SEATTLE – The “elite” throw came in the second quarter, with the Seahawks and Panthers tied at 7, with Carolina much closer than expected and the crowd at CenturyLink Field at least a little bit concerned.
It was third-and-7 for the Seahawks from their 37-yard-line. Quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back, scanned the field and lofted a deep fade across his body and the field. He later estimated it traveled 50 yards in the air. Receiver Jermaine Kearse jockeyed for position with cornerback Bene Benwikere; it looked like he shoved his way into a sliver of separation. The ball landed in Kearse’s right hand, only one hand necessary, with Benwikere just behind him and open space ahead. He crossed into the end zone for a 63-yard score, the longest postseason pass in franchise history, and a 14-7 lead that only grew as Saturday night unfolded.
The Seahawks advanced to the NFC Championship Game next Sunday with a 31-17 victory defined by a single pass. It was an elite throw, the kind that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers make. It was also the kind of pass that Russell Wilson makes, and it doesn’t matter whether Wilson is on their level or whether he will be. It doesn’t matter if he’s an elite quarterback, or one backed by an elite defense. All that mattered Saturday was another Seahawks win, another postseason march, another NFC title within reach. All that mattered was the potential to add another ring.
The throw made the Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon nostalgic. He stood in the Seahawks locker room afterward and marveled at the window Wilson placed the ball into, just out of the defender’s reach and just within Kearse’s grasp. It’s really the only place he could have put it for a completion. It was the kind of throw that reminded Moon of, well, himself.
“That was a beautifully thrown football,” he said. “That ball couldn’t have been any more on the money.”
Someone asked Moon if he had ever seen Wilson play better, after he completed 15 of 22 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns for a 149.2 passer rating. More important, Wilson completed all eight of his third-down attempts for 199 yards. And all three of his touchdowns came on third down.
This served as a reminder to the rest of the Super Bowl contenders that the Seahawks can win games when their defense yields 362 yards and when running back Marshawn Lynch manages only 59 yards on the ground. That’s what happened Saturday. That’s what makes the Seahawks scary as they attempt to become the first repeat NFL champion since the Patriots 10 years ago. They beat different teams in different ways -- with Lynch’s rumbles through entire defenses, with Wilson’s legs, with a historically suffocating defense. On Saturday, they won behind Kam Chancellor’s standout game at safety. And they won behind Wilson’s arm.
Brady and the Patriots also advanced, toppling the Ravens at home. That left open the possibility for the last four remaining NFL quarterbacks to include Brady, Manning (if the Broncos win Sunday), Rodgers (if the Packers win Sunday) and Wilson. I asked Moon if Wilson belonged in that group. He didn’t hesitate. “Definitely,” he said. “Maybe for different reasons. Maybe not for what you typically judge quarterbacks on.”
He’s right. Wilson isn’t likely to throw for 4,000 yards in this offense. He’s not likely to approach Brady or Manning or Rodgers or Andrew Luck in terms of sheer yardage accumulated. But he doesn’t throw as often. He runs more often. He forces defenses to prepare for both. He shouldn’t be measured in prototypical quarterback terms. That’s not him.
Wilson is best when he does what the Seahawks ask of him. He’s best when he minimizes mistakes, extends plays, avoids pressure and throws touchdowns at exactly the right moment. He’s best when he operates within their system, and that’s not because he’s a game manager, whatever that means. That’s because it works.
This is Wilson’s third season. In his rookie year, he won the starting job and led the Seahawks into the divisional round of the playoffs, where they lost to Atlanta. In his second season, he took the Seahawks to the Super Bowl, and yes, the defense smothered offenses and allowed the fewest points in the NFL. But it’s not like the Seahawks win that game with anyone at quarterback. Wilson played a major role.
If anything that has increased this season. Wilson has flourished since the Seahawks traded receiver Percy Harvin, and the offense has regained a measure of rhythm and ball control between Wilson and Lynch. It’s a formula -- stop the run, run the ball, minimize mistakes, capitalize when possible -- that leads to championships. Just like it did last season.
Pundits will continue to criticize Wilson and point to the talent that surrounds him. Who cares? They don’t account for the players he throws the ball to, not a superstar among them, or the injuries to his offensive line this season and his starting tight end. Their argument centers on whether the Seahawks win because of Wilson or in spite of him. Moon made it clear which side he falls on.
There was Wilson late Saturday, still in pads, still in cleats, making his way through the locker room, shaking every teammate’s hand. “There’s still a lot more to do,” he cautioned, and then he exited through a tunnel with his agent on the same day the NFL Network reported that the Seahawks planned to reward Wilson with a contract extension this offseason.
The throw will be entered into evidence, along with, perhaps, another Super Bowl.