sidney Rice — remember them? — did it against Cincinnati on Oct. 30, 2011). Wilson completed 20 of 31 passes for 339 yards, the most he has had in a regular-season game in his three-year career.
“(Wilson) was really, really good. He was on. He was on time. He knew where people were coming from,” Cable said. “If they came from the right that’s where he threw the ball.
“That’s throwing the football at this level. That’s protection. That’s all that. ... That’s what we’ve been missing. He was great (Sunday night). And the kids blocked the rest of them, which was cool.”
For all they’ve done in this season full of drama, injuries and write-offs, the Seahawks still have much more to do.
“We’re not satisfied,” said middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, whose return to health a month ago has coincided with Seattle allowing just 6.6 points and 193.6 yards per game during its five-game winning streak.
“We’re not going to be satisfied until we’ve got another (Super Bowl) ring on our fingers.”