It was, in hindsight, the moment the Seattle Seahawks arrived as legitimate title contenders. And they announced themselves with a blast as resounding as the defense's hits and as thunderous as their stadium's cacophony.
It's been more than two years since the 'Hawks last played the New England Patriots -- on Oct. 14, 2012 -- and the zinger Richard Sherman directed at Tom Brady via a postgame tweet sparked an Internet meme, a budding T-shirt business and a growing awareness of an overlooked team.
The Seahawks used a 24-23 comeback victory that day to launch themselves into the postseason mix and plant themselves in the NFL consciousness as a squad rising along with its rookie quarterback and very aggressive -- and sometimes mouthy -- defense. Seattle was less than a year removed from its fourth consecutive losing season, and that game, in which Shermanand Earl Thomas each intercepted Brady, gave the team a 4-2 record and a big dose of credibility. The two-point "Fail Mary" victory over the Green Bay Packers three weeks earlier suddenly didn't look as much like a fluke as it once might have. A 13-point deficit -- stop us if this sounds familiar -- late in the fourth quarter was not too big to overcome. And the Seahawks could not be ignored.
They haven't been since.
When the Seahawks and Patriots meet again for Super Bowl XLIX, there will be plenty of differences. The two Patriots who caught Brady's touchdown passes that day -- Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez -- are both long gone. So are the Seahawks who caught two of Russell Wilson's three touchdown passes -- Sidney Rice and Braylon Edwards. Cornerback Brandon Browner, who started for the Seahawks in that game, will start for the Patriots in this one. Some important pieces have been added on both sides -- Darrelle Revis for the Patriots, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett for the Seahawks, most prominently.
But the most critical features -- Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, Sherman, Thomas and Kam Chancellor, Brady and Rob Gronkowski, Chandler Jones and Vince Wilfork, the Seahawks' reliance on defense, the Patriots' versatility on offense -- are still in place, meaning the 2012 game might be more past is prologue than many other rematches that span several seasons.
Which might explain why, when Bill Belichick was asked this week if he has any memories of the 2012 game, he replied: "Yeah. Not a lot of great ones."
NFL Network's Michael Robinson was a fullback for the Seahawks at the time, and he remembers going out with the other captains for the coin toss. People had told Robinson that Wilfork was a nice guy, but Wilfork looked at Robinson that day as if they didn't know each other. Robinson got the impression the Patriots were annoyed by the Seahawks, that New England had a mental edge no other opponent had. The Patriots did not really care about the Seahawks, Robinson thought. They were only concerned about what they were doing.
When Robinson went back to the bench, he sat next to Lynch.
"I said, 'This is going to be a dogfight,' " Robinson recounted this week. "They didn't really want to shake our hands."
Robinson's assessment was accurate. Both teams rushed for fewer than 100 yards. The quarterbacks combined for nearly 700. The difference was those two Brady interceptions and a 46-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Rice with 1:27 remaining -- which bears a striking resemblance to the 35-yard scoring strike to Jermaine Kearse that beat the Packers in overtime of the NFC title game last week. Such heroics were a new thing for Wilson then, though. The third-round draft pick had been a surprise choice to start for the Seahawks as a rookie that season, and that performance first put a spotlight on his playmaking ability and potential, and on the transformation of the Seahawks.
"I remember giving a pregame speech on the field, and one of the things I said was, 'If we want respect, we've got to beat this team,' " Robinson said. "We felt like, if we wanted to be taken seriously, we had to beat one of the stars."
By the end of the game, Robinson knew that a new star had been born.
"I said, 'We got us a quarterback,' " Robinson recalled. "After that game, I thought, OK, I may have an opportunity to fulfill a dream, because we have a guy who is not afraid. I was just surprised. This kid is young. Usually when you're playing Tom Brady, the moment is too big for you. I was so surprised at Russell. He let the ball fly. I remember thinking, We have a franchise quarterback."
The Seahawks finished second in the NFC West and exited the playoffs in the divisional round that year, losing to the Atlanta Falcons. The Patriots, who won the AFC East, went out the week after Seattle did, falling at home to the Baltimore Ravens -- who went on to win Super Bowl XLVII -- in the AFC Championship Game.
Their stylistic differences make this a compelling matchup: Can the Seattle defense manhandle the Patriots' receivers and throw off the offense, the way the Seahawks did to the Denver Broncosin Super Bowl XLVIII last year? But the teams look more alike now, and appear to be more evenly matched, than they did in 2012.
The Patriots and Seahawks finished the 2014 regular season with the top two average margins of victory in the league, although the Patriots' average of 9.7 points was generated mostly by their fourth-ranked scoring offense, while the Seahawks' 8.8-point margin came mostly because their top-ranked scoring defense held opponents down. They are both strikingly disciplined. The Patriots finished with two more takeaways and one fewer giveaway than the Seahawks.
The Patriots are a full-scale dynasty, appearing in their sixth Super Bowl since the 2001 season, though they're trying to win their first in a decade. The Seahawks are trying to form the next dynasty by becoming the first champion to repeat since 2003-04 -- when the Pats did it. How close are the two teams? The Patriots have gone 37-11 since that loss to the Seahawks. The Seahawks have gone 38-11 since beating the Patriots. The difference? The Seahawks' Super Bowl victory last season.
Belichick stated the obvious this week: that the Patriots will study the tape from the 2012 game, because it remains relevant. He will pick the brains of Browner and defensive tackle Alan Branch, who is now with the Patriots but started for the Seahawks in 2012.
But Robinson believes there are several critical differences that could alter the matchup. First is the presence of Browner, who played well against the Patriots in 2012. He faced Seattle's receivers, among them Doug Baldwin, in practice every day, and he can share their idiosyncrasies with his current New England teammates. Wilson runs more read-option now than he did in 2012, when Robinson said he wasn't ready for it. But New England's defense is also more versatile, with a cadre of defensive backs that allows the Pats to match up against a range of different types of pass catchers, whether they're big and strong, small and quick or possession types. Linebacker Jamie Collins, Robinson said, is built to stop the read-option.
"It's made this Patriots defense lethal and, in my opinion, built to beat Seattle," Robinson said. "It seems they had this matchup in mind when they went into free agency."
"We're built for a heavyweight fight," Sherman said after that game just over two years ago. "I don't think they're built for a heavyweight fight."
The rematch determines the next champion.