PHILADELPHIA -- The ball seemed to hang in the air for an eternity, as did the outcome of the game. Quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back on third-and-10 from his own 11-yard line, with one minute, 47 seconds to play, and lofted a pass high down the right numbers. It was one of those high-risk moments, in that the Seahawks were without three starting offensive linemen and playing against a talented defensive front. And with only eight points separating them from the desperate Eagles, there was the threat of a sack, a safety or, worse, a defensive score off a turnover.
But when you have a 6-foot-4, 229-pound wide receiver whose quiet confidence is as striking as his physical stature, you let the ball go, which is what Wilson did on the decisive play Sunday in the Seahawks' 17-9 victory at Lincoln Financial Field. Rookie wideout D.K. Metcalf rewarded his trust by sealing the outcome with a 36-yard reception, using his size and athleticism to beat safety Marcus Epps, who was giving away four inches and 38 pounds.
It was not the first big play of the evening for Metcalf, who gave Seattle a two-score lead midway through the third quarter by stretching out to snare a deep pass from Wilson, then getting to his feet and extending the ball over the goal line to complete a 53-yard touchdown. In fact, he finished with seven catches on nine targets for 160 yards, setting a team playoff record and an NFL rookie playoff record to help the Seahawks to the second round of the playoffs, where they will meet the Packers in Green Bay on Sunday evening.
Metcalf's performance throughout the season is among the reasons Seattle is contending for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The brilliance of Wilson was never questioned, and the defense was supposed to be strong again with the acquisition of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. But questions persisted about the receiving corps after the retirement of Doug Baldwin. Who would complement Tyler Lockett, who came into the league as a return threat but has developed into a top play-making receiver?
The Seahawks used the last pick of the second round on Metcalf, selecting him after eight other wideouts were off the board. Even then some wondered whether he would flourish. He played only two seasons at Mississippi and did not have more than 39 receptions in either year. He also missed the second half of his final season with a neck injury.
Even after he showed up at the NFL Scouting Combine with the body of a Greek god and the speed of a Zeus lightning strike, some teams were still afraid to use a high pick on him. He cautioned them not to doubt him, words that seem prophetic today considering he finished tied for second in catches (58), tied for third in touchdowns (seven) and was third in yards receiving (900) among all rookies this year.
"He's one of those guys who when he sets his mind to something, he's going to go do it," general manager John Schneider said. "You look at the combine stuff and how he said he wanted to be the biggest, fastest, strongest, then goes and does it. That's who he is."
Metcalf is the guy who stays after each practice to catch balls on a JUGS machine, the guy who comes in on his off day to work on his hand-eye coordination by catching tennis balls, the guy who gets the highest score each week when answering the tests that Wilson gives to his wideouts and backs. And yet despite all that, there was still the lingering question of how he would perform in the playoffs, which can be unnerving for some first-year players. The stage is larger, the audience bigger, the moments more dramatic.
But on the same field where six weeks earlier he dropped a couple of passes in a win over the Eagles, including a deep post, he showed no lingering effects. If anything he seemed to relish the opportunity to come back and show the sellout crowd what he's really about.
"What you saw is that he's able to take over, which is something a lot of people didn't think could do," said Lockett. "The Seahawks knew he could do it, and we knew he could do it when he first came in, so it's just amazing to see him grow and expand his game."
By this time of the year, most teams have an identity, something they can hang their hat on. The only thing that can be said about these Seahawks is that they have no discernible identity other than they're going to keep games close and find a way to pull them out regardless of the circumstances.
On Sunday, that meant overcoming the absence of the left side of their offensive line, as tackle Duane Brown and guard Mike Iupati were inactive because of injuries. It also meant being without their top three running backs, who are all injured. And it meant playing with Clowney at less than full strength with a core injury.
But for the 13th time in 17 games this season, the Seahawks found themselves in a one-score contest. And for the 11th time they left the field victorious. They got an assist late in the first quarter when Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, playing in his first playoff game, sustained a concussion after what referee Shawn Smith called "incidental helmet contact" when hit from behind by Clowney at the end of a scramble.
Josh McCown, who came out of retirement last summer and was playing in his first playoff game at age 40, attempted to lead an improbable rally, completing 18 of 24 passes for 174 yards with no turnovers or touchdowns, but the Eagles simply could not finish drives. They advanced inside the Seattle 20 three times but settled for two field goals and a change of possession on downs.
What they didn't have was an answer for Metcalf, the son of former NFL lineman Terrance Metcalf, particularly on third downs. His gain of 24 yards came on third-and-11; his reception for 26 yards came on third-and-4; and his 36-yard catch to seal the game was on third-and-10. On the latter, the Seahawks had repped the play a handful of times in practice, believing they would get one-on-one coverage with no safety help in that situation. It played out just as they envisioned, with Metcalf coming up big.
After the catch, Metcalf got up and waved goodbye to the crowd. It was a rare display for him.
"D.K. was special tonight and he's been special all year," said Wilson, who was 18-of-30 for 325 yards and led the Seahawks with 45 yards on nine rushes. "He's one of the best rookies that's come out and has a nice little chip on his shoulder, too. I'm glad he's on our team, that's for sure."
Metcalf, wearing dark jeans and a Beatles "Abbey Road" sweatshirt, was calm and humble afterward. Asked about his journey to this point, from sustaining a neck injury his final season in college, to having eight receivers drafted ahead of him, to breaking team and league records in the playoffs -- it was both real and surreal.
"I've got 'miracle' tattooed on my back because God performed a miracle on me in college (following the neck injury)," he said. "So I'm not taking anything for granted. I'm taking every practice, every rep like it's my last. I'm just excited to be a part of this team, this organization."
On Sunday night, they could not have been happier to have him.