SEATTLE – Two hours before kickoff the goalposts at CenturyLink Field were swaying like aspens. Sodden 12th Man civilians were writing off high-priced REI raingear as a blown investment. And the New Orleans Saints’ careful preparations for their rematch with the Seattle Seahawks were already being unraveled by an imprudent strategy:
There was Jimmy Graham, premier tight end, still in shorts and a sweat top, woofing at Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin and gesturing madly, looking far too hot and bothered for someone who had yet to yoke himself into his shoulder pads and take a hit.
And you could almost predict what Graham would do next.
Nothing. Not a damned thing.
It’s not exactly the same as tugging on Superman’s cape, but beating the Seahawks in the Clink is no Caribbean cruise and it’s probably not going to be greased by trying to outbark them first.
And so it went Saturday, a 23-15 Seattle victory that sends the Seahawks to the NFC Championship game for the first time since 2005 – precisely the kind of imperfect masterpiece that has become their favorite conceit.
Or how did defensive end Michael Bennett put it?
“Even when we play bad,” he said, “it’s good.”
Of course, it’s that time of year when they might want to consider a more traditional approach to greatness.
Not that we’re talking about motel-room artwork.
If the Seahawks weren’t stiflingly dominant in the first half, they still took a 16-0 lead into recess. If they played rope-a-dope the entire third quarter, it’s because they saw no need to do something stupid during their last dance into the 20 mph winds. And if they had to sweat out muffing an onsides kick and some last misbegotten trickery from the Saints at the end, well, as another football team in this state can attest, stuff happens.
The funny thing is, even with that smidgen of drama at the end, the Saints’ probability of pulling it out seemed only marginally better than when they were drilled 34-7 here on a Monday night a month ago.
This is what the Seahawks do, and somewhere there’s an identity in that.
A defensive identity, at any rate.
“You want to be one of the best defenses anytime you get on the field,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, never at a loss for pronouncements. “You want to put the best product out there. You want to show what we’re capable of.
“We’re going to be disappointed with our performance today. Some plays we left out there, some turnovers we left out there. That’s uncharacteristic of our defense.”
A defense that has aspirations, he admitted, of becoming “legendary – like the Pittsburgh Steelers, the ’85 Bears, the Buccaneers that year.”
Naturally, that’s not going to happen without winning a Super Bowl, and that’s not what the Seahawks did on Saturday.
But they did hold the gifted Graham to one pointless catch in the game’s final minute, mixing zone defenses with rotating individual attention from Sherman, safety Kam Chancellor and various linebackers. And make no mistake, Graham got their attention.
“It’s hard coming in here talking a big game,” Sherman said. “It’s a wolves’ den – a lamb coming to the wolves, throwing meat at them, slapping them in the face. He got us riled up. He woke up the DB group – and that’s the last group you want to wake up.”
Bennett was a little more pointed.
“Nobody likes Jimmy Graham,” he told KIRO radio. “I think he’s one of the softest players in the NFL. I think he’s overrated. I really don’t like him as a person or a player.”
None of the Seahawks were saying that about Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who turned what started to be another nightmarish performance here – he completed all of two passes beyond the line of scrimmage by halftime – into a 309-yard show. But he also was pressured into misfires on two fourth-down passes, and took a third-down sack that pushed the Saints out of field goal range. And even when New Orleans did get close enough to kick, Shayne Graham couldn’t cope with the wind.
“Our guys are tough to go against,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll, though he conceded “it was killing us in the first half to have to watch” the Saints gouge out some big runs. But Seattle also popped a ball loose from Saints running back Mark Ingram, which the offense turned into six points.
“I think we have the right to be confident,” said safety Earl Thomas, “just by the way we play every week. I always say we’re going to make a lot of history here. It might not be this year, but it’s going to come.”
Then again, it just might be this year.