"IT COULD HAPPEN"

January 17, 2011

The Bears better beware—a playoff ambush of the Saints put Seattle's rebuilding plan ahead of schedule

In the relative quiet of the Seahawks' suburban training facility, general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll met on Sunday morning for what should have been a celebratory conversation. A day earlier the Seahawks—the first NFL team to make the postseason with a losing record (7--9) in a nonstrike season—had pulled off one of the greatest upsets in playoff history, beating the defending Super Bowl champion Saints 41--36 at Qwest Field. Yet when the coach and the G.M. sat down in Carroll's corner office overlooking scenic Lake Washington, the talk was less about what had happened and more about what needed to take place. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu had sustained a concussion late in the win, and there was concern that he might not be available for Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the Bears in Chicago. Schneider and Carroll considered their options for adding depth at the position if needed but didn't act quickly, for perhaps the first time all season.

The restraint was unusual. No team had more comings and goings than the Seahawks: In Year 1 of the Schneider-Carroll regime they made 283 roster moves. Sometimes the shuffling was out of necessity, but more often it was to create competition for playing time. Carroll used the strategy to build teams that won two national titles in his nine seasons at USC, and he and Schneider are following a similar blueprint to elevate a team that won just nine games in the two seasons before they took over in January 2010.

The Seahawks shocked the Saints despite being the largest home underdog (10½ points) in playoff history, and now they might be the most intriguing team still alive for a spot in Super Bowl XLV. The only thing more surprising than the victory is who led the Seahawks to it—a collection of veteran newcomers who landed in Seattle after being cast aside by other teams. Wide receivers Mike Williams (formerly of the Lions, Titans and Raiders) and Brandon Stokley (Ravens, Colts, Broncos) burned New Orleans with 38- and 45-yard touchdown catches, respectively. Defensive end Raheem Brock (Colts, Titans, Eagles) had a sack and forced a fumble that set up a field goal. Running back Marshawn Lynch, whom the Bills traded to the Seahawks in October, sealed the game with an epic 67-yard touchdown run in which he broke at least seven tackles. Then there was former Packers draft pick Matt Hasselbeck. He's not new to the Seahawks; in fact, the 12-year vet seemed to have worn out his welcome with Seattle fans, who booed him and mockingly chanted for his backup, Charlie Whitehurst, during his previous home start. Against the Saints, Hasselbeck completed 22 of 35 passes for 272 yards and four TDs.

The Pied Piper of this team of misfits is Carroll, whose upbeat personality was thought to be too corny and collegiate for the NFL, especially since he was fired from head coaching jobs with the Jets and the Patriots before flourishing at USC. Carroll relentlessly preaches his core values of hard work and accountability, driving home the message by giving each practice day a theme: Tell the Truth Monday, Competition Wednesday, Turnover Thursday and so on. Carroll never wavered from his positive approach even when the Seahawks' season seemed lost. After starting 4--2, they dropped seven of their next nine; each loss came by at least 15 points. Carroll admits now that there were times when his team looked as if it had "no clue."

The low point may have been a 38--15 loss at Tampa Bay on Dec. 26. "We fly down there Christmas Day, get our asses kicked, then fly all the way back here, and everybody is feeling like s---," Schneider says. "I'm sure Pete was too. But he just pulled through it and got in front of everybody and lifted them up. He has an innate ability to instill confidence in people."

But energy alone is not enough: An NFL coach has to be able to show his players how they can win. Carroll knew his team would face the Rams on the season's final weekend without Hasselbeck, who had strained a muscle in his hip. But he did a masterly job of making his players believe they could win what was essentially a playoff for the NFC West title. Seattle kept St. Louis out of the end zone, allowed a season-low 184 yards of offense and won 16--6.

Five days before facing New Orleans, Carroll sat in his office, John Mayer's Neon playing on the stereo, and recalled one of his most memorable experiences as an NFL assistant: the 1985 opener, when the Vikings, for whom Carroll was the secondary coach, played the defending champion 49ers. Before the game coach Bud Grant told his team that the keys to an upset would be limiting turnovers and keeping the score close into the fourth quarter. Grant knew the 49ers' frustration would build if they couldn't break the game open.

He was right: The Vikings kept things close, converted two fourth-quarter turnovers into touchdowns and won 28--21. Carroll saw a similar dynamic at work between his team and the Saints. "These guys are not expected to be in a close game with us, they just aren't," Carroll said of the Saints. "The longer that lasts, the more it lays over them... . They've been frustrated this year because they're not [dominating]. So they overtry. They're pissed when it's 14--3, 14--7 at the half. They go to the locker room pissing and moaning as opposed to saying, 'O.K., let's take this game to another level.' Expectations can screw you up."

By Saturday night Carroll looked clairvoyant: Seattle took a 24--20 lead into the locker room at halftime, then held on for the win with the help of a Saints defense that seemed to forget how to tackle (see Lynch, Marshawn) at big moments. The win may have earned Carroll even more credibility in his locker room, but he constantly reminds his team that the goal is to "own" the division, which means stringing together multiple NFC West crowns. He'd like to do it with a roster that is younger, bigger and homegrown; only 26 current players started their careers with the Seahawks. Seattle is at least two years from having the roster Carroll wants, but the coach says that's the beauty of this season. He has been able to instill some of his core principles while winning a playoff game ahead of schedule.

How long can the ride last? On Sunday the Seahawks will face a Bears team that they defeated 23--20 at Soldier Field on Oct. 17. If they spring another upset in Chicago and if the Packers get past the top-seeded Falcons, Seattle would, shockingly, host the NFC Championship Game at Qwest Field—where they've won five consecutive postseason games. "If we can get it cranking, a little bit of this, a little of that, who knows?" Carroll said before facing New Orleans. "We've got to be very fortunate, but it could happen. All of a sudden you catch a little bit of fire, and you start to believe. That's what the consistency builds, that's what championships build, that's what longtime success allows you to establish. That's what we're shooting for, because that's when you know you're the s---."

PETER KING'S NFC DIVISIONAL ROUND FORECAST

PACKERSatFALCONS

The Falcons are healthy, home and six weeks removed from beating Green Bay. The Pack has had 17 guys on IR, is traveling on a short week and counting on Tom Crabtree and James Starks for offensive production. The latter, after his 123 rushing yards in the win in Philly, said, "I'm shocked." He should be ready for more.

Packers 24, Falcons 21

SEAHAWKSatBEARS

Cinderella actually won in October at Soldier Field. Seattle's hopes rest on Matt Hasselbeck's hitting the lottery as he did in the stunner over New Orleans. For the Bears to lose, they'll have to turn it over, which Jay Cutler has been known to do. But I sense a big day on the lakefront for Chicago running back Matt Forte.

Bears 23, Seahawks 20

PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (LYNCH)PROVING THEIR POINT Lynch's epic run (left) and Hasselbeck's four TD passes landed the Hawks in Chicago, where they were winners in Week 6. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (HASSELBECK)[See caption above] FOUR PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)