John McGrath

John McGrath: Wild card round may be just what doc ordered for Hawks

The Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch (24) breaks away from the tackle of the New Orleans Saints’ Tracy Porter to score a 67-yard touchdown during the second half of wild card game Jan. 8, 2011, in Seattle. The Seahawks won, 41-36.
The Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch (24) breaks away from the tackle of the New Orleans Saints’ Tracy Porter to score a 67-yard touchdown during the second half of wild card game Jan. 8, 2011, in Seattle. The Seahawks won, 41-36. The Associated Press

Playing a wild card game Saturday did not rank prominently on the Seahawks’ wish list for 2017. They wanted the NFC’s second seed and the benefits of a bye, more important after 16 games than at any point during the regular season.

Despite their yearning for rest and recuperation, I’m not sure an open date would have been an ideal scenario for the Seahawks. When an inconsistent team is struggling to find itself — specifically, to find its power-running identity — a decisive victory over the slumping Lions could provide some precious momentum going into next week.

If nothing else, the players and coaches on Team Combustible will have the opportunity to show the world they can get along for a few hours without, like, screaming and punching each other.

The wild card round has delivered some of the most entertaining moments in NFL history, and it’s not difficult to ascertain why: With the top two seeds from each conference out of the picture, eight variously flawed teams put their hopes and dreams on the line.

In the case of the 2010 Seahawks, there was no such urgency. Having qualified for the wild card round by winning the division with a 7-9 record, they were liberated from the pressure that faced the Saints, who came to Seattle as the defending Super Bowl champions.

The seven tackles Marshawn Lynch broke on his “BeastQuake” touchdown run is the prevailing memory of the 41-36 victory, but that wild card game was wild long before the crowd created a seismic event. The Hawks made 31 first downs and gained 474 yards. Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed 39 passes — a playoff record at the time — but it was his counterpart, Matt Hasselbeck, who had the difference-making numbers: four touchdowns, only one interception.

Hasselbeck is recalled more for his prominent role in a 2003 wild card game at Green Bay. During the coin toss preceding overtime, Hasselbeck assured the Hawks would take the ball and score. Fun times. A few minutes later, cornerback Al Harris was performing a Lambeau Leap, celebrating the first playoff game in history decided by a defensive touchdown.

The final score — Packers 33, Seahawks 27 — was fairly tame by wild card standards. At least it resembled some version of football, as opposed to Arizona’s 51-45 overtime victory over Green Bay in the 2009 wild card round. That turned into a video game — or USC-Penn State in the Rose Bowl this past Monday — and here’s what was crazy: The Packers, who finished the regular season ranked first in rushing defense and second in points allowed, gave up 531 yards, including 156 yards on the ground.

You never know.

The Titans executed their “Music City Miracle” kick return in a 1999 wild card game against Buffalo, payback for the Bills’ 1992 wild card comeback over Houston, which would relocate to Tennessee and become the Titans.

Buffalo trailed at halftime, 28-3, prompting thousands of Bills fans to leave for home. Those who stayed around heckled the players as they trudged to the locker room, where they faced the wrath of defensive coordinator Walt Corey.

“I was hollering the same things the fans were hollering at me when we left the field,” Corey would recall. “I can’t repeat the words, but the more I talked, the louder I got.”

Said nose tackle Jeff Wright: “With every word that came out of Walt’s mouth, he reached a new temperature level until he finally just exploded. He had every reason to say the things he said. We were embarrassing him, we were embarrassing ourselves, and we were embarrassing Buffalo Bills fans.”

Down 32 points in the third quarter, the Bills stormed back to send the game into overtime. Their 41-38 victory remains the NFL’s greatest comeback.

A curiosity about “The Comeback” is how little local interest the game drew before kickoff. The Bills had represented the AFC in consecutive Super Bowls but now had to settle for the wild card after losing three of their last five down the stretch.

So discouraging was their regular-season finale — a 27-3 defeat at Houston — the playoff game didn’t sell out in time to ensure television viewers in western New York access to the NBC broadcast.

For those following a team fresh off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, “advancing” to the wild card round must have seemed like a regression. But the contest became a chapter in pro football lore, the ultimate example of how clock time supersedes every other number on a stadium scoreboard, beginning with the score.

The 1992 Bills didn’t win the Super Bowl, but their comeback put them on a fast track to return. A so-so season that had gone flat around Thanksgiving was salvaged by an inspired effort in the wild card round.

Free free to connect the dots between the ’92 Bills and 2016 Seahawks. Both teams slogged through December, arousing doubts about everybody being on the same page. But it’s possible the wild card game nobody wanted could turn into one of those wild card games for the ages.

Besides, if you’re a Seahawks fan, a contest at CenturyLink Field this weekend is preferable to the alternative of no Seahawks game this weekend. Enjoy football while it lasts, because that wasteland known as the offseason is looming around the corner.

John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath

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