SEATTLE – When the Seahawks took over at their own 43-yard line with 2:38 remaining in Sunday's game against the New England Patriots at CenturyLink Field, rookie quarterback Russell Wilson ran to his right for a nine-yard gain. Two plays later, Marshawn Lynch took a handoff and gained two more yards, picking up a first down but provoking some nervous head shakes and groans on the Seahawks' sideline.
Trailing by six points and 46 yards away from the end zone, with the clock ticking toward the 1:30 mark, some of Seattle's players worried that coach Pete Carroll was being too conservative. They wanted Wilson to pass; this was an epic fail.
"We were like, 'What's with the running plays?' " one Seahawks player said. "Like, 'Shouldn't we be going after it?' We realized later he was setting up the play-action. Then it all made sense."
Realization came with a resounding suddenness – for the Seahawks, who may have found a franchise quarterback in a manner that defies conventional wisdom. And for the Patriots, who would soon join the Green Bay Packers as favored teams who've fallen prey to Wilson's late-game magic, this time without the aid of replacement officials.
When Wilson, after faking a handoff to Lynch, grooved a gorgeous, game-winning 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice in the middle of the end zone, the Seahawks (4-2) were on their way to a 24-23 victory that pushed them into a three-way tie with the San Francisco 49ers (who they face Thursday in San Francisco) and Arizona Cardinals atop the NFC West.
By season's end, Wilson's 16-of-27, 293-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception performance may carry an even greater significance than Sunday's vanquishing of the defending AFC champs. Given Seattle's stifling defense and strong rushing attack, Wilson's ability to make prolific plays in the passing game could be the ingredient that opens up the Seahawks' offense and makes them legitimate contenders in 2012.
If Wilson's teammates have their way, the kid whose unlikely ascent to the starting job was a heartwarming training-camp story will be unleashed to deliver daggers of the sort that dealt a piercing blow to Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the gang.
"It was good for the coaches to see that this is what we can potentially be," said Seahawks wideout Braylon Edwards, whose graceful, 10-yard touchdown catch on fourth down cut Seattle's deficit to six midway through the fourth quarter. "We've got to build off this. We can't have a game like this and go backwards.
"We can't go back to throwing the ball 15 times a game. It's a new NFL. You have to attack through the air. I mean, we can throw it and run it."
While we almost certainly won't see Wilson whipping the ball around like Brady, who threw a career-high 58 passes on Sunday (completing 36 for 395 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions), the height-challenged rookie demonstrated an outsized ability to deliver accurate deep balls.
Wilson completed six passes of more than 20 yards, three of which went for at least 46: the game-winning touchdown to Rice and earlier strikes to Doug Baldwin (50 yards) and Golden Tate (51).
"He can chuck the ball down the field," tight end Evan Moore said of Wilson. "He's got to be one of the better quarterbacks in the league when it comes to throwing the deep ball – already."
It's kind of crazy to consider that less than two weeks earlier, Wilson was seemingly in danger of being deep-sixed, at least in the eyes of a skeptical public.
A day after Wilson threw three interceptions in a 19-13 defeat to the St. Louis Rams in Week 4, Carroll answered questions about whether backup Matt Flynn would replace Wilson as the starter. Carroll said that a sore elbow would prevent Flynn, a high-profile free-agent signee to whom the team gave $10 million in guaranteed money last March, from going through a normal practice week, which suggested that Wilson was on shaky ground.
One Seattle publication ran a poll asking whether Wilson should be replaced, and 60 percent of the respondents answered in the affirmative.
Wilson responded with a 19-for-25, 221-yard passing performance in a 16-12 victory over the Panthers last Sunday, though he threw a pair of interceptions, including one that was returned for Carolina's only touchdown.
After rallying the Seahawks from a 23-10, fourth-quarter deficit on Sunday, Wilson seems to have won the locker room in conclusive fashion.
"This was really big," Lynch said afterward. "To win it that way – he did that."
Said safety Earl Thomas, whose end-zone interception of a Brady pass early in the fourth quarter helped make the Seahawks' comeback possible: "That felt like a championship game. What [Wilson] did? Oh, that's biigggggg. I'm pretty sure that if some guys didn't believe in him, or had any doubts, they're on the bandwagon now. He led us."
Cornerback Richard Sherman, who had a third-quarter interception, also declared an end to the Wilson/Flynn debate.
"They made the right decision," Sherman said. "Our front office and Pete, they saw something that nobody else saw when they drafted [Wilson]. [Sunday], you saw it. Everyone did."
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When Rice saw Wilson's perfect pass arcing downward as he split rookie safeties Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner, he understood the magnitude of the moment.
Like many of his teammates, Rice had been perplexed by the run calls earlier in the drive – "You've just got to go with it and trust your coaches," Rice said later – only to have it all make sense as he came down with the game-winner.
Wilson, after faking a handoff to Lynch, slid to his right and spotted Rice. The receiver, after lining up wide right, had expertly sold an outside fake to cornerback Devin McCourty before cutting hard to the post.
Wilson said he realized "about halfway through" Rice's route that it had touchdown potential, adding, "Sidney did a great job of running his route and creating an opening."
It was an opening that, in fairness, neither player could have anticipated based on the looks they'd seen during practice.
"We got the perfect coverage for it," Rice said. "It never works like that in practice, trust me. But when the cornerback tried to re-route me [to the inside], I knew it was Cover 2. I stayed wide and stuck him at 12 yards – put my foot in the ground when I saw him coming full speed and went hard to the inside.
"I looked up and the ball was coming so slow, but so fast. It was beautiful. I tried to catch it with four hands."
He pulled the ball to his body while falling backward into the end zone. After Steven Hauschka's go-ahead extra point, the Seahawks' defense did the rest, squeezing the life out of a potential Brady comeback with a four-and-out that left 68,137 fans roaring as loudly as they had after that surreal Monday night finish against the Packers last month.
Chances are that there were very few among them who walked out of CenturyLink Field believing that anyone but Wilson should be the Seattle's quarterback.
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"What he did [Sunday] speaks for itself," Rice said. "Quarterback is a tough position to play, and when you're a rookie, it's 10 times as hard. You go back to the first game [a 20-16 defeat at Arizona], he put us in position to win that game, but we couldn't get it done on that last play [a fourth-down throw to the end zone that went through Edwards' hands]. That comeback vs. Green Bay, whatever you want to call it, he made the throw and we got the win. And now he's done it a third time in six games. It's big."
It's big and it's deep – and, perhaps, it's enough to bring balance to the Seahawks' offense and compel Carroll to take more risks as the season progresses. As with Wilson's game-winning pass to Rice, and the rookie's very presence in the lineup, not many of us saw that coming.
After confronting some very public chatter about his perceived decline, future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis answered with a 14-tackle performance – only to sit out the final few series of the Ravens' 31-29 victory over the Cowboys with what the team, according to nfl.com, fears is a torn triceps injury. That's painful for the 37-year-old linebacker, for the Ravens and for football fans everywhere.
2. Happy 29th birthday to rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who has bounced back nicely from his disastrous debut; and congratulations to the Browns on their first victory (34-24 over the Bengals) and the impending dawn of the Jimmy Haslam era (hey, it can't be worse than the Randy Lerner Error.
3. Even though Bill Belichick's decision to take a final shot at the end zone on third-and-goal from the 3 with six seconds left in the first half blew up – Tom Brady was called for intentional grounding, a penalty which carried a mandatory 10-second clock runoff, ending the half – I still like the aggressiveness, especially with someone as shrewd as Brady running the show. The gamble hurt them on this occasion, but over the long haul I believe it's the right approach.
4. It's cool that the embattled Michael Vick put up some big numbers (311 passing yards, 59 rushing yards) in the Eagles' 26-23 overtime defeat to the Lions, but it's concerning that one Detroit defender said of the Philly quarterback, "He's just too inconsistent. Hell of a player but just a turnover waiting to happen." Vick threw two interceptions and fumbled a pair of snaps (losing one, though center Dallas Reynolds was credited with that miscue) to run his season turnover total to 13 in six games.
5. In throwing six touchdown passes Sunday night, Aaron Rodgers a) saved the Packers' season, or at least injected it with life, in a 42-24 road upset of the previously undefeated Texans; and b) reminded everyone that he is, in fact, Aaron Rodgers. Personally, I can't think of a better way to begin Big Game week, and I'm sure a certain Seahawks halfback agrees.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That my alma mater, the University of California, and its esteemed rival, Leland Stanford Junior University, would agree to move up this year's Big Game to next Saturday, in a tradition-crushing, take-one-for-the-team gesture to the new Pac-12 Network, which apparently wanted to telecast a rivalry game on Oct. 20 and leaned on the two best academic schools in the conference. Cal people don't like it. Stanford people don't like it. That said, my age-inappropriate friends and I will be there (as always); we would like our Axe back; and we are committed to winning the party (as always), beginning Friday afternoon in Oakland with the 30th little game. Think pulled muscles, beverages in the huddle and arguing over 80 percent of the plays, and you've got the basic framework down.
How could Chiefs owner Clark Hunt have offered general manager Scott Pioli an extension, as reported Sunday morning by CBS' Jason LaCanfora, with a straight face? The simple answer may be that Hunt didn't – both the Kansas City Star's Adam Teicher and NBC's Peter King later reported that no offer was made. Either way, the fact that Pioli remains employed is becoming more and more incomprehensible to people in Kansas City, and it's fair to wonder whether he can survive what seems to be shaping up as another disastrous season, a perception strengthened by Sunday's embarrassing, 38-10 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This time, Pioli won't be able to blame his team's problems on Todd Haley, the coach he fired late last season, and the hyper-paranoid GM would seem to be the next fall guy. However – and this is a big however – Pioli's continued presence as the Chiefs' front-office chieftain does have some advantages for Hunt, who is thus able to insulate himself from some of the criticism that he, too, deserves. While Pioli has failed at building a strong organization, he has succeeded in helping Hunt save tens of millions of dollars over the past few seasons by taking advantage of the uncapped year (and other CBA-related nuances) to penny-pinch on payroll. If and when Pioli does sign an extension, that will be the real reason why. And because NFL owners are essentially guaranteed to profit regardless of results, thanks to an equal split of the lucrative network TV deals, Hunt need not fear a paying-customer revolt the way other business owners would.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I've been concerned in recent months that my old friend Jim Harbaugh was a little too uptight for his own good, and after his latest episode of Over-The-Top Theater, I'm starting to get concerned that it's having an adverse effect on his 49ers players, too. After Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride told reporters on Thursday that Niners defensive end Justin Smith "gets away with murder" by grabbing onto opposing offensive linemen, Harbaugh reacted as though a Molotov cocktail had been tossed through his office window, issuing a statement that read, "Kevin Gilbride's outrageous, irrational statement regarding Justin Smith's play is, first, an absurd analogy. Second, it is an incendiary comment targeting one of the truly exemplary players in this league. It's obvious that the Giants coaching staff's sole purpose is to use their high visibility to both criticize and influence officiating."
Is it? To me, it's obvious Gilbride was guilty at worst of gamesmanship, a long-standing practice by coaches attempting to influence officials to give them a call or two. Whoopie-doo – and besides, it's funny hearing a guy who recently persuaded replacement officials to give him two extra replay challenges complain about the practice. It's also possible Gilbride simply spoke his mind and inadvertently gave Smith and the Niners some additional motivation, not that they should have needed it in this rematch of last year's NFC championship game. Harbaugh, however, essentially took things to DEFCON 1, which over the long haul is not the healthiest locker-room message to deliver. As the defending champion Giants know more than anyone, Super Bowls are not won in October. When you eat nails and go into Kruschev/We will bury you mode too early, and too often, you run the risk of leaving your players emotionally drained when the truly important games begin. And in this particular case, Harbaugh's rabid reaction didn't seem to resonate: The Niners got smoked by the Giants 26-3 at Candlestick Park, by far their most lopsided defeat during his tenure. Now the Niners have three days to get ready for the Seahawks, and I'm sure Harbaugh will be more tightly wound than Randy Moss' hair. Yeah, I know, that's an absurd analogy. I'll be at Thursday's game, and I imagine Harbaugh will tell me all about it.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Sunday evening from Lions coach Jim Schwartz.
"Thanks. Hit the last one well but 92 got a hand on it & deflected it. Quickly went from best day ever to gut wrenching"
– Direct message Sunday evening from Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, who hit a game-tying, career-best, 61-yard field goal with 1:09 remaining but missed a 38-yarder off the left upright on the final play of regulation in Arizona's eventual 19-16, overtime defeat to the Bills.
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