Seriously, how did the Seattle Seahawks win that?
Russell Wilson was crying. Michael Bennett was riding a bicycle across the field. Seahawks fans motioned like Sounders fans do. How on earth did it come to this?
The defending champion are returning to the Super Bowl for the second straight year after one of the most staggering finishes to an NFL game in the history of the league. Green Bay, who had a great season, really threw this one away. But more on that later. For now, let’s take you into the game with the Packers up 19-7 and under three minutes remaining in regulation.
2:13 on the clock, Seattle has a third-and-goal at the one. Wilson runs the read option, faking to Marshawn Lynch — much, much more on him soon — and takes it in himself for the score. After the extra point, lack of time means Pete Carroll calls for the onside kick. Still with me? I hope so, because this is where the fun really began. Well, not so much for a certain rookie.
Kicker Steven Hauschka was one-for-four on his previous onside attempts, but up he looped the ball as Jordy Nelson, Green Bay’s best pair of hands, was honing in on it. Unaware of the bafflement the assured Nelson was about to endure, rookie Brandon Bostick said be damned to his blocking duty and henceforth miscued the ball before watching it and into the hands of Chris Matthews. A clear case of Bostick failing to make it stick.
Lynch was dancing and jigging on the sideline before any of the above had happened, leading to many perhaps thinking he doesn’t have the mind-set to be taken seriously, his teams’ season, at that point, looking perilously close to its end. But who are we to translate what the all-powerful running back is really thinking? Maybe he was loosening up, preparing himself for his next big play: a 24-yard touchdown run down the left sideline to give Seattle a one-point advantage; their first lead of the game. With just over a minute to play, Seattle went for two to go up by a field goal margin. Wilson scrambled backwards, then right before floating one up. Two interceptions in the game already, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix surprisingly laid off Luke Willson, who went up and grabbed it.
Aaron Rodgers was Aaron Rodgers on his final drive, setting up a Mason Crosby 48-yard field goal to send it to overtime.
Tails never fails? Incorrect. Seattle won the toss with a heads landing face up, and as usual we witnessed Wilson become ice cool and accurate when the pressure and stakes are at their peak. On 3rd-and-6, Wilson stepped up and pinpointed Doug Baldwin for 35 yards, right in stride.
Ball at the Green Bay 35, locked at 22-22 and a at stake. Wilson knows a touchdown will win it and sees Jermaine Kearse in single coverage down field, so he goes exactly there. Kearse comes down with it, and the 68,538-man frenzy ensued.
It felt necessary to run over the key plays, if not for simply how staggering that conclusion was. The largest ever halftime deficit overcome in the championship round was 15 points. Seattle were down 16-0 after 30 minutes. Wilson threw four interceptions in the game, the most of his career. Heck, Jon Ryan’s touchdown pass hasn’t even been mentioned (3-for-3, 77 yards and a TD for his fledgling passing career now).
But as seems to be the case every time the Legion Of Boom face adversity, they come back and hit harder. Seattle scored 15 points in 44 seconds during that fourth quarter stretch. Sure, Green Bay seemed to let this one get away — more on that below — but perhaps it was always to be Seattle’s day. Leaving the best stat until last, the way Wilson likes it best: Seattle were 0-5 with four interceptions targeting Jermaine Kearse prior to his game-winning touchdown.
That’s crazy. Just like the end of this game. Green Bay heads home. Seattle move on. MW
Brady and Belichick still have the magic
There were just over three minutes left to play at Gillette Stadium when Bill Belichick pulled the plug on Tom Brady’s evening. A few moments earlier, the Patriots head coach had watched Colts defensive tackle Corey Redding bust through the line and crash into his quarterback’s knee. No damage appeared to have been done as Brady sprung gamely back to his feet. But nor were there any good reasons to leave the player in harm’s way, with the Patriots holding a 38-point lead.
A more cautious coach would have pulled Brady out of this game much sooner. But that has never been Belichick’s way. The best part of a decade has passed since his Patriots kicked off a national debate about sporting decency by late in a 56-10 rout of the Buffalo Bills. It would not be the last time his teams were criticised for “running up the score.”
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of such behaviour (and few subjects seem to divide opinion among fans more readily), it was easy enough to empathise with Belichick’s desire to keep Brady out on the field on this particular evening.
Perhaps the coach was thinking only of victory, of leaving nothing to chance after the topsy-turvy end to this year’s NFC title game. But maybe he was simply savouring a moment in time while it lasted. Talk of Peyton Manning’s possible retirement over the last few days has reminded us all of how suddenly a sporting career can arrive at its conclusion. Brady, one year Manning’s junior, could be around for several years yet, but equally we cannot take that prospect for granted.
Both players will, of course, be remembered among the greatest ever to play the game. Victory on Sunday made Brady just the second player in history to reach six Super Bowls in his career, after the defensive tackle Mike Lodish. A win over the Seahawks two weeks from now would allow Brady to join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowl rings.
That achievement would be rendered all the sweeter by the fact this year’s title game is being hosted at the University of Phoenix Stadium — scene of Brady’s greatest career disappointment. Seven years ago, his Patriots arrived in Arizona with a perfect 18-0 record, seeking to become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to go through an entire season undefeated. Instead, Brady was upstaged by Eli Manning and the New York Giants in a stunning 17-14 upset.
To wipe away those memories on 1 February, he might need make a sharper start than he did on Sunday night. Through two quarters at Gillette Stadium, Brady actually played pretty poorly — completing just 11 of 21 passes for 95 yards. He had pitched a one-yard touchdown to James Develin in the first quarter, but offset that success by getting picked off by D’Qwell Jackson in the second. Brady closed out the half by missing on three consecutive throws to the end zone from the three-yard line.
It speaks to the Patriots’ overall superiority that they still withdrew to the locker room holding a 17-7 lead. At their sloppy worst, they had still been too good for Indianapolis. So it was hardly surprising to see the game degenerate into a 45-7 rout once New England’s offense found its rhythm after the interval.
Belichick deployed a variety of different looks and schemes on offense, and seemed to succeed with all of them. At times, the Patriots lined up with four offensive linemen — using an ineligible receiver split out wide, as they had against Baltimore in the divisional round. For other plays, they went in the opposite direction, adding a sixth lineman to create a heavy run-blocking set, as they had during their regular-season win over Indianapolis.
Both schemes worked to perfection, allowing New England to pile up 397 net yards by the end of the game. So did the ruse to throw a pass to offensive tackle Nate Solder in the third quarter. He took it 16 yards to the end zone to become the heaviest player ever to catch a touchdown pass in the postseason, .
Belichick’s scheming had taken the pressure off Brady early on, ensuring that the offense kept rolling even when the passing game was stalling. And once quarterback did find his range in the second-half, the Patriots looked unstoppable.
It is that merging of talents which makes New England so dangerous, and has done now for 15 years. This was Brady and Belichick’s 20th playoff win together, and they are still not finished quite yet. As Brady put it at the podium after the game, “hopefully our best is yet to come.” PB
More than Luck is needed for Colts to take the next step
For the Colts, this was a painfully familiar story. Indianapolis had met the Patriots three times in three seasons since hiring Chuck Pagano as head coach, and given up more than 40 points on each occasion.
To achieve a different outcome this time around, they needed to do something that they had failed to do in either of the previous two meetings: slow down New England’s running game. Not by accident had Jonas Gray trampled the Colts for 201 yards and four touchdowns in week 11 of this season, or LeGarrette Blount for 166 yards and the same number of scores in last season’s divisional playoff.
Belichick had found a weakness and exploited it. The Patriots ran the ball on more than 60% of their offensive plays against Indianapolis in those two meetings. In games against other opponents over the last two seasons, they had done so less than 40% of the time.
“If we don’t get that fixed and they’re able to run the ball the way that they’ve run it the last couple meetings, then we’re going to have a long, hard day,” acknowledged Chuck Pagano on Wednesday. But whatever plans his staff put into place in practice this week would be undone by abysmal tackling.
Baltimore had provided a model for slowing down New England’s ground game in this year’s divisional round, restricting the Patriots to just 14 yards on 13 carries. But Brady alone would rush for 13 yards against Indianapolis, making linebacker Jerrell Freeman look foolish as he at the end of the first-half. Blount piled up another 148 yards and three touchdowns on his 30 carries, exploiting the Colts’ relentlessly poor angles of pursuit with one cutback after another.
It was an embarrassing defensive performance from the Colts, whose players had spoken of turning a corner after they restricted the Bengals and Broncos to 10 and 13 points respectively this postseason.
This was a game, though, that exposed weaknesses on both sides of the ball.
Andrew Luck struggled at quarterback, just as he has in every meeting with New England so far. A pair of interceptions mean that he has now turned the ball over 10 times in three visits to Gillette Stadium.
But his stat line in these games has also been affected by the struggles of those players alongside him. Indianapolis’s repeated defensive collapses against New England mean that Luck has typically been playing from behind from an early stage.
That was the case again on Sunday, although more than the defense it was Josh Cribbs who deserved to shoulder the blame. His muffed punt sent the Patriots up with a short field after their opening series had gone three-and-out. New England did not need a second invitation. Six plays later, Blount piled into the end zone for the first touchdown of the day.
Luck has also been let down by his teammates on offense. The Colts’ receivers dropped more passes than their counterparts on any other team this season, and running back Dan Herron let the ball slip through his fingers twice in the first quarter on Sunday. His second such error came on a beautifully lofted pass from Luck down the right sideline with the score still 7-0 to New England. Had Herron pulled it in, he would have strolled into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown.
There is no suggestion, after a game decided by 38 points, that such a play could have turned this game. But as they contemplate a fourth consecutive humiliation by New England, the Colts must consider what can be done to avoid another such outcome in future. Luck is still an imperfect quarterback, but his talents are not in doubt. More is required from the Colts’ supporting cast to help him become all that he can be. PB
Packers can only blame themselves after NFC title game
Watching Green Bay’s defence on Sunday night in Seattle, it was enough to mistake the 12th man in thinking their team were playing in a different uniform. The Packers were relentless in pressuring Russell Wilson to five sacks, the quarterback consistently losing yards on balls he should have thrown away at times. The Packers also forced five turnovers, intercepting Wilson three times in the first half alone. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had two picks, the first time he has ever reached that total in both college and the pros.
Many a missed chance and ghastly mistakes mean they aren’t preparing for a Super Bowl in Arizona in two weeks’ time and Seattle are. Green Bay prevented the former from attaining a first down until seven minutes remaining in the second half, shutting Pete Carroll’s men down so much so that only 19 total yards had been achieved when that initial first down finally came.
When Sam Shields picked off Wilson in the end zone at the end of the first half, the former Wisconsin man had completed 1-of-8 passing for 14 yards and three picks. Green Bay led 17-0 going into the half, knowing it would take a monumental fight back from Seattle to stop them advancing. Yes, a fight back for the ages eventually happened, but basic mistakes led the game to that.
Brandon Bostick was set up to block during the onside kick which Seattle recovered. He had nothing to do with catching the ball, absolutely no business getting in the way of Jordy Nelson who was behind him and honing in. Bostick dropped it, shambolically and devastatingly, saying after the loss: “I let my team down. There was a lot riding on this game and my assignment was to block. I feel like I let everybody down.”
He wasn’t the only one. Clinton-Dix, who already had two sacks in the game and dropped the chance for a third, was covering Luke Willson during that crucial two-point conversion that put Seattle up three in the fourth quarter. Wilson’s pass was pure hope; as receivers scrambled to get open it felt like a lifetime before the ball surfaced on the goal line. As Willson went up for the ball, Clinton-Dix seemed to be in two minds, forgetting for a split second that this was rather an important game. He didn’t try and break the play up and Seattle moved up three. Mason Crosby’s field goal on the ensuing drive would have won the game if the conversion was dealt with properly.
Just as crucial were Green Bay’s second and third drives of the encounter, when both ended on the one-yard line and a potential 14 points instead turning to six.
Aaron Rodgers said afterward: “I was very confident we were going to win the game. You simply can’t let them convert a touchdown on a fake field goal. You can’t give up an onside kick and you can’t not get any first downs in the fourth quarter and expect to win.
“That’s on top of being really poor in the red zone in the first half. Put it all together; that’s how you lose games.” Certainly not the blueprint Green Bay will want to carry over into next season. Mike McCarthy was thoroughly out-coached by Seattle’s Carroll, he and his players failing to execute when they were expected to. That’s why they lost this game. MW
• Still no word on Peyton Manning’s future, but the end might just be in sight after the Broncos . As offensive coordinator of the Ravens this last year, and head coach of the Texans before that, Kubiak has shown a preference for mobile quarterbacks who can roll out of the pocket to create different openings downfield. He showed little interest in bringing Manning to Houston back when the quarterback left Indianapolis in 2012 — despite reports that the player was keen on his team. For now, the only firm update we have on Manning is that he will miss the Pro Bowl due to his thigh injury. So if he does not return next season, then we have already seen his final game.
• Four days after parting ways with the Broncos, John Fox to take over as head coach of the Bears. Having coached for a combined 13 seasons in Denver and Carolina, he is certainly an experienced hire (and that, in itself, represents a ), but only time will tell if he is the right one. Fox will have his hands full fixing a defense that was horribly neglected under Marc Trestman, and has big decisions to make at quarterback, where Jay Cutler is just one season into a seven-year, $126.7m contract. None of which kept the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Rosenbloom from .
• The Atlanta Falcons plan to hire as their head coach, according to various reports on Sunday night. Seattle’s improbable victory means they will have to wait a little longer to make that official.
• Yet another contender for .
• Ah, the poignancy of .
• And is why you never leave a game early.
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