MINNEAPOLIS — His white pants were smeared with blood, his heart was pumping at an advanced rate and his brain was buzzing with possibility. As Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett bounded up the tunnel toward the visitors’ locker room at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon, he excitedly solicited the wisdom of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, the team’s resident brainiac, in an effort to understand the potential playoff-seeding implications of their just-completed 38-7 thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings.
“We might be the six (seed) right now, but we could pass these guys for the five — and who knows, we could catch Arizona and win the division,” Sherman told Bennett. “There’s a lot yet to be decided. But you know what? It might not even matter.”
The conversation continued amid the loud strains of the mid-’90s Tupac/Snoop Dogg classic “2 Of Americaz Most Wanted” blaring from inside the locker room. Then Bennett and Sherman — two of America’s most accomplished defenders — went in to join a party that was surprisingly raucous, given that the game in question had merely improved the two-time defending NFC champions to 7-5.
Had outsiders been privy to the scene of 64-year-old coach Pete Carroll doling out hyped-up huzzahs as his players roared and chanted in unison, they would have thought, in Sherman’s words, “It was some high school kids who just were told they get to play football for a living… Yeah, we were excited; yeah, we love this game.”
Oh, and one more thing: “It seems our demise is greatly overstated.”
After watching Seattle swallow up the Vikings (8-4) from start to finish on the road, the rest of America — and especially the citizens employed by the league’s other playoff contenders — might be starting to get that old, sinking feeling. And with good reason: It’s December, and the ‘Hawks appear to be getting quite serious, as per custom.
“When we play like ourselves, nobody can stop us,” Bennett said. “We’ve made some changes on our team, this team, and we’ve been adjusting, and now we’re playing together. There’s so much pressure on us, and we’ve got to get back to loving the game and each other and just having fun. Today, we were grooving.”
And if the Seahawks do, in fact, have their groove back? Well, the playoff picture potentially got a lot more interesting. Though Seattle remains three games behind the Cardinals in the NFC West and would be the conference’s sixth and final seed if the season ended today, its performance Sunday in front of 52,430 fans surely reverberated across the football universe.
In registering a de facto shutout — the Vikings’ lone points came on a 101-yard kickoff return by Cordarrelle Patterson late in the third quarter — the Seahawks’ defense looked as fast and furious as it did in its Super Bowl XLVIII annihilation of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos two years ago. Seattle limited Minnesota to 125 total yards, including only 18 on the ground by NFL rushing leader and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson.
After the game Peterson — who had proclaimed his high regard for second-year Vikings coach Mike Zimmer in my feature on “NFL GameDay Morning” — was frustrated enough to tell reporters, “(The Seahawks) were just the better team. They were more aggressive, more physical, and they outcoached us as well.” Asked to elaborate on the outcoaching part, Peterson said, “In so many different areas.”
Seattle also made things miserable for second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who completed 17 of 28 passes (most of them under duress) for 118 yards, absorbed four sacks and served up a pivotal interception to All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas late in the first half, setting up the dagger of a touchdown that made it 21-0 heading into intermission.
“He was so scared,” said linebacker Bruce Irvin, who had one of the Seattle sacks. “Teddy’s a really good quarterback, and he’s going to do some big things in this league. But we had him (rattled).”
While Bennett (one sack, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries) continued his outrageously impactful play of 2015, it should be noted that two of the sacks on Bridgewater came courtesy of rookie Frank Clark — who, like Bennett, is a lineman versatile enough to be moved inside on certain snaps, as was the case on Sunday. Like the Seahawks weren’t scary enough before Clark arrived.
“That’s the Seahawks we know,” Irvin said of his team’s performance. “When we’re clicking on offense and defense, it’s hard to beat us.”
Offensively, undrafted rookie running back Thomas Rawls (19 carries, 101 yards) had another productive game filling in for injured star Marshawn Lynch, who remains sidelined in the wake of sports-hernia surgery. Rawls benefitted from a line that has improved considerably since Patrick Lewis was inserted as the starting center last month.
Oh, and Russell Wilson is flat-out ridiculous right now, even after injuries to his most celebrated weapons: Lynch and tight end Jimmy Graham, who underwent season-ending surgery after tearing his patellar tendon in the previous Sunday’s 39-30 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Not a problem. Wilson, coming off a five-touchdown performance against the Steelers, put up impressive numbers again Sunday. He completed 21 of 27 passes for 274 yards and three TDs, and picked up 51 yards and another score on nine runs.
But forget all that: The degree to which Wilson is in the zone can be encapsulated by a two-play sequence that took place toward the end of the third quarter.
On second-and-1 from Seattle’s 47, Wilson ran a bootleg to his left, left a pair of Vikings defenders flat-footed and raced into the end zone for an apparent 53-yard score. However, a holding penalty of tight end Luke Willson — enforced 10 yards downfield at the spot of the foul — nullified the play and sent the ‘Hawks back to their 47 for another second-and-1 snap.
From a spread formation, Wilson recognized a defense he knew well: “The same one,” said veteran wideout Doug Baldwin, “that we saw against the Packers before his game-winning pass (to Jermaine Kearse in overtime of the NFC championship game).”
“They brought the blitz,” Wilson said, smiling, when we spoke alone near his locker after the game. “I’m trying not to give too much away.”
If only the Vikings had been so lucky. Wilson’s audible isolated Baldwin in single coverage, and as the quarterback absorbed a waist-level hit from linebacker Eric Kendricks, he lofted a rainbow of a pass that could not have been any sweeter, setting up a 53-yard scoring play that would push Seattle’s lead to 35-0.
Every game, all season
“I looked up, and it was already there,” said Baldwin, who caught the pass at the 25-yard line with safety Antone Exum Jr. in futile pursuit. “And the truth is, I messed up my route. I was supposed to go a certain way, and I did something different. I think (Wilson) read my body language. Or maybe he messed it up too, I don’t know.
“It’s just Russ. He’s just unbelievable right now. He’s playing out of his mind.”
During the Seahawks’ current three-game winning streak, Wilson has thrown 11 touchdown passes with zero interceptions, while running for another score. And with upcoming games against a trio of struggling teams (Ravens, Browns and Rams), it’s starting to look like the red-hot ‘Hawks may well be 10-5 heading into their rematch with the Cardinals in Arizona for the regular-season finale.
Remember last season, when the Seahawks struggled to a 3-3 start before winning 11 of their next 12 and coming within a yard (too soon?) of capturing a second consecutive championship?
Suddenly, all of this year’s drama — the Kam Chancellor holdout, the failure to integrate Graham into the offense, the apparent leveling off of the Legion of Boom, the blown fourth-quarter leads and the 2-4 start — looks like it might be consigned to the same dustbin of history.
Pro Bowl ballot
“It’s not planned that way,” Thomas insisted. “We just seem to gravitate naturally toward these situations.”
Said Chancellor, Thomas’ fellow Pro Bowl safety: “We’ve got this saying: ‘The closer you get, the harder you run.’ That’s just how we are, and we’re finding out a lot about ourselves now.”
As Carroll headed toward the team bus, he smiled and added, “It’s that time. We’re like a horse that loves to run.”
And though it’s quite possible that catching Arizona may not be in the cards, the Seahawks’ swag is once again palpable, and Sunday’s performance gave them a sense that bigger things may be on the immediate horizon.
“We’re not all into messages,” Sherman said. “But if people thought we were gone, maybe there’s a message to them: We’re battle-tested. We’ve got a championship pedigree. Some people say that. Some people live that. We know how to play in big games. We know how to overcome adversity.”
In other words: While he and Bennett can spend as much time as they want breaking down playoff scenarios, it may well turn out that the Seahawks — even as a wild card — are the opponent other NFC teams aspire to avoid.
“We don’t care about any of that (crap),” Irvin said. “We just wanna get in, bro. We know what it takes to get to the big dance. Now we just have to do it.”
As Sherman prepared to exit the Vikings’ temporary home at the University of Minnesota (their new downtown stadium will be ready for 2016), he smiled and echoed his teammate’s sentiment.
“It doesn’t matter what seed we get,” he said. “When we’re rolling, we’ll go anywhere and play anyone.”
As of Sunday, they’re officially rolling.