The team won only three of its final 10 regular-season games and looked like a flyweight heading into a tournament full of heavyweights.
The punchless Seahawks rode the momentum of an offensive revival to deliver a haymaker and surprising knockout of the Saints. The success of the unit should make cynics pause before writing the Chicago Bears into the NFC title game.
In watching tape of the Seahawks' effort against the Saints, the diversity of their offensive approach stood out. Seattle ran on 24 of its 61 offensive plays, and used a variety of formations, shifts, motions and personnel groupings to keep the Saints off balance. The game plan featured a number of high-percentage passes off three- and five-step drops, and quick play-action fakes. Coordinator Jeremy Bates also incorporated a host of deception and misdirection passes to generate big plays.
As a result, Matt Hasselbeck connected on 22 of 35 passes for 272 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. He hit eight different receivers and directed the offense with the confidence of a three-time Pro Bowler. Not to be outdone, Marshawn Lynch recorded his first 100-yard rushing game for the Seahawks and provided the physical presence to allow the team to salt away the game late.
In reviewing Seattle's win at Chicago, Hasselbeck was extremely impressive. He connected on 25 of 40 passes for 242 yards with a touchdown. He completed passes to eight different receivers, hitting open targets against the Bears' two-deep zone.
Part of Hasselbeck's success can be attributed to Bates' decision to consistently throw on first down. With the Bears sitting extensively in eight-man fronts on first down to stop the run, the Seahawks routinely threw high-percentage passes in the situation. Hasselbeck completed nine of his 15 attempts on first down for 121 yards, which kept the offense in manageable situations for most of the day. This is important because the Bears typically jump into their vaunted Tampa-2 coverage on long-yardage situations and the combination of their four-man rush with blanket coverage leads to turnovers.
While the decision to call passes on first down was clearly effective against the Bears, it was Lynch who made the strategy work. The matchup vs. Chicago represented Lynch's debut with Seattle after coming over in a trade with Buffalo.
As a rugged runner with speed and quickness, Lynch added a physical presence the Bears were forced to account for. Though he only finished with 44 rushing yards on 17 attempts, his ability to grind out tough yards between the tackles made it necessary for Chicago to drop an extra defender in the box on early downs.
When Lynch came off the field, the Seahawks opened up their formations and used Justin Forsett as a change-of-pace runner. The elusive back tallied 64 yards on only 10 carries and helped the unit finish with 111 yards on the ground. While that number doesn't jump off the page, it speaks to the surprising balance that the Seahawks were able to find against the Bears.
With Carroll and his staff able to use the successful game plan from their first matchup as a blueprint, it is important to look at how the Bears' defense has evolved from that point. A quick look at the stat sheet shows that the unit finished fourth in scoring defense, which suggests that touchdowns will be at a premium in this contest. The Bears also ranked second in three-and-out drives and third in holding opponents to fewer than four yards on first downs.
Those statistics speak volumes about the need to stay ahead of the chains and makes it imperative for the Seahawks to win the early-down situations. Look for Bates to implement tactics that showed up in the Bears' woeful performance against the New England Patriots. In that contest, Chicago struggled against spread formations and quick-rhythm passes. Tom Brady repeatedly worked the vacant areas underneath the defense before taking a few shots down the sidelines for big plays.
Seattle had similar success with Hasselbeck repeatedly able to connect with Mike Williams and Deon Butler down the sideline in the open window between the corner and safety in the two-deep defense. On Butler's 22-yard touchdown in the first quarter, Hasselbeck delivered a strike in the corner of the end zone before the safety or corner could close on the ball. These throws will be available at times for the veteran, and he must consistently connect for the Seahawks to score.
Williams, who finished had 10 grabs for 123 yards in Week 6, will also see a host of targets on the outside to take advantage of his size over Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, he is four inches taller than Tillman and towers over the 5-foot-8 Jennings. With Hasselbeck adept at throwing the high floater to Williams on double moves, you can expect a few shots on early downs to the Seahawks' top receiver.
If the Seahawks can continue to get the protection from an offensive line that has played its best football over the past two weeks, they have the weapons and plan to potentially change the landscape of the NFC playoffs by winning in Chicago.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.