More than a preposterous play call at the goal line Sunday denied the Seattle Seahawks a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy.
In the aftermath of Super Bowl 49, it’s impossible not to dwell on the saga of Heartbreak Pass and its co-authors, head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. The situation screamed for Marshawn Lynch to occupy the role of battering beast in a bull fight, and Carroll and Bevell turned it into a cerebral chess match with the New England coaches.
But the decision to forgo a low-risk, high-reward handoff to Lynch so that quarterback Russell Wilson could attempt a high-risk, no-reward throw to Ricardo Lockette shouldn’t mask the fact the 28-24 defeat was a group effort.
Start with the defense, accurately touted as among the stingiest ever assembled. During the eight games that preceded the Super Bowl, the Seahawks gave up a collective 13 points in the fourth quarter. Between Nov. 23 and Dec. 28 — a six-game stretch that included the regular-season finale — they gave up no points in the fourth quarter.
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Then came Sunday. On the biggest stage there is in professional sports, the Hawks’ defense surrendered 14 fourth-quarter points in less than six minutes. Granted, injuries took a toll — when cornerback Jeremy Lane suffered a fractured arm, Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary might have been more aptly nicknamed the Legion of M*A*S*H — but injuries are an equal-opportunity occupational hazard that crippled some of the offenses the Seahawks faced during their historic run of fourth-quarter domination.
Speaking of history: Until Super Bowl 49, no team had won after beginning the fourth quarter trailing by more than seven points. The Patriots, down 10 in the fourth quarter, picked apart the Seahawks with a succession of dink-and-dunk passes that were a fundamental piece of the game plan assembled for quarterback Tom Brady.
The Hawks don’t sweat the small stuff. They’ll allow the short completion, as long as it remains a short completion, and they’re so convinced it will remain a short completion that a blitz-enhanced pass rush is rarely implemented.
Brady’s response to Seattle’s bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophy was something akin to, “thank you, thank you very much.”
Liberated from anxieties about a blindside blitz, knowing that 10 seven-yard completions are worth just as much as one 70 yard completion, Brady was content to jab the Seahawks — to kill them softly with his short song — rather than throw the haymaker.
New England’s first touchdown drive in the fourth quarter found the Seahawks twice licking their chops: A third-and-14 play, and a third-and-8 play. Make a stop on either, and one of the great defenses in NFL history is off the field.
Brady hooked up with Julian Edelman for a 21-yard on the third-and-14, and again found Edelman for another 21-gain on the third-and-8.
The Patriots’ next touchdown drive was executed with minimal stress. They went 64 yards on 10 plays and never even had to contemplate a third down.
And yet, Brady’s MVP passing numbers — 37 completions, a Super Bowl record — are a forgotten footnote if the Seahawks’ offense had been able to sustain any kind of momentum before its ultimately doomed two-minute drill.
Here’s what the Hawks did after Doug Baldwin punctuated his third-quarter touchdown with an end zone “celebration” more creepy than gross, and it pretty much set the bar on gross:
Four plays, 33 yards, punt.
Three plays, minus-3 yards, punt.
Three plays, 5 yards, punt.
At the worst conceivable time, the Hawks offense went stagnant. The stagnancy was foreshadowed during the first possession of the second half — after Wilson completed a 44-yard pass to Chris Matthews, the most improbable go-to target in a Super Bowl game since Green Bay Packers veteran backup Max McGee caught two touchdown passes while nursing a hangover.
On a third-and-1 at the Patriots’ 8-yard line, Lynch ran left for no gain. A chip-shot field goal salvaged three points from the possession, but it’s fair to wonder if New England’s containment of Lynch on that third-and-1 figured into the decision to deny him the ball at the goal line.
But back to the defense, and a final gaffe: The Patriots had the ball at their 1-yard line with 20 seconds remaining. Denied the luxury of taking a knee, Brady was vulnerable to an end-zone tackle that would have resulted in a safety: Two points for the Seahawks, recipients of a punt booted from New England’s 20-yard line.
A fair catch of that punt gives the Hawks a chance at a free field-goal kick off the foot of Steven Hauschka, and a successfully executed free field goal gives Seattle a 29-28 lead with a second or two remaining.
In other words, there still was hope after Heartbreak Pass. Not a lot of hope, obviously, but some.
And then defensive end Michael Bennett jumped early on the snap. It was the final mistake of a game the Seahawks deserved to lose long before Carroll and Bevell were presented with the gift-wrapped touchdown opportunity they turned down, for reasons we’ll never understand.