FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Behold the power of good coaching.
For the third head-to-head meeting between Pete Carroll’s Seahawks and the Patriots of Bill Belichick, both teams again delivered a masterpiece in a 31–24 Seahawks victory, a thriller at Gillette Stadium that once again went down to the final play.
And in a microcosm of the short-lived but epic rivalry, it came down to a mono-a-mono steel cage, death match: a 1-yard fade from Tom Brady to the two Adonises on each team, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. They locked arms, engaged in an equal shoving match, neither could make a play on the ball, and the ball fell harmlessly incomplete with no flag on the play (on that, you could almost hear the sigh of relief coming from 200 miles away in the Art McNally GameDay Central officiating command as another NFL controversy was averted on national television).
With seven lead changes, the game was great theater. And on the back of an equally compelling cross-conference clash between the Cowboys and Steelers (another seven lead changes in a 35–30 Dallas road victory; give it up for the NFC), we were reminded, with perfect timing on the Sunday after a polarizing Presidential election, of how prodigious and entertaining the NFL can be.
The kind of matchup like the one we saw Sunday, ones that feature well-coached teams, great quarterbacks, simple schemes that are (usually but not always) executed well, unmatched mental toughness and hard hitting, are few and far between. Unfortunately, what most coaching chess matches look like in today’s NFL are normally played on the checkers boards outside of a Cracker Barrel.
But that’s not the case with Carroll and Belichick.
Of their matchups against each other so far, the Seahawks have taken one on the road and one at home, with the Patriots taking the neutral-site tiebreaker 28–24 in Super Bowl XLIX, which also ended on a controversial playcall near the goal line on the final play. (Halo, the rub-route slant the Seahawks tried that was picked off by Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, it’s time to meet The Fade.)
Those three matchups between the Seahawks and Patriots have an aggregate score of Seahawks 79, Patriots 75 (the all-time series is also tied 9–9, by the way).
There was the, “You Mad Bro?” game at Seattle in 2012 that introduced a nation to the Legion of Boom and launched the Seahawks’ reign of domination in the NFC with a 24–23 victory after Seattle trailed 23–10 in the fourth quarter.
Of course, there was the, “Malcolm, Go!” Super Bowl showdown, which delivered the Patriots their fourth Super Bowl title under Belichick (first in 10 years) and thwarted Seattle’s bid to be the first team since—who else—the 2003-04 Patriots to go back-to-back.
And then there was Sunday night, which saw Russell Wilson (348 yards, three touchdowns to Doug Baldwin) and Brady (316 yards) matching each other, dime throw for dime throw, throughout the night.
The good news is that it was as much fun to play in that game as it was for us to watch.
“Oh yes,” said Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright. “That’s what guys dream of. We dream of Sunday night football. We dream of goal-line stands. We dream about getting turnovers. It’s so fun for us. We were out there talking about, ‘Finish, finish, finish. Bow up. Bow up. Don’t let them in. Don’t let them in.’ That’s something that you remember 10, 20 years down the line.”
I don’t think anyone would complain (outside of Dallas and Pittsburgh, who will each have a big say in it) about a fourth installment of Carroll v. Belichick on Feb. 5, 2017 in Houston for Super Bowl LI.
When it comes to today’s NFL, Carroll-Belichick is like a lush oasis after slogging miles through the dry desert that is the rest of the NFL slate on any given Sunday (just try watching one game in the AFC South). Unlike previous decades of the NFL, when coaches like Shula, Landry, Noll, Parcells, Walsh, Gibbs and Grant often matched wits, Belichick and Carroll are unmatched among their peers.
You got a sense after the game on Sunday night that the two combatants realize that as well. The two had a long embrace, some meaningful words and walked arm in arm for several steps. For tight-lipped Belichick, that’s a few steps shy of walking down the aisle.
“This is a really good win today because of who we just played and the kind of club this is—coaching staff, players, history, the season that they are having,” said Carroll, who likely took a lot of personal pride in delivering a victory in a place where he was summarily fired by the Patriots. “We have great respect for them and so it’s a really good accomplishment by our guys. … They do so many good things and so many great throws and catches by their best players and they made it hard on us, but when it got down to it, when you get a chance to on the 1-yard line, nothing like it in football. It’s one of the great challenges that a team and a defense gets and we’ve had some bouts down there the last few weeks and our guys just came through and hung in there and fought for every inch. And let us walk away with a win on this one, so it was a really cool night of football and it’s really because we respect them so much, is really why I say that.”
Belichick gave off the same positive vibes as well.
“They’re very well-coached,” he said. “They’re tough. They compete on every play. They have a lot of good players. They have a lot of good players who play good, as we do. It can’t get much more competitive than it was out there tonight but give them credit. They made more plays than we did. They did a little more than we did tonight. That’s why they won. … They’re good on offense, they’re good on defense, they’re good in the kicking game. Every play is competitive. There are no plays off. You’ve got to do a good job on every single play. That’s what it takes to compete against them. You can start with [Russell] Wilson. I mean you can go right down the line. I mean whoever you want—Wilson, [Richard] Sherman, the backs, the receivers, the tight end, the front, the edge rushers, secondary, the linebackers, the kick returner. Take whoever you want. They’re tough. It’s not easy to make plays against them. We made a lot of them. They made a couple more so give them credit. They deserve it tonight.”
Belichick vs. Carroll. Patriots vs. Seahawks. It’s the very best the NFL has to offer, and last night was just another example. Hopefully both teams continue to play at a high level so that we might get a fourth installment. These games are a national treasure, and we don’t want to imagine an NFL without them.