By Chris Cluff
It might not have been a defining victory for a team still developing behind a rookie quarterback and still making plenty of mistakes, but the Seahawks come-from-behind 24-23 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday certainly was a huge step forward.
Russell Wilson threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to rally the Hawks from a 23-10 deficit and elevate them to 4-2 as they head into an NFC West duel with the 49ers (4-2) in San Francisco on Thursday.
Wilson and the offense started strong, struggled in the second and third quarters and then finished with a bang. The defense got picked apart in the first half but wore down the Patriots and kept Tom Brady and the offense out of the end zone in the second half.
It was a statement game by a young team that still is growing, but looks very capable of becoming a playoff team.
Wilson and his receivers continue to take steps, and they took a big one Sunday. Wilson threw for a season-best 293 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. Facing a Patriots’ defense that was giving up 290 passing yards per game, Wilson hit 7 of 8 passes for 131 yards in the first quarter as he led the Hawks to 10 points. The touchdown drive was his best effort of the season as he hit Doug Baldwin on a 50-yard pass on third-and-9, gained nine yards on a winding, darting, dodging scramble on third-and-4 and then hit Baldwin for a 24-yard touchdown.
The Hawks had the ball only two more times in the first half, and both possessions resulted in turnovers. Wilson lost the ball on a fumble when rookie Chandler Jones beat Zach Miller’s block and knocked the ball out of Wilson’s hand just before his arm went forward. The Patriots got the ball at the Seahawks’ 47-yard line and ended up with a field goal that gave them a 17-10 lead.
The Hawks then were very conservative on the final possession, just trying to run out the final two minutes. It nearly backfired when they couldn’t sustain the drive and Jon Ryan mishandled the punt snap and turned the ball over to the Patriots at the 24. The Patriots failed to capitalize with any points, leaving the Hawks to dodge a major bullet.
The Hawks couldn’t do anything in the third quarter, going three-and-out on two of their three possessions.
Third downs continued to be a problem. A week after they converted 7 of 14 against Carolina, they were just 4 of 12 vs. New England.
But they put together some plays in the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-goal, Wilson hit Braylon Edwards on a 10-yard comeback pass for a touchdown that cut the deficit to 23-17.
The Hawks went three-and-out on the next series, but the defense got the ball back for them one more time with 2:38 left. They moved from their 43 to the New England 46 in three plays and then Wilson hit Sidney Rice on a play-action 46-yard bomb to tie the game. Steven Hauschka’s extra point put Seattle ahead.
Rice told reporters: “The whole time, I’m looking at the ball in the air. It was so pretty. I was like, ‘You’ve gotta catch up to it. You’ve gotta catch up to it.’ And I was able to track it down. It was a heck of a throw by Russell.”
Wilson average 9.8 yards per pass, hitting six passes of at least 20 yards and three over 45. Most of them came off play-action.
“We have found that Russell does throw the ball really well down the field,” coach Pete Carroll told reporters. “He made his plays.”
One of the reasons the Seahawks struggled in the middle quarters was the lack of a running game. For the second straight game, they had trouble, finishing with just 85 yards on 26 carries (3.3 average). Marshawn Lynch ran for just 41 yards on 15 attempts as the reconfigured line continued to have trouble figuring out which guys to block.
Paul McQuistan had a tough day at right guard. He failed to pick up blitzing linebackers three times — Brandon Spikes twice and Rob Ninkovich — and also was called for holding Spikes on another play (the Patriots declined the penalty).
In the last two weeks — not counting the intentional safety by Ryan at Carolina — the Hawks have run for 201 yards on 60 plays (3.35 average). The threat is still there, as Wilson’s play-action passes have worked. But the offense would move the ball more consistently if it could run it.
The Seahawks minimized penalties for once, with just four for 35 yards, but the offensive line was called or three — a false start on center Max Unger, a hold on Breno Giacomini (it was Wilson’s fault for leaving the pocket rather than stepping up into it) and the declined hold on McQuistan.
So, while Wilson and the passing game took another step, this unit still has plenty to work on.
This was the defense’s stiffest challenge of the season, and the Hawks expectedly gave up a lot of passing yards to Brady, who threw a career-high 58 passes, completing 36 for 395 yards and two touchdowns.
The Seahawks could not get off the field for much of the first three quarters. The Patriots ran 85 plays to the Seahawks’ 55 and the Hawks let New England convert 8 of their first 12 third downs. Brady just picked them apart with quick, short passes.
But the defense made the Patriots pay for their catches. Wes Welker was blasted at various times by Brandon Browner, Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner. Welker caught 10 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown, but he probably will feel every hit for a couple of days. The Hawks also made Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch pay for some of their catches.
By the end, the Pats didn’t seem as eager to go up against the physical Seahawks. They didn’t convert any of their last six third downs.
“We had put our pads on them a little bit. And I think they weren’t as confident going into that (final) drive as they had been in previous drives,” cornerback Richard Sherman told Paul Silvi on King TV’s “5th Quarter”. “We’re built to finish games. We’re not a finesse team. We’re a hard-nosed football team. And it showed in the end. We showed our grit.”
The Patriots had run for nearly 500 yards in the past two games, but the Seahawks did their usual job against the run, holding New England to 85 yards on 26 attempts.
They also finally came up with some turnovers in the second half. Brady had not thrown an interception in 179 passes until Sherman picked him off late in the third quarter.
The biggest play by the defense was Earl Thomas’ interception at the Seattle 6-yard line early in the fourth quarter. If the Pats had scored a touchdown there, they would have gone up 27-10 and the game surely would have been theirs.
Thomas dropped two other potential picks and had not been able to secure a couple other chances this season, so it was nice to see him get his first.
The Seahawks’ offense didn’t convert either interception into points, but those turnovers kept the Hawks within striking distance.
The Seahawks overcame horrible field position all game. They didn’t start outside their 20 until the final drive, which was set up by Leon Washington’s 25-yard punt return to the 43.
Ryan made his first bad play in four-plus years with the Seahawks when he botched the punt at the end of the first half. He was lucky the Patriots bumbled their way to the locker room without getting even a field goal.
Ryan came out with a vengeance in the second half, booming four punts an average of 60 yards. His first was a 66-yarder that completely flipped field position, moving the ball from the Seattle 16 to the New England 35 (after a 17-yard return by Welker). Ryan added a 50-yarder, another 66-yarder and a 58-yarder — constantly erasing bad field position and making the Patriots start on their side of the field.
Because Ryan tended to outkick his coverage, Welker averaged 17 yards per return, but Ryan’s 43-yard net was excellent.
The Seahawks nearly put themselves in a 14-point hole at the end of the first half when they decided to try to run out the final two minutes rather than drive for points. It was the kind of conservative play calling that has frustrated fans all season.
The Hawks ended up giving the ball back to the Patriots on the botched punt. They were very lucky the Patriots used too much time and Brady was called for intentional grounding to end the half.
The conservative strategy was odd considering offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had dialed up some long pass plays already. He did open it up again in the second half and called a pretty balanced game. His option pass from Rice to Tate, which drew a 40-yard pass-interference penalty, early in the fourth quarter was a great call.
Carroll credited Bevell’s play calling, telling reporters: “I think Darrell Bevell deserves a bunch of credit for the calls and (for giving) us a chance to get back in it. Gutsy plays.”
The worst call by defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was an alignment that left 5-foot-10 Jeron Johnson singled up on 6-1 Hernandez at the goal line in the second quarter. It was an easy touchdown pass for Brady.
Otherwise, there wasn’t a whole lot Bradley could call to stop Brady’s quick, accurate passes. It really boiled down to the defenders coming up with turnovers and wearing down the Patriots. They eventually did both.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.