SEATTLE – Inside a mostly empty Seahawks locker room late Saturday, Thomas Rawls limped toward his locker. His ankles appeared bruised and swollen, and he stepped gingerly, shuffling a few inches at a time across the blue carpet underfoot.
Rawls sat down, took a deep breath and stared off into space. He stayed that way for a minute, saying nothing. His trance was interrupted by his coach, Pete Carroll, who was strolling past in a dark overcoat on his way out of CenturyLink Field after the Seahawks toppled the Lions, 26–6, in their wild-card matchup. Carroll knelt on both knees and Rawls leaned forward and Carroll whispered something in his ear. As Carroll walked away, Rawls grinned and shook his head.
Twenty minutes later, the locker room was empty except for Rawls and the equipment managers. He was asked what Carroll had said to him. “Great to see me out there, basically,” Rawls said. “He told me I looked like me again.”
That last part is important for Seattle and its playoff hopes. It wasn’t long ago that pundits tabbed the Seahawks as Super Bowl contenders—Nov. 20, to be exact, after back-to-back statement wins over the Patriots and Eagles. That was before the dud in Tampa, the drubbing in Wisconsin, the home loss to Arizona. That was before the offensive line regressed, before Seattle limped into the playoffs, its run game ranked 25th.
In the previous four seasons, the Seahawks finished third, first, fourth and third in the NFL in rushing. That was their formula: run the ball, play stout defense, major in clock management and advance deep into the playoffs. Then Marshawn Lynch retired before the 2016 season and Seattle used 19 different ball carriers and Rawls suffered a hairline fracture in his left fibula in late September—just nine months after a broken ankle ended his ’15 campaign.
Thus the Seahawks entered their opening playoff game against the Lions with a leading rusher, Christine Michael, who was no longer on their team. (Michael, cut by the Seahawks, plays for the Packers.) They had gained only 87 rushing yards against the 49ers' league-worst run defense in the regular-season finale.
As Seattle prepped for Detroit, Seahawks cornerback DeShawn Shead said he noticed how sharp Rawls looked in practice, how he bounced between plays as if overcaffeinated. Rawls, Shead said, looked like he wanted to play Wednesday.
On Saturday, Rawls carried early and carried often. He ran off tackle, up the middle, around both ends. He galloped down field on a 32-yard run in the second half, looking like his friend and mentor Lynch without the dreadlocks, spinning away from defenders, running over them. He carried 27 times and gained a franchise-playoff-record 161 yards and scored a touchdown.
More important—most important—he added balance and dimension to a Seahawks offense that looked more like, well, a Seahawks offense. “I’m telling you,” Carroll said. “That’s the game we’ve been looking for.”
Obligatory disclaimer paragraph: the Seahawks did this against the Lions, the sixth seed in the NFC, a team that recorded eight of its nine wins this season by seven points or less. The Falcons team Seattle will meet next weekend in Atlanta scored an NFL-high 540 points this season. The Falcons have a better offense than Detroit, a better team than Detroit and a far better chance of ending the Seahawks' season. Seattle also isn’t likely to again benefit from a number of freak plays that happened Saturday—like wideout Paul Richardson’s one-handed, reach-around touchdown catch (which he should have been flagged on for a facemask penalty) or receiver Doug Baldwin’s butt grab (he literally caught the ball by pinning it to his backside).
All that said, if the Seahawks are going to make a playoff run—emphasis on if—the way they played on Saturday, how they beat the Lions, that’s the blueprint. That is how it will look. The Seahawks rushed for 177 yards and limited the Lions to 49 yards on the ground. Seattle held the ball for 36:39, compared to 23:21 for Detroit. “That’s definitely the formula,” Shead said. “That’s how we’re supposed to play.”
Shead said this at his locker, as celebration erupted all around. The Seahawks seemed looser than they had in recent weeks, as if they knew they had not played their best football in December and had watched as the pundits predicted that the Packers and Giants, teams seeded lower than them, were better equipped to challenge Dallas and Atlanta for NFC supremacy. Tupac’s “Can’t C Me” blared from the speakers in the locker room as center Justin Britt called this the offensive line’s best run game of the season. Cornerback Richard Sherman held court with national writers, drama free. Richardson carried around a pair of gold high-tops laden with spikes.
“I had my feet propped up on the sideline,” linebacker K.J. Wright said. “It was fun watching (the run game) melt that clock.”
That’s what happened Sunday. As Carroll noted, Rawls looked like himself again and so did the Seahawks and that will mark either an aberration or the start of a run few saw coming at the beginning of 2017.