SEATTLE — Deep in the heart of a resounding blowout that announced the Seattle Seahawks as a bona fide threat to do serious damage in the postseason, a sadistically spiteful thought flashed through Richard Sherman's brain.
Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks' sublime second-year cornerback, looked up at the scoreboard and did the math: With Seattle holding a 42-6 fourth-quarter lead over the San Francisco 49ers at CenturyLink Field Sunday night, the home team was one possession away from hitting the 50-point plateau for a third consecutive week.
All it would take to accomplish that tantalizing trifecta was a seventh Seattle touchdown — and a two-point conversion, which would constitute the ultimate "Forget You" to a bitter NFC West rival.
"I'm not gonna lie to you," Sherman recounted in a cleared-out locker room long after the Seahawks' 42-13 victory was complete. "I told Pete, 'Let's score and go for two.' He said, 'We have more class than that.' "
Pete, for those of you unfamiliar with one of the most entertaining alpha-male-in-a-headset conflicts in recent football history, is Pete Carroll, Seattle's third-year coach. And given his history with Jim Harbaugh, the Niners' second-year coach, such an audacious stunt might have been understandable.
Sherman, whose epic effort on Sunday included a 90-yard touchdown return of a blocked field goal and an end-zone interception, knows this better than anyone; he was part of the Harbaugh-coached Stanford team that strong-armed the Carroll-coached USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 2009. Harbaugh, with a 27-point lead, went for a two-point conversion late in a 55-21 Cardinal victory, which was unsuccessful. At game's end Carroll famously responded by asking his victorious counterpart, "What's your deal?"
On this rainy Sunday night in the Pacific Northwest, a football-watching nation found out Carroll's deal: He and general manager John Schneider have quietly and relentlessly assembled a fast, powerful and scarily potent team that seems to be peaking at the perfect time. Seattle (10-5) clinched its second playoff appearance Sunday in Carroll's three seasons and moved to within a half game of the 49ers (10-4-1) in the NFC West. However, San Francisco — which now trails the Green Bay Packers in the race to join the Atlanta Falcons in securing a first-round bye — can wrap up the division by beating the flailing Arizona Cardinals next Sunday.
And make no mistake: Carroll, in his third time around as an NFL head coach, is largely responsible for the Seahawks' charmed existence. He is coaching them up with purpose and passion, and though they're probably staring at a No. 5 postseason seed, they are a legitimate threat to win the franchise's first Super Bowl.
"We've been trying to get to this tempo, this mentality, this discipline — we've been on it for three years working together — and this is what it feels like when you get it rolling," Carroll said shortly before leaving the locker room, his toddler-aged granddaughter's face burrowed into his shoulder. "This, I think, is a statement — for us. This wasn't a team that was struggling. It was a really legitimate opponent. Because of the respect we hold for them this is a valuable realization for us."
While Carroll's respect for Harbaugh, against whom he had a 1-5 record (including 0-3 in the pros) coming in, seems to be sincere, beating him was undeniably sweet. Carroll said late Sunday night that though he never considered succumbing to the temptation to go for two after Seattle's last touchdown, "everybody else around me [had that thought]. A lot of people reminded me about it."
If some of the Seahawks wanted Carroll to put it on Harbaugh, they had their reasons. Two Seattle defensive backs, Sherman and Earl Thomas, told Y! Sports that Harbaugh drove by the Seahawks' team bus in the Candlestick Park parking lot following the Niners' 13-6 victory in October and mockingly saluted the vanquished visitors.
"He honked his horn at the bus and waved," said Sherman, who did not witness the incident. "That happened — a bunch of the guys told me. Yeah, he was [honking]."
Said Thomas, noting that Harbaugh turned 49 on Sunday: "Happy birthday — that's what you get. Yeah, he [honked at us]. It seems like he tries to be a professional in front of the camera, but he does his antics, like that, when the cameras aren't around.
"He's just a big kid. We don't worry about that stuff. We just play the game. The best team won [Sunday], and it was convincing."
While it was just one game — and while the 49ers, who were coming off a triumphant, 41-34 road victory over the New England Patriots the previous Sunday night, remain very much alive in their quest for a sixth Super Bowl crown — the Seahawks convinced a lot of non-believers of their legitimacy. Seattle has now won six of its past seven games and its current four-game winning streak includes a clutch overtime road victory over the Chicago Bears and ransack jobs on the Cardinals (58-0), Buffalo Bills (50-17) and Niners.
Put another way: The Seahawks' collective score against opponents in their last 14 quarters (including overtime in Chicago) is 163-33. Really.
Over the course of a season, with a lightly regarded, undersized rookie running the offense, they have morphed from a ball-control attack built around hellacious halfback Marshawn Lynch to a team that at times looks unstoppable. To borrow from a recent failed presidential campaign: Carroll built that.
Think back to that first Niners-Seahawks game and how much has changed in two months. That was the foretelling Thursday night on which Harbaugh clearly lost confidence in starting quarterback Alex Smith and demonstrated even less in Seahawks counterpart Russell Wilson, essentially settling for a late field goal because he wasn't stressed about the possibility of Carroll's rookie engineering a game-tying touchdown drive against his defense.
While much has been made of the Niners' new offensive identity, with second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick having displaced Smith following an impressive performance against the Bears last month, Wilson's transformation has been even more striking. A third-round draft pick who surprisingly beat out free-agent signee Matt Flynn in training camp, Wilson has now joined the top two overall picks, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, in a spirited three-man race for offensive rookie of the year.
On Sunday night, against the league's top-ranked defense coming in, Wilson completed 15 of 21 passes for 171 yards and four touchdowns and flashed a Fran Tarkentonesque scrambling ability while running for 29 yards and keeping numerous other plays alive. Though those numbers aren't overwhelming, and while Lynch (26 carries, 111 yards) remains an integral part of Seattle's offense, the Seahawks look like a completely different team than they did a month ago.
In short, they look like a very explosive team, one which no longer has to try to win games by scores like 14-12 (Packers) or 16-12 (Panthers).
To deconstruct a dreaded cliché, Carroll didn't just take off the training wheels — he pushed Wilson's Schwinn onto the freeway and gave him the freedom to dart in and out of traffic.
"I think Chicago was really the [turning point]," Carroll said. "He was so good, and he was so phenomenally in control and command against a great defense on the road. When they should have had their surges, we had our surges … it was more than just points. And so, that was really when I said, 'OK, I'm sold.' "
If football fans hadn't bought into the Seahawks as a title contender before Sunday, they probably had by halftime, when the home team left the field with a 28-6 lead. Though their "Fail Mary" victory over the Packers was a gift from the replacement refs, the 'Hawks have victories over the Patriots, Niners, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys and Bears, and they're right up there with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos as the hottest team in football.
Could Seattle be the latest team, like last year's New York Giants, that rides a late-season burst of brilliance to an improbable championship? It will be difficult if Sherman, pending Friday's appeal of his four-game suspension stemming from an Adderall-related positive urine test, is shelved for some or all of the postseason. However, his partner in crime, Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Browner, returns from a similar suspension following next Sunday's regular-season finale against the St. Louis Rams at CenturyLink.
In the meantime, Sherman made sure to enjoy every last drop of the Seahawks' water-logged moment of ecstasy against his former coach. Sherman, recalling Harbaugh's decision to go for two against Carroll's Trojans three years ago in a game where he returned an interception for touchdown, said he wasn't thrilled with the call at the time. "It seemed a little much," he said as he stood at his locker and straightened his bow tie.
A few minutes later Carroll, as has been his custom, resisted any efforts to personalize his rivalry with Harbaugh, who has been far less zealous about extending public praise in the Seattle coach's direction.
"I have great respect for him," Carroll insisted, while swaying his tired granddaughter in an impressive bit of multi-tasking. "He's a great competitor. We might not hang out together, but that doesn't mean anything about what I think of him.
"Look at the work. Look at what he did at Stanford, and then here. He's done a marvelous job. I feel like I'm the one always talking about it. I don't mind talking about it because I think it's real. So that's why it's such a big deal to be able to get this done."
On Sunday's night, for the first time in an NFL context, Carroll's deal was far superior to Harbaugh's. By game's end he felt no need to go for two, or to shoot for 50, or to make any extra point at all.
The Seahawks had already proven one, and emphatically so.
He may not be much of a schmoozer, and he may be a bit blunt in job interviews, but Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is a very enticing head-coaching candidate. He added an eye-catching bullet point to his résumé on Sunday. Cincinnati's 13-10 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field, which clinched a second consecutive postseason appearance for the Bengals (the first time the franchise has accomplished that feat in 30 years), was essentially a Zimmer production. Cincy's lone touchdown came on a Leon Hall interception and Josh Brown's game-winning field goal in the final seconds was set up by a Reggie Nelson pick. Oh, and defensive tackle Geno Atkins — one of the best players in the NFL — had another monster game, with 2 ½ sacks and a whole lot of blown-up blocking schemes. The Bengals took Atkins in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, a pick for which Zimmer lobbied heavily. "I stood on the table for him," Zimmer said via text Sunday evening. "But I didn't know he was this good." If he had, Zimmer surely would have danced on that table. "Yes," he said. "Naked."
2. The Baltimore Ravens were an absolute mess when I saw them lose to the Broncos last Sunday, and they faced the very real prospect of ending the season with a five-game losing streak. However, Baltimore has a lot of heart, and it showed in Sunday's 33-14 victory over the New York Giants. Give a lot of credit to coach John Harbaugh for pulling his team out of its funk — and for clinching a second consecutive AFC North title. As I wrote last month, there's a good reason he's 5-for-5 in reaching the playoffs as an NFL head coach.
3. Speaking of head coaches, how awesome and crazy is it that the Indianapolis Colts, on the strength of Sunday's 20-13 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, are welcoming back Chuck Pagano on Monday with a playoff berth to celebrate? And how wild is it that an interim coach, Bruce Arians, will likely earn coach of the year honors without any of his "victories" counting? Arians, who went 9-3 while Pagano was sidelined in the midst of treatment for leukemia, is technically 0-0. That said, the once and future Indy offensive coordinator will likely be considered for some head-coaching jobs in the coming weeks.
4. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am a Romosexual. Even though the Cowboys dropped a 34-31 overtime heartbreaker to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the fact that Tony Romo rallied Dallas back from a late, two-touchdown deficit bodes well for next Sunday's showdown with the Redskins at FedEx Field with the NFC East title on the line. Besides, given the wacky ending to Sunday's game at Cowboys Stadium, with New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham chasing down a fumble by receiver Marques Colston and retrieving the football at the Dallas 2-yard line after it landed surreptitiously (and serendipitously) behind him, it can be argued that the Saints literally pulled this one out of their … well, you know.
5. Football's most controversial documentarian, Sean Pamphilon, is best known to many fans for sharing the Gregg Williams audiotape with Y! Sports last spring. Yet he has a new film, "The United States of Football," that is going to leave a far more lasting and important impression on the sport so many of us love. Pamphilon gave me a private screening on Saturday night, and what I saw was profound, heartbreaking and poignant — and not just because I'm one of the people who appears onscreen. Seriously, if you're looking for a real and unvarnished porthole into the head-trauma crisis that impacts the sport at every level, this film will be your ticket.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The National Rifle Association. And as the parent of three kids in public schools, I have a special holiday message for that esteemed organization's chief executive, Wayne "Call Me Crazy" LaPierre: Merry Christmas, Crazy.
2. How bad of an owner Bud Adams is without Jeff Fisher to bail him out. The Titans (5-10) were a disaster of Titanic (sorry) proportions Sunday at Lambeau Field, falling behind 55-0 before Jake Locker connected with Kenny Britt for a garbage-time touchdown. The Packers are a very good team, but there's no excuse for Tennessee being that lousy on any given Sunday. The blowout does not bode well for the futures of second-year coach Mike Munchak or general manager Ruston Webster. (Adams sounded equally grumpy on Sunday in a conversation with The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt.) I believe this because of Adams' public temper tantrum in early November, which triggered an organization-wide panic, according to cbssports.com's Mike Freeman. It's good that Adams wants better for his franchise; it's regrettable that he took Fisher for granted. And while Fisher's Rams (7-7-1), a team with 3-13 talent, were scoring an impressive 28-13 road victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Adams' team was tanking in Titletown. What is it the kids are texting these days? Oh, right: smh…
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE THE DAWN
Though many Tebow Nation residents considered me to be an enemy of state last year, when a certain left-handed quarterback was pulling out victories in stunning and supernatural fashion, I genuinely like Tim Tebow. And after getting religion (so to speak) while witnessing his epic performance in the Denver Broncos' playoff upset of the Steelers last January, I warmed to the possibility that, with some refining, he could evolve into a legitimate NFL quarterback. So, when the Jets stepped up and traded for Tebow in the wake of Peyton Manning's decision to sign with the Broncos last March, I was intrigued by the possibility of Tebow Time in the Big Apple. Once it became clear that starter Mark Sanchez was performing poorly and the Jets' season was slipping away, I figured we'd find out what Tebow could do. After all, the Jets must have made the trade for a reason — right? That's what I wondered aloud to New York halfback Shonn Greene in mid-November, and he agreed with me. One person who clearly disagrees: Rex Ryan.
I like Ryan, and I trust that he has a pretty decent handle on his team, but I can't wrap my head around his decision to bench Sanchez and start third-stringer Greg McElroy in Sunday's game against the Chargers. The result: McElroy (14 for 24, 185 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) was sacked 11 times in a 27-17 defeat. That's embarrassing, and incredibly tone-deaf. Gee, might a more mobile quarterback known for his improvisational ability have fared better against the Chargers' pass rush? And once it became clear that McElroy was a human punching bag, wouldn't it have been a good idea to give the sturdy Tebow a shot? Yo, Tebowmaniacs — don't spend any more time calling me a Tebow-hater when Ryan is the one who seems to fit that description most of all. And let's all hope that the kid gets a chance to go to a team that's at least open to the possibility that he can play. If a quarterback guru like George Whitfield, who San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ann Killion and I affectionately call "Broom Man", believes he can fix Tebow, then I believe Tebow can be fixed. Free Tebow! Yes, I just wrote those words.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Like a breath of fresh air. Especially when you're power-ranked #32 at the beginning of the year"
– Text Sunday evening from Colts wideout Reggie Wayne, who caught the winning touchdown against the Chiefs, on what it felt like to clinch a wild-card berth.
"My favorite Stanford player ever!!!"
– Text Sunday night from my 13-year-old son after Sherman's interception gave him an improbable, come-from-behind, half-point victory in his fantasy-football championship game.
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