SEATTLE -- Very few people outside of the state of Wisconsin gave the Green Bay Packers much of a puncher's chance of winning the NFC Championship Game against the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Pete Carroll's team was playing with the best defense in football, an ascending young quarterback in Russell Wilson, a seven-game winning streak and the most daunting home-field advantage in the NFL. When these teams last faced off in Week 1 of the season on this same field, the Seahawks came away with a 36-16 win that wasn't as close as the score indicated.
This time around, the Packers looked as if they were going to put a similar beating on the Seahawks, getting up to a 19-7 lead as time ticked away in the fourth quarter. But a touchdown drive with 2:09 left in the game, a successful onside kick and another touchdown with 1:25 left put the Seahawks up 22-19, and just about punched their ticket to another Super Bowl. But the Packers were game enough to make something happen and they did, driving down the field and tying the game at 22 at the end of regulation.
Overtime, however, belonged to Seattle. After winning the coin toss, the Seahawks marched 87 yards down the field, capped by a 35-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Jermaine Kearse that sent Seattle to a second straight Super Bowl. "I had no doubt, we had no doubt as a team," Wilson -- who after a ghastly first half finished 14-of-29 for 209 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions with 25 yards rushing and one touchdown -- said postgame.
The game had more than its fair share of pregame drama. The league threatened to eject Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch if he wore the gold-plated cleats he had intended to don (he wore plain old black instead), news trickled out that Seattle's defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, is the Falcons' lead target in their current head coaching search and Packers WR Randall Cobb spent a few hours in a Seattle hospital Sunday night with what were believed to be appendicitis symptoms (he was released and was active for the game). But that was all swept aside after kickoff.
The first half of this game was all about the turnovers and the Packers' missed red-zone opportunities. In their Week 1 matchup, Aaron Rodgers didn't target Richard Sherman once. This time, the Packers were far less cautious about putting Jordy Nelson in Sherman's area. Nelson was lined up on the offensive right side on Sherman's island from the first drive on. And on that first drive, Rodgers targeted the Sherman-covered WR Davante Adams in the end zone and threw the fade you never want to throw in Sherman's area. The results were predictable. Sherman picked it off in the end zone.
But just three plays later, the Packers got a reversal of fortune when safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix picked off a pass intended for receiver Jermaine Kearse, returning the pick from the Seattle 30-yard line to the Seattle 4. After a taunting penalty on Packers' DE Mike Daniels moved the ball back to the Seattle 9-yard line, the Packers settled for Mason Crosby's 18-yard field goal when goal-line pushes came up short.
On the next kickoff, Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin fumbled the kick return at the Seattle 22-yard line, giving the ball back to the Packers. But on 3rd-and-6, the Packers came up short again, and kicked another field goal. The Packers had three quick and easy chances in or near the red zone, and got just six points. That's not how you generally want to do things when you're playing Seattle's defense in Seattle, and it obviously came back to bite them in the waning minutes of the game.
Both passing offenses had trouble getting going early. Green Bay struggled with Seattle's coverage, and the Seahawks' offense simply wasn't on the field. In the first quarter, the Packers amassed 137 yards to Seattle's three, and won the time of possession battle, 12:38 to 2:22. For a Seattle team that prefers to run its opponents ragged with turnover advantages and a rock solid run game, the first quarter was like having all the oxygen sucked out of the stadium. But despite three penalties on its first defensive drive and two quick turnovers, the Seahawks dodged several major bullets on the way to a 6-0 deficit with five minutes left in the first quarter.
As the game wore on, Eddie Lacy did his best to channel his inner Marshawn with a running style somewhere between bowling ball and pinwheel. He was a whirling dervish with attitude. When the Seahawks started to actually hang onto the ball in the second quarter, they were flummoxed by the Packers' ability to maintain point-of-attack stops on Lynch, and Green Bay's pass defense strategy, which was to bottle up Seattle's receivers and their simple route concepts with tight coverage.
Things just kept getting worse for Seattle's offense, a unit that didn't get a first down (or move into Green Bay territory) until there were fewer than seven minutes left in the first half. At that point, Wilson had made Clinton-Dix his primary receiver, as the Packers' rookie had two interceptions, and Sam Shields had an easy pick of Wilson's bad backdoor fade pass to Kearse with just 1:55 left in the half.
The only saving grace for the Seahawks was that Byron Maxwell picked off Rodgers a few plays later, but Seattle's offense failed to take advantage. Wilson's 14-yard pass to Ricardo Lockette with 3:58 left in the first half was his first completion of the game -- to his own team, at least.
It was just the second time in his career that Wilson threw three picks in a half. The other time was in his rookie season, when Seattle lost to the Rams in St. Louis in Wilson's fourth pro game. Wilson is one of the more careful quarterbacks with the ball. He's only thrown two picks in a game three times in his career, so this was especially uncharacteristic. And Seattle's four first-half turnovers were the most for the franchise since 2006.
At the end of the first half, Wilson had completed 2-of-9 passes for 12 yards and those three interceptions. Rodgers wasn't much better, completing 12-of-21 passes for 115 yards, one touchdown and two picks, but at least the Packers were sustaining drives. That was the difference that led to a 16-0 halftime lead for Green Bay -- just don't be the ugliest team on the field, and you'll be all right.
As the second half started, the Seahawks started to get things going with short passes and handoffs to Lynch to cut through Green Bay's defense. And as he so often has done through his career in Seattle, Lynch put his team on his back (figuratively) and the opposing defense on his back (literally). He gained 34 yards on the drive that was supposed to end on a Steven Hauschka field goal ... except that punter and holder Jon Ryan went with a little razzle-dazzle, throwing a touchdown pass to reserve tackle Garry Gilliam. That gave special teams coordinator Brian Schneider the edge over offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell in scheming up Seattle's passing game, but the Seahawks were going to take whatever they could get at this point, and they had a breath of live with a 16-7 score and 4:50 left in the third quarter.
On Green Bay's next drive, Rodgers appeared to turn his right ankle on an incomplete short pass to Lacy, and he was sacked by defensive end Cliff Avril on the next play ending the Packers' attempt to right the ship. With 2:22 left in the third quarter, the Seahawks started on their own 34-yard line, and hoped to build on their current momentum. But it didn't happen because for the eighth time in this game, a Seattle drive ended in three or fewer plays, as the Seahawks went three-and-out and lost a yard total on the drive. The Packers got the ball back to end the third quarter, and that, for all intents and purposes, was when it was thought that the air officially came out of Seattle's ambition to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
The narrative continued in the fourth, as Green Bay added to their lead with a field goal and picked off Wilson for a fourth time with a little over five minutes remaining. But things shifted quickly. A seven-play, 69-yard drive brought the Seahawks within five, and an onside recovery followed by a 24-yard Lynch run and fingertip two-point conversion gave Seattle it's first lead of the game at 22-19. While the Packers tied the game at 22-all seconds before the end of regulation, Green Bay had no answer for Seattle in overtime, as Wilson hit Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown on the first drive.
Few thought the Seahawks could come back and win, but that's what they did. And as a noise never heard before in this cauldron of insanity rained down on the Seahawks, the Packers could only walk off the field, wondering what happened.
Along with the rest of us.