What makes an NFL game, for lack of a better word, great?
But can a defensive slugfest, and imperfect offensive execution, played in the harsh elements (minus six degrees darlin') still be considered one of the premier games of a season?
Yes it can.
Actually, the quarterbacks in this game -- Russell Wilson and Teddy Bridgewater -- failed to post 300 yards passing combined. Neither offense could do jack in the first half, battling sub-zero temperatures and two championship-level defenses that weren't afraid to tackle in this stuff. (Ever hit somebody big and muscular when it's 36 degrees below freezing? It takes intestinal fortitude.)
Pete Carroll and Mike Zimmer, head coaches whose career arcs emanated from defensive disciplines, boast plenty of players who weren't afraid to do the dirty work. The 3-0 halftime score certainly reflected it. Even those points only came because punter Jon Ryanbloodied his nose trying to run on a botched punt attempt.
On a day where Wilson struggled passing, and had several balls sail on him, there was still intrigue ... just of a different sort. Carroll, knowing the difficulty the weather imposed on the kicking game after watching the debacle with his punter, challenged the Vikings defense twice on fourth down in their territory. Neither worked out.
The only thing that seemed to be running smoothly, besides both defensive units, was Blair Walsh's leg. The Vikings kicker hit three field goals, including two from beyond 40 yards -- a serious accomplishment with a frozen football in the frigid air.
The afternoon was as analogous to the 1945 championship as any playoff contest in 2015. That game 70 years ago was so cold that 9,000 bales of hay were kept on the sidelines to keep the field from freezing. The players had it tossed across their legs on the sideline to stay warm. Sammy Baugh's arm was so chilled that he scored a safety for the Rams by hitting his own goalpost when he tried to launch a pass.
Despite not being able to hit the broad side of a barn, much less the goalpost, Wilson and Seattle finally broke through on a Doug Baldwin touchdown, then followed that with a Steven Hauschka field goal that eeeeeeked over the cross bar. The final score looked like it would be 10-9 Seahawks when Jeremy Lane leaped to break up a third-and-long throw from Bridgewater.
Alas, the Vikings got the ball back with 1:42. Bridgewater completed an out route to Kyle Rudolph that put Minnesota in field goal range. Here was Walsh, who had put the conditions out to pasture all day with his perfection, only needing to hit from 27 yards.
Nothing was perfect on this day. Except the near perfect Seattle defense. And that's what made this game great.
Play of the Game
While Walsh's miss will live in everyone's minds for many moons to come, the biggest play in Seahawks-Vikings was Russell Wilson's brilliant improvisation in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 9-0 with 13:02 to play, and the ball at the Minnesota 39, Seattle had to take advantage of this field position, or they could kiss their 2015 season goodbye. Maybe Wilson was thinking that when the shotgun snap sailed past his shoulder pad, caroming off the turf all the way to Seattle's 45-yard line. Instead of pouncing on it, Wilson slid like a pitcher scrambling to pick up a bunt and throw out a runner, before gathering himself, scrambling to his right, then calmly hitting Tyler Lockett for a 24-yard gain. The Seahawks were in business. Doug Baldwin would pay off the drive with a short touchdown two plays later.
Seahawks at Vikings was among the most firgid postseason games in NFL history. Here are the five coldest playoff games on record (since 1960) prior to the freezefest in Minnesota:
1967 NFL Championship Game, Cowboys at Packers: Played in minus 13 degrees (and minus 48 wind chill), the "Ice Bowl" decided who would go to Super Bowl II to face the AFL champion Raiders. Green Bay prevailed 17-14 on a Bart Starr quarterback sneak with 13 seconds left in what was a top-five game in NFL history.
1981 AFC Championship, Chargers at Bengals: Labeled the "Freezer Bowl," perhaps in an ode to the "Ice Bowl," this game was not quite as cold (minus nine), but felt worse with a staggering minus 59 degree wind chill!
1995 AFC Divisional Round, Colts at Chiefs: Jim Harbaugh, aka "Captain Comeback," pulled off his second playoff upset in as many weeks for the Colts, beating the top-seeded Chiefs in minus six degree weather at Arrowhead Stadium.
1980 AFC Divisional Round, Raiders at Browns: This playoff game will forever be remembered for "Red Right 88," the play call that led to Brian Sipe's ill-fated interception in the endzone. All Cleveland needed was a field goal to pull ahead in the late stages. Instead they lost 14-12 in a minus five degree chill. #Browns.
2007 NFC Championship Game, Giants at Packers; Who could forget Tom Coughlin's red cheeks frozen in place? Or Brett Favre's interception in overtime? (Trivia: who picked him to set up the Giants win?) There would have been no David Tyree catch in Super Bowl lore without Big Blue prevailing at Lambeau in minus four degrees.
Historical Symmetry 2
This playoff match was so doggone cold that it was easy to forget the Week 16 matchup at the same old haunts, TCF Bank Stadium. In a game that pushed the Vikings into the postseason for the first time since 2012, the brisk air (11 degrees, negative degrees wind chill) made for a Giants defense that really didn't feel like tackling anybody. Minnesota won handily, 49-17.
Why don't the Vikings play outdoors, where this could be a huge homefield advantage a la the Bud Grant era ... when their home was Metropolitan Stadium? (I am only the 34,721st person to pose this question.)
Why This Game is No. 18
Football as a sport was meant to be played in the elements. The earliest NFL postseason games were often decided in frigid cold weather or ice, like the "Sneakers Game" and "Ice Bowl." That's why running the football and playing defense were so integral to success (and, uh, making field goals.)