Marshawn Lynch did it again. He bulled into the end zone with the decisive touchdown.
This time, the Seahawks grabbed the NFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs with a 20-6 win over the St. Louis Rams in the regular-season finale at rockin’ CenturyLink Field. Seattle’s postseason begins next weekend with the once 3-3 Super Bowl champions enjoying a bye week.
“Heck, yeah!” coach Pete Carroll said Sunday night. “All you guys kept talking about how you can’t do this and you can’t get to this point again. You can. You can do it.
“We just did it.”
Lynch ran untouched nine yards for the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter after a wowing interception by emerging defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Bobby Wagner later knocked a pass into teammate Bruce Irvin’s arms for an interception return for a score. Then Earl Thomas chopped at the arm of Benny Cunningham as the Rams’ running back was reaching for the goal-line pylon resulting in a fumble and touchback for Seattle instead of a St. Louis touchdown.
That’s how Seattle scored 20 points after halftime and its defense — statistically the NFL’s best since at least the NFL merger with the AFL 43 years ago — gave up no touchdowns.
“It’s different circumstances than the year before,” said quarterback Russell Wilson, who said in Kansas City following his team’s last loss last month that Seattle would win its final six games. “We hadn’t won a Super Bowl, first of all. And also (last year) we were 8-1 at one point.
“This year, I think, it’s a little better. You’re 3-3 and people are doubting. There’s no doubt in our locker room. We believe.”
Lynch finished with 60 yards on 14 carries and scored his 17th touchdown this season. Wilson completed 17 of 25 passes for 239 yards with his second interception in seven weeks. The Seahawks (12-4) won for the sixth consecutive time and ninth time in 10 games.
In a league that hasn’t had a repeat winner of the Super Bowl since the 2003-04 New England Patriots, the Seahawks became the first team since the 1989 and ’90 San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl as a top seed, then earn a No. 1 conference seed again the following postseason.
The Seahawks will host either Carolina, Detroit or Carolina on Saturday, Jan. 10 at 5:15 p.m. in the NFC divisional playoffs. They await the lowest remaining seed from this weekend’s wild-card games: Arizona at Carolina and Detroit at Dallas.
The Seahawks finished in a three-way tie with Green Bay and Dallas at 12-4. Seattle earned the No. 1 seed with its 10-2 conference record, which was better than the Cowboys (8-4) and Packers (9-3).
How far can this Seattle team go?
“As far as we can take ourselves,” Sherman said.
What made Wilson predict this six-game winning streak back when the Seahawks were 6-4?
“I always have had good instincts,” Wilson said with a grin after improving to 16-2 at home. “I just believe in the guys that we have. I get to see it every day. I get to see the energy. I get to see the belief in one another. I get to see our fans around the city when I’m out.
“There’s just no doubt about what we can do.”
Not with this defense.
The sprinting, thudding Wagner, havoc-making Michael Bennett and the athletic Hill led this latest domination. For the regular season, the Seahawks allowed 15.9 points per game. Seattle has the first defense since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings “Purple People Eaters” to lead the league in fewest points allowed three years in a row.
“Best defense of all time,” Bennett bellowed.
“The way we’re playing right now,” fellow defensive end Cliff Avril said, “we’re trying to separate ourselves from anybody, really.”
They again bailed out the offense, which gained 189 of its 354 yards in the first half but had zero points because of a Wilson interception and a fumble by Lynch. Seattle also had tight end Luke Willson run a 4-yard passing route on fourth and 5 in Rams territory and end up short of the first down. Wilson also fumbled on a read-option play with running back Robert Turbin on third and 1 at midfield to end another fruitless drive.
So the defense talked at halftime of seizing the game, the division and the conference’s top seed itself.
Wagner said the mid-game message was: “All we need to do is get the ball, and go win the game.”
The Seahawks came out running Lynch more and getting two field goals by Steven Hauschka, who had missed three field goals in last week’s 35-6 win at Arizona. That tied the game at 6 entering the fourth quarter.
On the first play of the final period, Rams’ 13-year veteran backup quarterback Shaun Hill tried to throw a screen pass. Before the ball hit the turf behind the line, Seattle’s 303-pound defensive tackle Jordan Hill dived and scooped up the ball with both arms for his first career interception. He even got up and ran 8 yards with it to midfield.
“He’s now an honorary member of the Legion of Boom,” All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said. “We have to have a 300-pounder in there.”
Lynch converted Hill’s interception into the lead with that easy, 9-yard touchdown run with no other sideshows. That gave Seattle a 13-6 lead with 12 minutes to go.
Then Hill threw near midfield for Lance Kendricks, whose TD catch was the winning points in the Rams’ 28-26 upset of the Seahawks in October.
Wagner bear-hugged Kendricks from behind and ripped the ball from his hands and into the arms of Seahawks teammate Bruce Irvin. One of Seattle’s fastest defenders, the outside linebacker raced 49 yards the other way for his second touchdown return of the season.
“I wasn’t even looking for the ball,” Irvin said, smiling. “It was just there.”
Suddenly the Seahawks led 20-6 and another winter party was on in Seattle because of — again — the ever-present Wagner and their defense.
As if the defense hadn’t made its point already, free safety Earl Thomas made a memorable play with 6 minutes to go in the game.
St. Louis drove to a third down at the Seattle 6. Hill threw in the left flat to Cunningham. Cunningham ran the left sideline and reached the ball with his left, outside hand and arm to the goal-line pylon in an attempt to score. Thomas flew in from the middle of the field and delivered a guillotine-like chop onto the inside of Cunningham’s left arm. That blow knocked the ball from the back’s hands inches before it reached the goal line. The ball bounded out of the side of the end zone for a Seahawks touchback instead of a Rams touchdown that would have made it a one-score game.
“That was colossal,” Sherman said. “Use that word.”
So was Wagner. Again.
He’s the difference maker between the Seahawks’ loss to the Rams in October and Sunday — indeed the difference between Seattle being 6-4 last month and 12-4 with the NFC’s inside track to a possible return to the Super Bowl.
In October, Wagner was out for the first of five games with a broken bone in a foot tendon and torn foot ligament. The Rams completed all eight of their pass attempts to tight ends in the middle of the field, including the game-winning one against his fill-in, usual outside linebacker K.J. Wright.
Sunday, St. Louis completed just three passes to its tight ends and didn’t score a touchdown.
Since Wagner returned six games ago, Seattle has allowed 6.5 points and 202.1 yards per game.
Named to the Pro Bowl for the first time last week, Wagner just shrugged over his impact.
“Six weeks ago we were three games out of the lead,” the coach said, beaming. “Well, we surely witnessed how difficult the NFC West is in the last month and a half. To be able to get through those games and get wins is a tremendous accomplishment for us.
“If you’re not playoff ready after that run … nothing can get you ready.
“We have an opportunity — like we did last year — to bring it home to the 12’s.”