In a game that was ugly from start to finish, even Golden Tate's 80-yard touchdown had room for improvement. (Michael Conroy/AP)
No championship team has a constant string of obvious victories. Every team, no matter how good, will have to find ways to win ugly away from home despite sub-par performances from key players and groups. And in climbing to 7-1 on the season, the Seattle Seahawks did just that. They looked in no way like the team many expected before the season to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but if you're of the opinion that wins are all that count, Seattle's 14-9 win over the St. Louis Rams makes the books in that regard.
The game had a weird feel from the start. The Edward Jones Dome was half-full at best because most everyone in St. Louis was concentrating on the World Series performance of the Cardinals, who were also in town -- the first time a World Series and a Monday Night Football Game crossed paths in the same city since 1986. And both teams played to that strange feeling.
Seattle had gained minus-1 yard at the end of the first quarter, quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked seven times and hit ceaselessly by St. Louis' fierce front four, and a Seahawks run defense that is usually fairly stout gave up 200 yards on the ground over 37 plays -- three fewer than Seattle's offense had overall. It was only because of a defense that came up big when it had to, against Rams backup quarterback Kellen Clemens, that the Seahawks were able to escape with a narrow victory.
The crucible for the Rams came on a goal-line stand that ended the game. St. Louis had the ball for the final 5:41 of the game, and got the ball to the Seattle six-yard line with 46 seconds left on the clock. Given that the Seahawks seemed to have few answers for the Rams' run game, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's playcalling from then on was curious, to say the least. After a Daryl Richardson run for four yards, Clemens threw incomplete to receiver Chris Givens. Then, another Richardson run for no gain that put the ball at the Seattle 1-yard line following an offside penalty on defensive end Chris Clemons, the Rams went with a Clemens pass to Brian Quick, which had no chance.
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That final drive summed up a night of missed opportunities for the Rams -- they outgained the Seahawks, 339 yards to 135, and brought four drives inside the Seattle 15. But all they could amass were three field goals, and that final burst of futility.
"Well, the defense did a tremendous job," Wilson told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game. "That was a huge stop right there [at the end]. You just keep praying that something will happen, and you keep believing in your guys. We found ways to make plays on offense when we needed to -- we were struggling, obviously, and their defensive ends were coming all day. We were just able to find a way."
As it has been through the last few games, the Seahawks were upended time and time again by a patchwork offensive line missing both of its starting tackles (Russell Okung, Breno Giacomini), and backups Paul McQuistan and Michael Bowie were not up to the task of containing Chris Long and Robert Quinn, the Rams' defensive end combo. Quinn and Long may be the league's best duo when it comes to quarterback disruption, and Seattle's offensive line proved to be an easy mark. Quinn finished with three sacks, four tackles for loss, and five total quarterback hits, and Long matched Quinn's effort with three sacks of his own. Wilson rarely had time to run the Seahawks' staple pass play -- the play-action deep ball -- because he was trying to avoid getting hit on every play. Thus, screens and simple slants were the order of the day. And running back Marshawn Lynch, usually the epicenter of Seattle's power offense, was muted -- he gained just 23 yards on eight carries.
"We've got a long haul here," head coach Pete Carroll said of his offensive line. "We're halfway through the season, these are the guys we're going with, and we've got to fix it. We knew that these guys would be a difficult matchup for us, and it just didn't work out as well as we'd like. Russell did an excellent job again -- he was pounded all night long. You could tell that he did a better job of being aware when he was getting hit, and getting the ball to the ground. Not a great positive, but it's an improvement."
The Rams defeated themselves more than the Seahawks did -- they committed eight penalties for 53 yards, and several of those infractions wiped out big plays and killed extended drives. Their yards turned into empty calories, and the Seahawks proved to be the kind of team you don't want hanging around for too long.
Clemens, seeing his first serious regular-season action since 2011, fared decently for his inexperience in place of Sam Bradford, out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee suffered against the Carolina Panthers last week. Clemens threw two howling interceptions, and appeared to be off track with his receivers at times, but he did enough to avoid losing. And the Rams' running backs -- who still haven't scored a rushing touchdown all season -- did enough to win.
Until it counted, that is.
Meanwhile, Wilson proved once again that even under constant duress, he will find ways to make it work. He completed just 10 passes on the night, but two were touchdowns to receiver Golden Tate. Of course, even the one pure splash play the Seahawks had still looked uglier than it should have. When Tate made an amazing jackknifing adjustment to catch Wilson's pass in front of cornerback Janoris Jenkins with 3:45 left in the third quarter, he hot-dogged it all the way to the end zone, almost running out of bounds and nearly getting caught from behind on what eventually became an 80-yard score. Carroll did not hesitate to speak to Tate about it when Tate hit the sideline.
"That has nothing to do with our football," the coach said. "That's not the way we want to play. He has at times demonstrated more maturity than that, and we said something about it. He's a playful, wonderful, spirited guy, but that was not the right thing to do. He knew it, and he apologized to everybody, but it kind of washes away a fantastic football play."
And there were not enough fantastic football plays on either side to go around. For the Seahawks, the relief is that after a stretch in which they played four of five games on the road, they have three of their next four at home, and a bye to break it up. As for the Rams, their 3-5 record is a painful reminder of what might have been.