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A Very Special Win

The inside story of how Seattle's third unit—special teams—sparked the Seahawks' come-from-behind victory in the NFC title game

SEATTLE — Russell Wilson to Jermaine Kearse will be the lasting image from Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. Wilson’s late-game heroics, in light of his struggles for 55 minutes, will dominate the narrative as the Seahawks make a second straight Super Bowl trip. But if not for two special teams plays, we’d be talking about Aaron Rodgers’ date with Tom Brady in Glendale.

Consider the story of Chris Matthews. The reserve wide receiver has never caught an NFL pass, but on Sunday he reeled in one of the highest-pressure onside kick attempts in NFL history.

Matthews, 25, was elevated to the Seahawks’ active roster a month ago. He had gone undrafted in 2011 and played two seasons for the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Seattle cut him twice this season.

Six years ago he was a four-star JUCO prospect out of Los Angeles Harbor College. He wanted nothing but to play for hometown USC. One afternoon before a JUCO game, Matthews was lounging at a teammate’s home in Palos Verdes when his host mentioned he lived next door to the Trojans’ head coach, Pete Carroll.

Matthews casually told his friends he’d be right back, then slipped out the front door.

“So I ran out to my car, and I had a box of DVDs of my highlights,” Matthews says. “I took a disc—and this was real bold of me, but I was real desperate.”

He knocked on Carroll’s door. No answer. He knocked again. As he was about to slip the disc through the mail slot, Glena Carroll opened the door.

“I said, Hey, my name is Chris Matthews, and gave her the whole rundown and she said she’d give it to him,” he says. “And that was it. No call.”

Matthews (13), went from farthest fringe of the roster to onside-kick hero. (John W. McDonough/SI/The MMQB)

Matthews (13), went from farther fringe of the roster to onside-kick hero. (John W. McDonough/SI/The MMQB)

Matthews signed with Kentucky. Five years later he got a chance to confront the Carrolls about his highlights.

“She didn’t even remember me,” Matthews says, “and when I met Pete I was like, C’mon man, why didn’t you recruit me. I gave you my tape. And he was like, really? When did this happen?

“It’s kind of funny now.”

Especially after Matthews helped saved Seattle’s season with his quick-thinking. With two minutes and nine seconds left in the NFC title game, Seattle trailed 19-14 with one timeout, needing an onside kick for a puncher’s chance at another Super Bowl berth.

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Matthews was the last man out of his stance and the second to put his hands on the football. Packers tight end Brandon Bostick bobbled the Steven Hauschka kick, allowing it to fall into Matthews’ hands while a series of car wrecks surrounded him.

If the Packers had recovered the ball, Seattle would have needed a three-and-out and likely would be looking at about 45 seconds to travel more than 80 yards. With a roughly 16% chance of recovering the kick, according to NFL averages, the safer bet was to kick it deep and trust a defense that had forced three-and-outs on roughly a third of Green Bay possessions in two meetings this season. Yet Seattle’s special teams is essentially an extension of its defense, with high-value starters Kam Chancellor and Byron Maxwell often manning the kickoff team.

“The coaches made the right call, and we all ran down there believing we were going to get the ball,” Matthews says. “We were going to scratch, scrape and claw when we got down there.”

Nine of 56 onside kicks had been successful in the NFL in 2014. Matthews was desperate enough to catch the 10th.

Ryan's TD pass got Seattle on the board. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Now for the bigger and bolder decision, the play that ignited Seattle’s comeback, punter Jon Ryan’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Garry Gilliam on a fake field goal. Ryan had been lobbying for the call during the week of practice, after special teams coach Brian Schneider’s staff identified the weak link in the Packers field goal block team.

Reserve linebacker Brad Jones was recklessly aggressive coming off the edge on film. He consistently darted hard to the inside in an effort to get the block, and often went to unnecessary lengths to do so. Against Dallas in their divisional game, he lined up on the left side three times and on the right once, and on one attempt he tried to leap over a blocker only to get stonewalled.

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So with five minutes left in the third quarter and Seattle still trailing 16-0, Carroll gave Ryan the go-ahead to execute a fake specifically designed for this game. Ryan had two options:

1. Take the snap and roll out to Jones’ side with either Garry Gilliam (left side) or Luke Willson (right) as a receiving option. If the linebacker covers the receiver, Ryan should run. If not, throw it.

2. If Jones isn’t on the field, take a delay of game penalty and then kick the field goal.

“Kickers are head-jobs anyway,” Ryan said within earshot of Hauschka, “so you don’t want to screw them around.”

Jones showed up on the left side, which meant undrafted rookie tackle Garry Gilliam would get the throw if necessary. Gilliam, a converted tight end out of Penn State, hadn’t caught a touchdown since high school.

“I broke the huddle like, Please be on my side, please be on my side,” Gilliam says. “And then [Jones] was.”

Linebacker A.J. Hawk committed to stopping Ryan's run, so Ryan lofted the ball over Hawk and into Gilliam's mitts, becoming the second Canadian to throw a touchdown in the NFL playoffs (the first was Mark Rypien). But it’s nothing new for Ryan to be featured in a fake attempt; over his career he’s run for two first downs with one coming on an option run with Hauschka against Washington this season.

Players say that each week Schneider dreams up some contingency that only rarely comes into play. A week earlier, it was alerting Kam Chancellor to a subtle tell in Carolina’s field goal formation, enabling Chancellor to hurdle the Panthers’ line not once but twice.

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“They do their research,” Gilliam says. “Every week we have plays like that. There are little things that the coaches research and can pick up on. I can’t even remember all of them. I just drop them from my memory and move on every week.”

Credit to Schneider for doing the grunt work, Carroll for making a pair of gutsy calls, and Seattle’s fearless and fast-thinking special teamers. They are as big a reason as any that the Seahawks will get a shot at a title defense.

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