The Seattle Seahawks won their first playoff game of the 2015 season on Sunday.
Or at least it felt like it.
Mostly, that’s because the 39-30 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers finally proved they can play with the big boys. And that might lead to actual postseason wins come January.
At 6-5, the Hawks have played themselves back into the wild card picture. This win seemed long-awaited because it’s the first of the season for the Seahawks against a team with a winning record.
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It came in front of a record crowd at CenturyLink Field on Sunday. And it also looked so much like the kind of win that had slipped through their fingers so often this season.
For the 11th time in 11 games, the Seahawks had a lead in the fourth quarter. In their five losses, they’ve relinquished it.
This time, the Steelers fought back into the lead, but the Seahawks didn’t cough it up. Instead, the chronically inconsistent Seahawks offense rallied to spare the defense.
Quarterback Russell Wilson, on his 27th birthday, and sick from flu-like symptoms, threw five touchdown passes, passed for 345 yards (rating of 147.9), and receiver Doug Baldwin scored three touchdowns on six catches.
“I think it’s a really strong win,” coach Pete Carroll said. “It was against a really good football team.”
Absolutely. This was a legitimate win, not only because the Steelers were 6-4 coming into it, but because it is an extremely physical and balanced club led by a quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who torched the Seahawks defense for 456 yards.
In an unusual season, when the Seahawks have been unrecognizably inconsistent on both sides, a loss in this one might have conclusively exploded some long-held mythology around the team.
Giving up nearly 500 passing yards, as they did on Sunday, would have put to rest the Legion of Boom nickname for the Seahawks secondary.
And losing another game at home would have rendered the renowned homefield dominance a withered fallacy. In the previous three seasons, the Seahawks were 22-2 combined at CenturyLink. But the Steelers appeared about to deal the Seahawks their third home loss of this season.
It wasn’t a failing of the home crowd. This has been about the 11 men on the field, not the 12th Man in the stands.
But this time, three fourth-quarter touchdowns saved the season for the Seahawks.
The 39 points was a season-high. For a team that has ridden the best defense in the NFL the past three seasons, the offense finally bailed them out.
“It’s just playing for each other,” safety Earl Thomas said. “It feels good; it feels right. It’s how we are. I think sometimes success can make you lose sight of that. At times were weren’t clicking and we had some bonehead plays. But that’s the game.”
Guard J.R. Sweezy pointed to the playing-for-each-other theme, too. Sweezy drew an extraordinarily untimely unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for diving on the pile when the Seahawks were only a yard from the goal line.
It took the Hawks from third-and-goal from the 1 to third-and-goal from the 16.
Sweezy explained that he hadn’t heard the whistle and thought the play was still alive.
But on the next play, Wilson gunned a pass to Baldwin for a touchdown.
“He stepped up and covered for me, otherwise I’d have been in the doghouse,” Sweezy said. “That’s what this team does: We can count on each other. We play so hard and so fast that we’re going to mess up at some point, but when we have each other’s backs, it works out.”
Wilson had fought illness most of the day, but battled to his best game of the season.
Afterward, he talked about the team’s “passion” and “fire” — a pair of indefinable qualities that seemed to be lacking for the Seahawks this season.
“Ultimately, the truth of it is, we found a way to win,” Wilson said.
And maybe found their identity in the process.