SEATTLE -- The back-and-forth battle had reached its climactic moment, and as 22 men lined up to decide the outcome, a single yard separated Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick from their fates. Of course it did. On a surreal September Sunday night in Seattle, did anyone really expect otherwise?
There they stood on opposite sidelines, two proud and highly accomplished coaches with an interwoven history -- one which happens to include the most lambasted and significant goal-line-game-on-the-line call the sport has ever known. So yeah, there was a bit more at stake than securing a 2-0 start in the strangest season we've ever encountered.
No NFL game had ever featured head coaches as collectively old as Carroll, who turned 69 last Tuesday, and the 68-year-old Belichick. On this night, like Jerry Garcia's outlaw in the Grateful Dead classic "Jack Straw," it was Carroll who had to settle one old score -- one small point of pride.
Five years and seven months after the fact, we all know the shocking culmination of Super Bowl XLIX by heart: With the Seahawks trailing 28-24 and two feet away from a touchdown that would have secured a second consecutive championship, Carroll decided to have quarterback Russell Wilson throw instead of hand the ball to power back Marshawn Lynch, and cornerback Malcolm Butler's miraculous goal-line interception triggered an unyielding firestorm of anger, grief and regret. As Carroll conceded to me this past offseason, "Some of us will never get over it."
That said, when Carroll put his head on the pillow early Monday morning, he had a huge smile on his face -- and for good reason. When the Seahawks' defense, led by defensive end L.J. Collier and anchored by veteran linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, snuffed out a shotgun run and slammed 245-pound quarterback Cam Newton to the turf for a one-yard loss as time expired, it was an indelible moment in a career full of thrilling triumphs and (football-tinged) tragedies.
"I love finishes like that," Carroll said via text message nearly two hours after the Seahawks' 35-30 victory, which featured tremendous quarterback efforts from the rejuvenated Newton and the resplendent Russell Wilson. "I like this one a lot! We've had some pretty good ones!"
This was one so good, it was as though 68,000 empty seats exploded with energy as Collier went low and helicoptered Newton into the air and onto a landing spot two yards shy of salvation.
"Facts!" Seahawks cornerback Quinton Dunbar exclaimed in a FaceTime interview after the game. "The stadium erupted, at least in our eyes. And that's all that matters."
The Seahawks were elated to pull out the victory, for reasons far beyond the Carroll/Belichick context. They kept pace with the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals in the power-packed NFC West, with the defending conference champion 49ers (1-1) in hot pursuit while reeling from a wave of significant injuries. And they saw glimpses of a fruitful future that includes a bona fide star in safety Jamal Adams, whom the team landed from the New York Jets in a blockbuster trade two months ago.
"I feel the juice every day -- not even just on game day, but every day, the way these guys carry themselves on the practice field and in the locker room," said Dunbar, who was acquired in a trade with Washington last March. "And Jamal is probably the best football player I've ever been around. And in the end, those guys (on the goal-line defensive unit) dug deep and made a play."
For the second consecutive week, Adams made his presence felt, with 10 tackles, a drive-killing sack of Newton and two additional quarterback hits. Then again, he lost his share of battles against a Patriots offense led by Newton (30 for 44, 397 yards, one TD), who looked every bit as dangerous as he did during his MVP season for the Carolina Panthers five years ago.
Throw in eye-popping efforts from Pats receiver Julian Edelman (eight catches, 179 yards) and Seahawks second-year counterpart D.K. Metcalf (four catches for 92 yards -- including a 54-yard score on which he beasted New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year), and this was as satisfying as a Week 2 regular-season game amid a global pandemic can possibly be.
Especially for the head coach on the right side of the final play.
Fired by Patriots owner Robert Kraft more than 20 years ago, and replaced by Belichick, Carroll has now prevailed in three of their four head-to-head meetings, all of them tense and dramatic and filled with bursts of Wilson's brilliance. There are layers and layers of mutual respect between Carroll and Kraft and Wilson and Belichick and many of the other protagonists, but make no mistake: The competitive fire rages within.
In March, when I revealed to Carroll that he and Belichick were the two coaches chosen on the All-Decade Team (for the just completed 2010s), he asked jokingly, "Is he the defensive coordinator, and I'm the head coach?"
OK, maybe half-jokingly.
The first meeting between Carroll and Belichick, in October of 2012, ended up spawning the notorious “U Mad Bro?” meme of cornerback Richard Sherman jawing at the vanquished Tom Brady. However, the Seahawks' 24-23 victory also served as the coming-out party for Wilson, then a rookie, whose late 46-yard touchdown strike to Sidney Rice propelled the Seahawks to victory.
Now? Well, the quarterback -- and/or his alter ego, Mr. Unlimited -- is a true master of his craft, and he's only getting better.
"They've got a great quarterback," Belichick said of Wilson in his postgame press conference. "I'm glad we only have to play him once every four years."
After Wilson's second pass of the game bounced off tight end Greg Olsen's hands and into the arms of veteran safety Devin McCourty, who took it 43 yards to the house for a 7-0 lead, the Patriots had no answers for his excellence. Wilson (21 of 28, 288 yards) would throw five touchdown passes, four of which were flat-out spectacular. When he looped a gorgeous 18-yard rainbow to running back Chris Carson in the right corner of the end zone with 4:32 remaining to give Seattle a 35-23 lead, it looked very much like a dagger.
Had there been fans in attendance, they quite likely would have chanted "MVP! MVP!" At this early stage of the season, they would not have been wrong.
And yet -- improbably -- a former MVP and the Patriots (1-1) rose up and nearly completed a classic comeback.
Somehow, in the wake of Brady's departure to Tampa Bay, the Pats ended up with a supremely talented and poised successor who, we now know, has conclusively overcome the career malaise caused by serious injuries to his throwing shoulder and foot.
Newton's enthusiasm and swagger have infused the organization with a palpable sense of energy that, sources say, has captivated even Belichick. While Brady clearly desired his freedom after he and his exacting head coach produced a two-decade run of unparalleled excellence, that equation clearly worked both ways. Belichick, too, has been invigorated by the presence of a new quarterback and team leader.
"Cam is really good, man," Dunbar said. "I feel like he doesn't get enough credit from people out there. He's legit."
After Newton ran for a one-yard touchdown, his second rushing score of the game, to close the gap to 35-30, the Patriots made a defensive stand and gave him a chance to do something truly special. He very nearly did. Newton took over at his own 19 with 1:42 remaining and put together an impressive march. With nine seconds to go and the ball at the Seattle 13, Newton connected with N'Keal Harry on a 12-yard throw, and the Pats took their final timeout.
Then Seattle called its last timeout, with three seconds remaining. Wagner, its veteran middle linebacker and defensive leader, took command of the defensive huddle. Newton had carried 10 times (including a half-ending kneeldown) for 48 yards, and Wagner had a pretty good idea of what was about to happen.
"I told them where the ball was going," Wagner recalled, via text message. "And I said, 'We're all going that way.' "
If Wagner suspected that Newton would run, Belichick clearly wasn't worried, for knowing what's coming and stopping it are two different things.
In his postgame press conference, Belichick was asked if he'd flashed back to the Super Bowl XLIX finish while pondering the run-pass conundrum. Predictably, he was not enthused by the premise.
"(Our thought process was) about what you think it would be," Belichick said. "We had one play to score and we tried to go with what we thought was our best play. What else is there to think about?"
Was Wagner thinking about the ghosts of Glendale, Arizona, from that February night in 2015?
"Naaaaah," he said. "Not at all."
He and his teammates were in the moment, of the moment -- and then it was over: Newton took the shotgun snap, headed left, got upended by Collier and landed with a thud. The “Cam Slam” was one for the highlight reels -- though it's likely Newton would have been stopped short even if he'd gotten past Collier, such was Seattle's defensive penetration -- and it triggered a euphoric reaction on the Seahawks' sideline that resonated like the roars of tens of thousands of drained supporters.
"This was a really amazing game," Carroll said in his postgame press conference. "For the fans out there, we missed you so much, I can't tell you. We are so used to this extraordinary following and crowd and energy and juice and all that. I don't know if you saw our guys, but our guys were trying to fill in for you. I just wish so much that you had been there for the last play of the game.
"I just think it would have been so crazy for all the fans. I hope you went nuts in doing what we were talking about doing, and enjoyed the heck out of it."
Suffice it to say the Seahawks -- and their coach -- enjoyed it even more.
"For our guys to hang on all the way to the end and have to go down to two seconds and no time left on the clock, the whole thing, last play of the game ... It's an extraordinary moment for football players and for a team," Carroll said. "You either come through or you don't. There is so much intensity in that moment. The guys on the field will never forget it."
One yard from the goal line. Game on the line. Carroll might not get over this one, either, and there's nothing wrong with that at all.