SEATTLE -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a rainy but unforgettable Championship Sunday in the NFL, which I spent on the ridiculous three-hour-plus rollercoaster ride that was the Green Bay-Seattle instant classic at CenturyLink Field. ...
• Despite all their success, their Super Bowl victories and the host of awards, honors and accolades that have come their way, somehow Russell Wilson and Tom Brady have nurtured and maintained -- almost religiously so -- the chips on their shoulders that seems to both sustain and drive them.
You want the Super Bowl matchup that deserves our full attention two weeks from now in the Arizona desert, when the 49th edition of the NFL’s biggest game unfolds at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale? How about Wilson against Brady, in a youth versus experience showdown of quarterbacks who still burn with the same fire that was started on their respective draft weekends? Has there ever been two more glaring, more overlooked quarterback draft prospects than Brady, the poster child for such things, and Wilson, the most recent example of how badly the NFL can botch evaluations?
Brady inexplicably lasted until the 199th selection in 2000, after six other passers had come off the board, forever immortalizing what has come to be known as “The Brady 6.’’ Almost 15 years later, Brady can still seethe about the injustice of that slight and use it as motivational fuel. And then there's Wilson, the undersized University of Wisconsin product who lingered until the 75th pick, in the third round of 2012, 18 selections after the still-untapped potential of one Brock Osweiler. While the Denver backup waits for his turn behind Peyton Manning, Wilson is chasing a second consecutive Super Bowl trophy.
And now we get to see these two, the fiercest of competitors, collide on the game’s grandest stage, going head-to-head in the quest to make even more NFL history. Wilson and his Seahawks, a 28-22 victor in overtime against the Green Bay Packers in that improbable NFC Championship Game on Sunday, are trying to become the first repeat Super Bowl champions since Brady and the Patriots -- a 45-7 winner over the out-matched Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game in Foxboro -- turned that mean trick in 2003-04.
And check out this juicy subplot that looms over this year’s Super Bowl backdrop: After Sunday’s frantic win over Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers, Wilson is now a gaudy 10-0, including the playoffs, against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in his three-year career. One of those wins came against Brady and the Pats, in a 24-23 comeback victory in 2012, the game that gave us the “You mad, bro?’’ tagline that followed a Richard Sherman-Brady postgame conversation.
The team of the decade in the NFL in 2000-09? That would unquestionably be the Patriots, with their three rings and four Super Bowl appearances. The team of the decade in the making, at least in the five years spanning 2010-14? With another Super Bowl victory, that would just as clearly be the Seahawks, who are the first team to even reach consecutive Super Bowls since the New England dynasty did it 10 years ago.
And the Seahawks and Patriots also represent a best of the best glamor matchup this year, with the two No. 1 seeds advancing to the Super Bowl after fighting through some early-season struggles that left both teams dealing with greatly exaggerated reports of their imminent demise. New England at 2-2 was left for dead after a 41-14 Week 4 loss to the Chiefs, and Brady’s benching was actually a point of debate in some circles. The Seahawks started 3-3 and then 6-4, exhibiting all the classic symptoms of a near-fatal Super Bowl hangover.
But here they are; sporting matching 14-4 records, supremely confident quarterbacks and a pair of head coaches who are as different as night and day when it comes to shows of public enthusiasm. Pete Carroll, of course, was the last Patriots' head coach hired by New England owner Robert Kraft before Bill Belichick arrived in 2000. Carroll went to the playoffs twice in his three seasons in Foxboro (1997-99), but that wasn’t good enough, and the team’s Belichick-Brady glory era was soon launched. Now it’s up to Carroll and Co. to make sure Seattle’s glory era prevails, and the Patriots do not stage a resurgence at the Seahawks’ expense on Super Sunday.
In a Super Bowl matchup that we’ve seen coming for a while now, the superlatives all fit.
• Where to even begin in describing the miracle that was Seattle’s win over the shell-shocked Packers? No team had won a playoff game despite committing five turnovers since the 1982 Jets managed it, and the Seahawks crawling out of a 16-0 halftime deficit registered as the second-largest comeback in NFC title game history (bested only by San Francisco’s 17-point rally to win at Atlanta two years ago).
And Russell Wilson’s remarkable day. Simply put, I’ve never seen a quarterback look so bad for so long in this kind of setting, and still find a way to make all the plays that had to be made in order to win the game. Wilson had nothing going for him in the game’s first 56-plus minutes, and he finished the first half 2-of-9 for 12 yards, no TDs, three INTs and a 0.0 passer rating. And he still led the team to touchdown, touchdown, touchdown on the game’s final three meaningful drives in regulation and overtime -- a span that went from 3:52 left in regulation to 3:19 into overtime.
What a microcosm of the Seahawks’ 2014 season. The early struggles, followed by the show of pride and resilience, and finally a glorious ending. It was all there in abbreviated form for Seattle against Green Bay, and somehow you actually believed the Seahawks when they said they never lost faith, despite trailing 19-7 with under four minutes remaining.
“I think that’s the best game I’ve ever been in for sure,’’ Wilson said. “I think that may be one of the best games in NFL history. I can’t see a much better game than that. We didn’t show our best at first, but in our whole season we didn’t show our best at first. But we always find a way to finish.
“That’s kind of the story of our season, 3-3, 6-4, win the last six games of the regular season and get into this game, a huge game. We started off slow but that’s what we talked about, just continue to believe in one another. To play in the Super Bowl back-to-back years, when everybody thought we were out when we were 3-3, when everyone thought we were out when we were 6-4, when everybody thought we were out of this game. You just trust the experience, you trust the guys you have around you, and you have faith in the people around you.’’
• Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is going to get raked over the coals for Green Bay’s conservative play-calling approach, and his club’s inability to hold a 16-point lead. And deservedly so. The Packers just didn’t stay aggressive enough when the game was ripe to be put away early. The Packers had 4th-and-goal from the Seattle 1-yard line twice, and kicked field goals twice. It’s an unwritten rule, but I don’t think you can win a conference championship on the road by settling for field goals of 18 and 19 yards, as the Packers did in the first quarter. Yes, I know it took a fake field goal for a touchdown and a successful onside kick for McCarthy’s approach to backfire, but the Packers let Seattle stay close enough to make those plays count, and that’s unforgivable given the level of Green Bay’s dominance in the first 56 minutes of the game.
"You want touchdowns,’’ Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “Against a team like that you need touchdowns when you’re down in the red zone like that. To not get them ... points are good, but touchdowns are better. You’ve got to finish football games, especially in this type of game, in this type of atmosphere. Just because they were down however many points doesn’t mean they’re going to stop playing. We need to finish. Just finish the game.’’
McCarthy said he didn’t think it was going to take a lot of points to beat Seattle, but five Crosby field goals gave the Seahawks the opportunity to keep hanging around on the edge of contention all game long despite playing what was quite possibly the sloppiest game of Carroll’s five-year tenure.
“I just felt you had to take the points,’’ McCarthy said. “I felt great about our defense all week, just the way they’d been building here in the last eight, nine weeks. So that’s why we had to take the field goals.’’
• Why the Packers didn’t go after Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, who was playing with one arm for the entire fourth quarter, is a complete mystery. Sherman hurt his left elbow when he was hit by safety Kam Chancellor in attempting to tackle Packers running back James Starks on a 32-yard run, on the first play of the fourth quarter. But Green Bay threw in his direction only once, when Sherman was able to tackle receiver Jordy Nelson on a third-down reception, short of the marker, just before Green Bay’s game-tying 48-yard field goal by Mason Crosby.
It looked as if Sherman was wearing an invisible sling as he played, never being able to fully extend the arm. Still, Green Bay did not make him pay for the injury.
“I think we could have,’’ Rodgers said. “But we just didn’t execute very well.’’
• Another mind-boggler of a playing-it-too-safe decision was made by Packers safety Morgan Burnett, who opted to go down on his own after intercepting Wilson with a 19-7 lead and 5:04 to play in regulation. Burnett caught the ball at the Packers' 39 and had plenty of open field ahead of him, but instead he got over-cautious and gave himself up after gaining four yards to the Packers' 43. The Packers went on to their second straight three-and-out drive, and punted to Seattle, which promptly began its first offensive touchdown drive of the game with 3:52 left.
• Rodgers is likely going to win his second league MVP league award later this month, but it’ll be somewhat bittersweet once again, just as it was in 2011, when he took home that hardware but saw 15-1 Green Bay eliminated by the visiting Giants in the Packers’ playoff opener.
Since winning the Super Bowl with that memorable 4-0 playoff run after the 2010 regular season, the Packers and Rodgers are now just a measly 2-4 in the playoffs over the course of the past four seasons. With the best quarterback in the NFL under center, Green Bay’s playoff record represents underachievement.
• There was a certain symmetry to the NFC playoffs this year. The Lions had their hearts broken in that controversial loss at Dallas. Then the Cowboys had their season ended roughly the same way in Green Bay. And what happened to Detroit and Dallas then happened to the Packers, although this time there wasn't a controversial officiating call involved, just one of the cruelest playoff meltdowns imaginable.
If form holds, I think I like the Patriots to win in dramatic late-game fashion in Arizona in two weeks.
• You couldn’t see this coming for much of Sunday afternoon in Seattle, but when all was said and done, both of the No. 1 seeds advanced with the Seahawks and Patriots each getting the job done to reach the Super Bowl. With top-seeded Denver and Seattle having made last year’s Super Bowl, it’s the first time since the current 12-team playoff format was instituted in 1990 that the No. 1 seeds have qualified for the Super Bowl in consecutive seasons.
And with Seattle becoming the first NFC team since Green Bay in 1996-97 to go two years in a row, and New England qualifying for its third Super Bowl berth in eight years, maybe the whole notion of the NFL’s almighty parity is out-of-date in need of a rewrite.
• If I’m in Seattle’s front office, I might want to pump the brakes a bit on the drive to make Russell Wilson the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. He didn’t look too elite for most of the game against Green Bay, although he and the Seahawks got it done in crunch time. As great as Wilson has been these past three seasons, I would darn sure want to see him play well and Seattle win a second consecutive Super Bowl before crossing the $20 million per year threshold with him.
• Somebody, I’m sure, must have pointed out a thought that popped into my head late Sunday afternoon: That both Brandon Bostick and Bill Buckner have the same initials. If there was a No. 1 goat in the Packers’ loss, it was Bostick, who bobbled away the onside kick Seattle tried with 2:09 remaining, setting up Seattle’s go-ahead touchdown drive.
Bostick, a reserve tight end, saw the ball bounce off his hands and into the grasp of Seahawks receiver Chris Matthews. And the worst part was Bostick wasn’t even supposed to try to field the ball. He was supposed to serve as a blocker on the left side of the kickoff receiving formation, clearing the way for hands-team specialists like Jordy Nelson to make the recovery.
“I let my team down, I feel like,’’ Bostick said. “There was a lot on this game. I feel like if I would have done my job; my assignment was to block, then Jordy would have caught the ball and the game would have been over. I felt I had my hands on the ball, and it just slipped away, I guess. I just got hit and I didn’t have the ball.’’
• As I wrote last week, Baltimore was the team New England was going to be most severely tested by in the AFC playoffs, but the Colts have turned into the Patriots’ personal punching bags. New England’s 38-point romp over Indy was the easiest win in the Patriots’ long and distinguished playoff history, and represented the fourth straight time New England has routed the Colts in the Andrew Luck era.
The Colts made real strides this season, winning two playoff games and playing for the right to earn a Super Bowl berth for the first time since 2009. But it’s also the third postseason in a row that has ended with a loss of at least 15 points by Indianapolis, and two of those came against the Patriots, the past two years.
• I think the moral of the story in this coaching firing/hiring season is don’t ever make the mistake of losing the Super Bowl. The two most recent head coaches who have done so have found themselves summarily bounced from their jobs: San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh and Denver’s John Fox. True, they both rebounded quickly and nicely, landing new jobs in the midwest (Michigan and Chicago, respectively), but the speed with which Harbaugh and Fox fell out of favor in San Francisco and Denver was rather breathtaking.
It’s actually a bit of a recent trend, though. Four of the past six coaches to lose the Super Bowl are no longer with the teams they led to the game, with Arizona (2008 Super Bowl run) and Ken Whisenhunt parting ways after the 2012 season, and Indianapolis firing Jim Caldwell just two years after the 2009 Colts made their Super Bowl trip. Only Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin (2010 Super Bowl loss) and New England’s Bill Belichick (2011 loss) have bucked the pattern.
• Jim Tomsula is clearly the man 49ers owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke wanted to lead their football team all along, and thus, Tomsula is the man they hired. But I think it’s fair to say Tomsula’s media rollout wasn’t his best work. In a one-on-one interview with a Comcast Bay Area TV host on the day he was introduced, Tomsula gave mostly grunting answers to some fairly basic, forward questions. Winning the press conference is always overrated -- isn’t that right, Rex Ryan? -- but Tomsula had better be one heck of a football coach. There is considerably more to the head coaching gig than just the X’s and O’s, and from the face of a franchise perspective, early indications are that Tomsula is no Jim Harbaugh.
• Very sorry to hear about the serious family emergency that caused Colts running back Trent Richardson to miss Saturday’s walk-through practice in Indianapolis, prompting the Colts to leave him home and have him not make the trip to Foxboro for the AFC Championship Game. But at this point in his disappointing Colts' tenure, Richardson wouldn't have been integral to Indy’s gameplan anyway.
The Colts have steadfastly refused to admit their colossal mistake in sending a first-round pick to Cleveland for Richardson, but even with him being owed $3.18 million by the team whether he plays in Indy in 2015 or not, it’s difficult to see how he finds his way back into Colts’ backfield now. I would have to think it’s time for Indy to cut its losses and move on.
GALLERY: SI's Best Photos From the NFC Championship Game