Seattle Seahawks

John McGrath: Will crutches let Seahawks travel path to Super Bowl?

Future Pro Football Hall of Fame safety John Lynch, who covered the Seattle Seahawks’ dominant-in-all-phases performance Sunday as a TV booth analyst for Fox Sports, never ran out of superlatives.

“This is a well-oiled machine,” Lynch said as the Seahawks chewed up yards faster than Joey Chestnut devours hot dogs. “I’m giddy about them.”

While Lynch admitted to giddiness, Atlanta Falcons veteran Sean Weatherspoon appeared disconsolate. The injured linebacker was brought to tears during the pep talk he gave his undermanned, overwhelmed defensive teammates at halftime.

“Weatherspoon was sniffling as he came out for the second half,” Erin Andrews reported from the sideline.

When the opposition’s ol’ yeller is looking as if he’s just sat through the climactic scene of “Ol’ Yeller” – and there’s still half a game to play – well, that’s the sort of compliment you can’t find in a thesaurus.

But it was retired coach Jimmy Johnson, managing to contribute a few words as part of Fox’s battalion-sized group of studio pundits, who had the nicest thing of all to say about the Seahawks.

“They’re motivated,” Johnson said at halftime, “and they’re healthy.”

Motivated? Obviously. After a highlight-deprived victory over the Rams in St. Louis was followed by a surprisingly difficult survival of the 0-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers at CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks showed up in Atlanta with much more on their plate than a 10-month old grudge against the team that eliminated them from last season’s playoffs .

But healthy? A prominent theme of the 2013 Seahawks is how unhealthy they’ve been. Since vaunted slash-back Percy Harvin reported to training camp with a hip sore enough to require surgery, injuries have prevented the best team in franchise history from being all it can be.

Missing on Sunday were Harvin (who figures to make his debut next week, unless he doesn’t) and wide receiver Sidney Rice (gone for the season with a knee injury). Also out of action were offensive tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini (who figure to return next week, unless they don’t), along with center Max Unger and defensive Red Bryant, recovering from concussions.

Six of 22 starters were unavailable, and when cornerback Brandon Browner hurt his groin muscle in the second quarter, the wounded list expanded to seven: almost one-third of the first-team lineup.

Yet there was Jimmy Johnson, pointing out how healthy – and, by extension, fortunate – the Seahawks are.

When I heard Johnson say that, I rolled my eyes and thought: Jimmy, injuries to the Seahawks are all we talk about up here in the Pacific Northwest. Would it be too much to ask a studio analyst to fortify his opinions with the kind of easily obtained information called facts?

And then it occurred to me: Jimmy Johnson was monitoring the Seahawks from a distance. From what he saw Sunday, he couldn’t tell that six Seattle starters were unable to play, and that a seventh had just joined the ranks of the injured.

Instead of a makeshift offensive line cobbled together with versatile reserves, Johnson saw an offensive line that helped spring running back Marshawn Lynch for 145 yards, while limiting the Falcons to a lone sack of quarterback Russell Wilson.

Instead of a receiving corps deprived of the big-play punch of Harvin and Rice, Johnson saw Golden Tate make one-handed catches, and Jermaine Kearse make jump-ball catches, and Doug Baldwin make whatever-it-takes catches. The trio combined for 14 receptions worth 257 yards and two touchdowns.

Instead of a defensive line absent Bryant, typically positioned as an end but who serves as a gap-filling run stopper, Johnson saw an interior front that helped confine Steven Jackson, the Falcons’ 6-foot-2, 240-pound bruiser back, to 11 yards on nine carries.

Given how St. Louis rookie Zac Stacy pummeled the Seahawks for 134 rushing yards on Oct. 28, and how Tampa Bay rookie Mike James ran for 158 yards against them last week, Atlanta’s early determination to attack the seemingly soft underbelly of the Seahawks’ defense – without the 323-pound Bryant in uniform – made sense.

But Jackson never got clearance, and the Falcons’ once-dynamic offense needed penalty flags dropped on a couple of dubious calls to complete its only touchdown drive of the day.

If there was a cautionary message in the Seahawks’ 33-10 victory, the Falcons provided it. Through 12 games last season, they were 11-1, on their way to a 13-3 finish that secured home-field advantage through the playoffs.

The home-field vibe worked, too. They responded to the Seahawks’ furious comeback in the divisional playoff game with a comeback of their own, then jumped to a 17-0 lead over San Francisco in the conference championship.

Atlanta couldn’t hold on, and fans of the 2-7 team that so recently loomed as a burgeoning powerhouse in the NFC have been reduced to pining for a top 5 draft choice in 2014.

The window for the Super Bowl, in other words, is narrow, and it can shut in a hurry.

But talk about the Seahawks’ challenge to seize the opportunity will have to wait, because today, the talk will dwell on the injuries: Those who are about to return, those who will be out for a while, those whose status is somewhere in between.

Injuries can’t be minimized. Injuries are a legitimate source of consternation and anxiety, fear and insomnia. Injuries are the variable that makes the world stop going around.

Except there’s this: Jimmy Johnson, who knows more about football than any of us, watched the NFC West leaders from afar on Sunday, and he couldn’t tell that one-third of their starting lineup was too hurt to play.

Don’t let injuries obscure the picture, Seahawks fans. The window is narrow. Dream big.