Analysis  

 

Seattle Seahawks make resounding statement; plus 32 questions

The iconic iPhone ring tone sounded shortly before midnight Pacific Time, at the end of a riveting and revealing second Sunday of the 2013 NFL regular season, and the man on the other end of the line sounded energized enough to suit up and do it all over again.

"We have a mindset," Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said, his team's 29-3 smackdown of the San Francisco 49ers at rain-soaked CenturyLink Field still fresh in the psyches of those who witnessed it. "We have a standard. There's a level to this -- we strive to play at a certain level. We have a lot of guys that want to be the best, guys who play like they're the best, and it emanates around our team. We have a lot of guys with a lot of dog in them, and when we play together, it makes us hard to beat."

Sherman, contrary to the caricature that fuels his public portrayal, was neither gloating nor goading his vanquished rivals. Though he has been known to instigate -- and admittedly is one of those Seahawks who plays with a Space Needle-sized chip on his shoulder -- Sherman is a dedicated professional who cares deeply about his craft. The way he and his teammates performed on "Sunday Night Football" was a testament to collective excellence.

On a day that featured the dramatic emergence of a rookie passer (EJ Manuel -- more on him shortly), a future Hall of Famer's continued mastery over his younger brother (Peyton over Eli Manning) and a revitalized coach's second consecutive triumph in advance of his return to the City of Brotherly Love (Andy Reid), it was the Seahawks' smothering defense that made the loudest statement of all.

If you subscribed to the notion going into the season, as I did, that these NFC West rivals are the two best teams in football, this Niners-'Hawks clash was steeped in significance.

In the 49ers' season-opening triumph over the Green Bay Packers, the defending NFC champs looked hauntingly potent on offense, with third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick in complete command and newly acquired receiver Anquan Boldin beasting opposing defenders at will.

On Sunday, even after an early blocked punt (under dubious circumstances) put San Francisco 33 yards from the end zone, the Seahawks' defense dominated the game. Kaepernick (13-for-28, 127 yards), looking harried and discombobulated, threw three interceptions -- including one to Sherman, who shadowed Boldin all night and held the physical wideout to one catch for 7 yards.

In other words, it was a lot like the only other resounding defeat of the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco: last December's 42-13 spanking at the hands of the Seahawks in the same stadium.

And while there's no guarantee that the Dec. 8 rematch in San Francisco will follow a similar script, the bottom line is this: The Seahawks are in the Niners' heads right now, and they savored every waterlogged minute of Sunday night's evisceration, even the hour-long lightning delay that interrupted the game in the first quarter.

"We were just having fun out there," Seattle safety Earl Thomas told me via telephone after the game. "It was like a party. It was a prime-time game, and the whole world got to see us dominate. Everybody got to see who the best team was. We want to be great, but we put in the work, too. We grind hard. And when we do what we did tonight, we have the right to talk."

To get a glimpse into the mindset of Thomas and his fellow defenders -- and, particularly, those who comprise a stellar secondary known as "The Legion of Boom" -- consider their reaction to the adversity that struck following the Seahawks' first possession: With Seattle punting after a three-and-out, a whistle from the crowd seemed to fool several 'Hawks players, many of whom left their stance and should have been flagged for a false start. Instead, they froze in place as the Niners converged on punter Jon Ryan, with Craig Dahl blocking the kick.

On the sideline, several Seahawks players and coaches cried foul. The crowd groaned. San Francisco had a golden opportunity to strike first blood.

And Sherman and his fellow defenders?

"We were excited," the All-Pro cornerback insisted. "We love a chance to stand up and show what we're made of. We were amped up. The Legion of Boom is something to be reckoned with, and we let our play do the talking."

After the Niners drove to the 5-yard line, where they faced a third-and-goal, the Seahawks made the play that changed the game: Kaepernick's pass to tight end Vernon Davis was deflected by lunging cornerback Walter Thurmond (subbing for the injured Brandon Browner, an oversized mauler and key Legion of Boom contributor), and Thomas broke on the ball and snatched it just in front of the goal line, returning it to the Seattle 12.

Following the weather-induced delay, during which Sherman said the Seahawks were literally dancing in the locker room, Seattle forced a second-quarter safety (on a holding call in the end zone) to snap the scoreless tie, then broke open the game in the second half with three Marshawn Lynch touchdowns.

When it was over, Seattle's place atop our weekly pecking order (see below) had been resoundingly secured -- a standing that's not likely to be jeopardized next week, when the bottom-feeding Jacksonville Jaguars roll into CenturyLink for a game that has survivor-pool gimme written all over it.

Then again, as we were reminded earlier Sunday, it doesn't take much for a downtrodden team to accumulate a hearty helping of hope ...

*****

Witness what happened in Buffalo, where rookie EJ Manuel, in his second career start, led a game-winning drive that captivated the fan base of the team in the midst of the NFL's longest playoff drought.

Trailing the Carolina Panthers by six points, Manuel took over at his own 20-yard line with 1:38 to go and coolly marched the Bills downfield, to the brink of victory.

On second-and-1 from the Carolina 2, with six seconds remaining, Manuel lined up to take a shotgun snap. The formation featured three Bills receivers, with veteran Stevie Johnson -- the primary option -- in the slot on the left side.

Johnson, a sixth-year veteran who has been so heavily invested in the franchise's struggles, desperately wanted to make the game-winning grab. Yet when he heard Panthers nickelback D.J. Moore instruct cornerback Josh Norman (who was lined up on the outside, opposite Bills wideout Chris Hogan) to cover the corner route -- Johnson's designed destination -- he figured it wasn't meant to be.

"The read is to me, and if they switch off, we go to the guy underneath the defender (Hogan)," Johnson explained to me Sunday night. "The defender in front of me (Moore) was telling his guy on the outside, 'You got the corner route,' so I thought, 'I'm done. I'm not gonna get the ball.' "

What happened next was the type of surreal development that, on too many occasions, has doomed the Bills to heartbreaking defeats: Hogan broke inside, underneath Johnson, and both defensive backs followed. Johnson slipped to the left corner of the end zone, completely alone, and Manuel lofted a pass that, if completed, would allow him to become the fifth NFL rookie since 1960 to lead a fourth-quarter comeback victory within his first two games.

All Johnson had to do was catch the ball. As it headed for his hands, his professional football life flashed before his eyes.

"Man, Mike, I thought about everything in those few moments," Johnson said. "What would happen if I caught it ... what has happened ... the disappointments of the past ... the present ... even last week (a heartbreaking, 23-21 defeat to the New England Patriots in the final seconds). I thought about games like the one we lost here to the Steelers in 2010 (when a wide-open Johnson dropped a potential game-winning touchdown pass). Within that split-second, all of that went through my head."

And then, finally, there was sweet release -- Johnson secured the oblong sphere, Manuel burst into tears of joy and Dan Carpenter came on to kick the extra point that put the Bills up, 24-23, with two seconds to go.

After a downed squib kick, the Panthers had a shot at a Hail Mary attempt from their own 40, well within Cam Newton's throwing range. Johnson trotted back onto the field as an emergency defensive back, stationed, once again, in the corner of the end zone -- this time without a negative thought in his head.

"Man, heck no," he said, laughing. "I'm thinking, I'm about to have a game-winning touchdown and an interception in the same game."

He never got the chance, thanks to a gutsy blitz (courtesy of first-year Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine) that provoked a game-ending sack by another promising Buffalo rookie, middle linebacker Kiko Alonso.

And what was the locker room like after the game? Alonso's one-word assessment, via text message: "Ecstatic."

Said Johnson: "It's just one game, so we can't really celebrate that much. But it's huge for us. We all know what went on in the past with the Buffalo Bills, but it's a new regime, with a new quarterback, and we're 1-1 and on a high."

So, how high should the 1-1 Bills reside in our weekly accounting of the league's franchises? That, football fans, is yet another question we're compelled to pose in the wake of a suspense-filled Sunday:

1) Seattle Seahawks: On his 62nd birthday, Pete Carroll got to blow out candles and Jim Harbaugh -- how psyched was the Seahawks coach?

2) Denver Broncos: Whose drives generate more heat: Peyton Manning's or a certain suspended linebacker's?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Chicago Bears' 31-30 win over the Minnesota Vikings from Week 2 on Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET.

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3) San Francisco 49ers: Yo, Anthony Dixon -- was Sunday Ladies Night at CenturyLink Field?

4) Chicago Bears: Should Jay Cutler connect with Brian Urlacher as dramatically as he did Martellus Bennett on Sunday, will we soon see the former teammates belting out "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" while riding a tandem bike across the Wrigley outfield?

5) Green Bay Packers: If Clay Matthews is an "awesome player," don't we have to invent an entirely new word to describe Aaron Rodgers?

6) New Orleans Saints: Can we surmise that at least some Bucs defenders might consider voting for Jimmy Graham on next year's "Top 100" list?

7) Cincinnati Bengals: If Ben Roethlisberger is offended that ex-teammate James Harrison referred to injured center Maurkice Pouncey as the Steelers' "best offensive player," is it a fair assumption that the quarterback will keep his objections to himself Monday night?

8) Atlanta Falcons: In the wake of Sunday's victory over the Rams, are the Falcons' offensive linemen the most celebrated punks to hit Hotlanta since these guys?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Houston Texans' 30-24 win over the Tennessee Titans from Week 2 on Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 2 p.m. ET.

» NFL Network schedule

9) Houston Texans: If DeAndre Hopkins is as good as he looked against the Titans on Sunday, is it fair to say this franchise is giving Matt Schaub every possible chance to win a Super Bowl?

10) Baltimore Ravens: Who had a more harrowing ordeal Sunday: Joe Flacco's wife in the delivery room or Brandon Weeden in the pocket?

11) New England Patriots: Which Brady is more of a sourpuss these days: Tom or Jan?

12) St. Louis Rams: What was more encouraging for the Rams in defeat Sunday: that they came back from a 21-0 deficit to scare the Falcons, or that dynamic rookie Tavon Austin looks scarily legit?

13) Miami Dolphins: Should Mike Wallace's new nickname be "The Squeaky Wheel"?

14) Arizona Cardinals: Wait -- Patrick Peterson can throw, too?

15) Kansas City Chiefs: How awesome would it be if Andy Reid marked his return to Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night by wearing a Santa suit -- and if he did, is there any doubt Big Red would be booed by the Philly fans?

16) San Diego Chargers: Did anyone see Philip Rivers' revival coming -- and if the quarterback keeps playing like he has in the first two games, could this team sneak into the playoffs?

17) Dallas Cowboys: How much better is Dez Bryant in the first quarter than he is in the fourth -- and how much of a bummer is that for Tony Romo?

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Thursday, Dec. 12, 8 p.m. ET
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18) Indianapolis Colts: How many of the men blocking for Andrew Luck wish they could block Jim Irsay on Twitter?

19) Philadelphia Eagles: After insisting that Philly tried to acquire Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson during the spring of 2012, did an unnamed Eagles source also claim that the franchise nearly bought Google in the summer of 2002?

20) Buffalo Bills: Did Mario Williams picture Cam Newton as his ex-fiancée's engagement ring, or what?

21) Tennessee Titans: When Kendall Wright and friends did their "choreographed" touchdown dance at Reliant Stadium on Sunday, were Everson Walls and Dennis Thurman tempted to break it up?

22) Detroit Lions: For Mikel Leshoure to find a team "that would put him to use," would the Lions' third-string halfback have to head north (and switch feline affiliations)?

23) New York Giants: Irrespective of Sunday's result, can people please snap out of it and stop asking if Eli is the 'best Manning'?

24) Minnesota Vikings: After Jared Allen sent me a text reading "We blew it" a few hours after Sunday's defeat to the Bears, how tempted was I to try to cheer him up by reminding him that the Browns are coming to town in Week 3?

25) Pittsburgh Steelers: Yo, Steelers fans -- would you rather have one of your coaches do what Todd Haley did while autographing a napkin, or do this?

26) Washington Redskins: Is this Robert Griffin III's favorite Neil Young album -- and will the 2013 'Skins burn out before their quarterback rediscovers his 2012 form?

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Top 10 photos from Week 2

Check out the best shots across the NFL.

27) Carolina Panthers: Is Steve Smith's "getting teeth pulled without any anesthesia" analogy apt -- or is Carolina's offense simply toothless?

28) New York Jets: What do Rex Ryan and The Fonz have in common?

29) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How many people will Greg Schiano threaten to fire after Sunday's last-second defeat to the Saints -- and who should be accountable for the team's glaring lack of discipline?

30) Oakland Raiders: How cool is it that, after all these years, Charles Woodson is back with the Raiders -- and is it too late to cast him opposite Ben Affleck in the Batman/Superman movie?

31) Cleveland Browns: After losing to the Ravens -- again -- can we conclude that the Browns are the NFL's answer to Nigel Tufnel?

32) Jacksonville Jaguars: After an Orlando TV station felt compelled to rationalize showing the Jags' game against the Raiders, wouldn't it have been fabulous if owner Shad Khan had responded, "And I apologize for any inconvenience caused by the city of Orlando's existence"?

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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