SEATTLE – Rain fell. Wind blew.
And the Saints came marching in, hoping for a little revenge and a spot in the NFC championship game.
When it finally ended, though, it was the Seahawks who were marching on to within a game of the Super Bowl, thanks to a 23-15 victory in front of a CenturyLink Field-record crowd of 68,388 on Saturday.
And afterward, in a locker room that was happy but understanding that work remains, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson reminded his teammates of just how close they now are to the goal they set the minute they walked off the field in Atlanta a year ago.
“We’ve got 60 minutes left of football,” Wilson said. “That’s 60 minutes of your life. The best 60 minutes you can possibly play and then you play in the Super Bowl. That’s pretty awesome to think about.”
And ultimately, that reality was all that really mattered on a day that began as a party and ended with some unexpected anxiety as the Saints three times in the fourth quarter had the ball with a chance to tie the game.
“This was an interesting finish to this game,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
Indeed, Seattle led 16-0 at halftime, seemingly on their way to another victory as easy as their 34-7 beatdown of the Saints on Dec. 2.
Instead, the Saints finally began to creep back in as the Seahawks managed one first down in the third quarter.
Even after Marshawn Lynch’s 31-yard touchdown run with 2:40 left put Seattle ahead 23-8 and seemed to seal it, the Saints created a little heartburn with a touchdown and then a recovery of an onside kick that slid through the hands of Seahawks receiver Golden Tate with 24 seconds left.
The game, though, ended in somewhat fitting fashion for a mistake-prone Saints team – a penalty for an illegal forward pass on the final play.
While the Saints’ Drew Brees ended up with 309 passing yards, only 34 came in the first half as the Seahawks grabbed a lead they would never relinquish. The defense helped set up Seattle’s first TD by forcing a New Orleans fumble at the 24.
Two field goals by Steven Hauschka, who had little trouble kicking through the wind and the rain, gave Seattle a 6-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Hauschka’s second kick came after his counterpart, Shayne Graham, missed a 45-yarder.
Michael Bennett then forced a Mark Ingram fumble on the first play of the second quarter to set up a 15-yard TD run by Lynch to make it 13-0.
And another Haushcka field goal then made it 16-0 at halftime.
That forced New Orleans, which came in committed to try to run more than it had in the December game, to begin altering its strategy.
The Saints moved at times, getting inside Seattle territory on five of its first six drives of the second half.
But New Orleans could score only two TDs, once failing on a fourth down and then seeing Graham miss another field goal from 48 yards with the score 16-8 and just 3:51 left in the game.
At that point, Seattle had just two first downs in the second half. Carroll said the Seahawks were careful in what they called in the third quarter when they were often deep in their own territory and going into the wind.
“We didn’t want to make crucial mistakes when we were backed up,” Carroll said. “So we just played good grind-it-out football.”
But facing a third-and-three at their own 45 and 2:57 left, the Seahawks decided to throw caution to all that wind blowing around. Wilson, seeing New Orleans ready to blitz, dropped back and threw to Doug Baldwin, who was in man coverage down the sideline. Baldwin made the catch tumbling out of bounds (the reception was confirmed after official review) for 24 yards.
“It couldn’t have been more clutch,” Carroll said.