Monday December 28th, 2015

SEATTLE — Since the start of the 2012 season, through 62 regular-season games and eight playoff contests, through a Super Bowl victory and a Super Bowl defeat, the Seahawks led in every game that quarterback Russell Wilson started.

Until Sunday. At home. Against the … Rams?!?

Funny how the NFL works. On Sunday morning, everyone with a microphone was lauding the Seahawks and the Steelers as the hottest teams in football, the teams that no other franchise wanted to face in the playoffs. By Sunday evening, everything was different, after both teams lost, after the Rams terrorized Wilson and forced three turnovers and led from start to finish in a 23–17 win.

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On Sunday, it was the Cardinals, not the Seahawks, who solidified their status as the NFC West’s premier Super Bowl contender. It was a rough day for the other teams tabbed as potential champions. The Panthers lost for the first time this season, and the Patriots fell to the Jets. Arizona, meanwhile, dominated Green Bay, another supposed front-runner that looked like anything but.

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In the grand scheme of the NFL playoff picture all of this means, well, not much. But while it’s easy to say that there’s no reason for the Seahawks to panic as they head into the season’s final week, the reality is there is one reason for them to be concerned, and it’s not a new issue, but a season-long one: their offensive line.

Wilson was sacked four times on Sunday. He was pressured on what seemed like almost every drop-back. His afternoon consisted of a series of pivots and turns and scrambles away from defenders as they chased him from the pocket. He was hit, hit hard and hit again.

Inside the home locker room afterward, the Seahawks credited the Rams, while shrugging off an admittedly lackluster performance. Seattle hadn’t lost on this field since mid-November against the Cardinals, and they had won the five games since. On Sunday, they looked more like the team that struggled through the first half of this season than the one that oddsmakers favor in the wild-card round, no matter the opponent.

The Seahawks weren’t shattered. They said all the usual things that good teams say when they play poorly: that perhaps the loss would help refocus them; that they must play better, and right away; that there are no do-overs in the playoffs, but this isn’t the playoffs—yet. They know that a game like this in January means their season ends. “This was a day that you want to forget,” coach Pete Carroll said.

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Carroll said he saw no signs of a letdown throughout the week in practice, even over the Christmas holiday. The offensive line, after a shaky start to the season, had started to play better. Wilson had thrown 19 touchdowns without an interception during the team’s winning streak, closing in on the franchise’s single-season record. He was the first quarterback in NFL history to throw at least three touchdowns in five straight games without an interception. He was 15–2 at home in December, and he had Doug Baldwin, who played despite a sore hamstring, and who had caught 10 touchdowns in the four games before this one—a feat last accomplished by Jerry Rice in 1987.

So it figured that the Seahawks would close their home season with a victory over the Rams, secure the fifth seed in the NFC’s playoff race and prepare to rest their starters in the season finale at Arizona. That seemed at least likely, but that’s pretty much the opposite of what happened.

What could go wrong, did. Long completions were erased by holding penalties. Fumbles slipped through the fingers of Seahawks defenders, including two on the Rams’ scoring drive that made it 23–10. “The Rams play good football against us,” defensive end Michael Bennett said, with a shrug. “They just don’t against anybody else.”

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That was typical of the Seahawks’ reaction afterward, except for where the offensive linemen dressed. Center Patrick Lewis in particular seemed shaken. He took responsibility for several botched snap exchanges with Wilson, and he didn’t blame the rain or his franchise quarterback. His voice quivered with emotion as he promised the Seahawks would “get it fixed.”

Ultimately, the Seahawks’ playoff hopes will rest as much on guys like Lewis as they will on Wilson and Baldwin, no matter how historic their touchdown stretch. If the Seahawks average 2.7 yards per carry, if Wilson spends all game running for his life, it’s hard to see Seattle in another Super Bowl. If the line plays the way it did during the Seahawks’ winning streak, then another run seems possible.

The Seahawks lost guard James Carpenter to the Jets in free agency. They traded center Max Unger (and their 2015 first-round pick) to the Saints for Jimmy Graham (and a fourth-round selection). They chose to put their money elsewhere and bet that they could patch together a serviceable offensive line this season, and that’s what their playoff run will hinge on. That’s the one area they appear to be seriously flawed. That’s the difference, it seems, between the last two seasons and this one, although there remains time—but not much—to get it fixed.

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