Analysis  

 

Seattle Seahawks peaking at right time for Super Bowl run

SEATTLE -- You don't spit into the wind, or so the saying goes, but if you're Russell Wilson, the uncannily mature young leader of a loaded football team, and the pocket is collapsing on third-and-8 with 4:41 remaining in the first half of a divisional-round playoff game, you do throw into the wind and driving rain, lofting a perilously high floater into harm's way, when the guy on the other end is as scary-good as Percy Harvin.

That's one of the many revelations that came out of the Seattle Seahawks23-15 victory over the New Orleans Saints at gusty, soggy CenturyLink Field on Saturday, an ear-splitting madhouse that will also play host to next Sunday's NFC Championship Game. And whether it's the San Francisco 49ers or Carolina Panthers who earn the right to do battle with top-seeded Seattle, the Seahawks will be exceptionally confident in their ability to reach the franchise's second Super Bowl, because a team constructed for this moment is finally getting its sea legs.

As defensive tackle Brandon Mebane put it after Saturday's show of force: "For the first time, maybe, that was us. You pretty much saw the whole essence of how we were built."

On Saturday, a crowd of 68,388 screamers saw a ferocious pass rush keyed by a pair of bargain-rate offseason acquisitions, defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who brought new meaning to the term Discount Double-Check.

And when Wilson took a shotgun snap on that pivotal third-down play in the second quarter and nearly got swallowed up by oncoming pass rusher Cameron Jordan, he saw Harvin -- the ultra-talented receiver acquired in an attention-grabbing trade with the Minnesota Vikings last March, but one whose regular season had been reduced to a single game's worth of action due to a troublesome hip -- and decided literally to throw caution to the wind.

Never mind that Harvin, who is generously listed at 5-11, was blanketed by Saints cornerback Corey White, or that safety Rafael Bush was lurking over the top. While the players on the Seahawks' sideline held their breath in collective horror, Wilson put his faith in a player who makes an already productive offense dangerously dynamic.

"It was like it was in the air forever," said Tarvaris Jackson, Wilson's backup, in a happy but hardly celebratory locker room after the game. "I was like, 'I hope this safety doesn't get it.' Then Percy went up and got it. He showed what kind of player he is."

Wilson confirmed: "He's a special talent. It was just an awesome play."

About 45 minutes later, in an otherwise cleaned-out 'Hawks locker room, Seattle coach Pete Carroll shook his head in wonderment at Wilson's moxie. "He laid it up there just right for him," Carroll said, smiling. "But he knows who he's got on the other end."

The more the football-watching world learns about the 2013 Seahawks -- a franchise long-ignored because of its geographical distance and decided lack of glitz -- the more impressive the operation run by Carroll and his low-key wingman ultra-shrewd general manager John Schneider, becomes to the naked eye.

In a game in which Bennett, plucked away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last March as a surprise free-agent signee, was the best defensive player on the field, the Seahawks rendered Saints quarterback Drew Brees relatively impotent and rode the beast-like legs of running back Marshawn Lynch (28 carries, 140 rushing yards, two touchdowns and about 50 broken tackles) to its third playoff victory of the Carroll/Schneider era.

Unlike the first, a stunning upset of the Saints in the 2010 playoffs remembered for Lynch's earth-shaking 67-yard romp, this was not the work of plucky overachievers.

The Seahawks, a trendy Super Bowl pick (yep, I'm guilty) before the season, are finally starting to flex at near-maximum capacity.

"It's great that we're peaking right now," said Earl Thomas, the Seahawks' All-Pro free safety. "But I think we're still getting better. We're not stressing out over these games. We're working hard, and when we're in it, we're in it. Practice is high tempo. And game day is fun, especially when guys honor their roles and are being unselfish. That's what makes a championship team."

That unselfishness is most evident when it comes to the Seahawks' collection of potent pass rushers, a group which includes Mebane, Bennett (who signed a one-year, $5 million deal), Avril (a former Detroit Lions standout who signed a two-year, $15-million free-agent deal in March), 2012 sack leader Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin, a 2012 first-round draft pick who was converted to outside linebacker before his second season.

"It's crazy," Irvin conceded after Saturday's game. "It's hard, man. I don't even play nickel anymore, because we've got so many good pass rushers. But hey, as long as we win, I ain't trippin'."

As All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman noted, the season-long rotations have allowed Seattle's defensive linemen to play fewer snaps than most of their NFL counterparts, meaning they're theoretically less worn down than the offensive linemen trying to block them in the postseason. And the versatility of players like Mebane and Bennett provides Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn mix-and-match options on the defensive line, such as trotting out formations that put Bennett, exclusively an edge rusher in his former football life, inside the tackles.

"It's a race to the quarterback," Avril said, then cracked a wicked smile and added: "Mike (Bennett) has the easiest path cause he's in the middle -- it's a shorter distance to go. "We knew if we got pressure on Drew, we'd be in good shape. Most quarterbacks aren't as effective when they have to move around. We knew if we could just make him move, we'd rattle him a little bit."

Mission accomplished: The Saints didn't score until almost two minutes into the fourth quarter and didn't get their second touchdown until Brees' 9-yard pass to Marques Colston with 32 seconds remaining, which came after Lynch's 31-yard jaunt had put them in a 23-8 hole. Colston's subsequent recovery of an onside kick made things interesting until the finish, but this was essentially a shutdown of Sean Payton's powerful offense, much like the Seahawks34-7 victory over New Orleans here in December.

Though Brees completed 24 of 43 passes for 309 yards, only 34 of those yards were amassed in the first half, when the 'Hawks were staking themselves to a 16-0 lead. And 16 points was enough, with the way Bennett and friends were manhandling the opposition.

On the first play of the second quarter, with the Seahawks having just gone up 6-0 on the second of Steven Hauschka's three field goals, Bennett blasted Saints running back Mark Ingram in the middle of the New Orleans line and forced a fumble -- which Bennett also recovered at the New Orleans 24. After Harvin lined up in the backfield and raced nine yards around right end on a fly sweep, doing his best impersonation of the ultra-physical Lynch, the Pro Bowl running back channeled his inner beast, rumbling 15 yards for the score.

Bennett continued to torment the Saints on their first drive of the third quarter, after New Orleans reached the Seattle 34: On third-and-9, Brees dropped back and was sandwiched by Avril and Bennett, who forced another fumble, with Saints tackle Jahri Evans recovering at the 42, well out of field-goal range.

On New Orleans' next drive, Bennett blasted through the line and hammered running back Khiry Robinson for a five-yard loss and appeared to cause yet another fumble -- yet Robinson was (perhaps erroneously) ruled to have been down by contact. No matter: Avril made a great breakup of Brees' fourth-and-3 pass to Lance Moore, and the Seahawks' shutout continued.

(And though it won't show up on the stat sheet, the Seahawks forced a fumble before the game, when Irvin got into it with star Saints tight end Jimmy Graham during warmups. Irvin's explanation: "Jimmy was on our side of the field. I said, 'Could you move?' He said, 'I'm Jimmy.' Really, that's what he said. So I knocked his ball out of his hands and just booted it across the field. That's what started it. Then he grabbed my hat and threw it. I don't even think I picked it up. I will never wear that hat again. It's bad luck, man.")

(One note on ski caps such as Irvin's: Fortunately, Graham didn't mess with mine. But I digress...)

"In this defense, your potential for big plays is limited," said Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks' standout second-year middle linebacker and signal-caller. "You'd better make 'em when you've got the opportunity, because if you don't someone else will."

The Seahawks' offense sputtered in the second half without its most potent playmaker: Harvin, who went out with a concussion after landing hard while attempting to catch a Wilson pass near the goal line with 1:28 left in the second quarter. Harvin had already absorbed a vicious helmet shot from Bush on the Seahawks' third offensive play, which sent him briefly to the locker room to be evaluated for a possible concussion. And Harvin is obviously no sure bet to play in the NFC Championship Game.

Then again, this is all gravy. Last week, Carroll hinted that Harvin, whose hip flared up and sent him to the sidelines following his Seahawks debut in mid-November, might be headed for season-ending injured reserve. That made his contributions against the Saints a small victory of sorts.

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"We're a hard team to deal with when we have everyone out there," Sherman said. "You've got Percy running around on that fly sweep -- that's something you've got to prepare for. Because that kind of speed, it's a monster. In practice this week, he was fast. That's one reason we played him this week, because of how good he looked in practice. We played good defense against him, and he ran right by it."

So this is what it's like to be a member of the 2013 Seahawks, a stacked team whose players insist many of their greatest battles are of the intrasquad variety. As Bennett said following his stellar game: "Some of the plays we make in practice are better than the ones in games."

The Seahawks will now get at least one more week of practice and one last game at CenturyLink (where Wilson is 16-1 in his career), with a chance to be Super hanging in the balance.

Right now, they are a force to be reckoned with, and everything seems to be blowing their way.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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