Thirty years of covering the NFL demands you have perspective after a night like last night. After all, it’s Week 2. Arizona won in Foxboro in Week 2 last year. Peyton Manning threw three interceptions in the first nine minutes in Week 2 last year. Strange things happen in September, before true patterns develop.
But it’s hard not to wonder this about the NFC playoff race: If Seattle wins home-field advantage, what team is going into that cauldron of sound and fury, CenturyLink Field, and winning a football game? I mean, the 49ers are really good, the best team on a given day in football. In their last two games in Seattle, they’ve lost by a combined 71-16, scoring one touchdown. Their backs have rushed for 2.8 yards a carry. They’ve been penalized 179 yards. San Francisco has been a hot mess in only one place since 2012 dawned—Seattle—and no one can tell me it doesn’t have a lot to do with the crowd.
It was so loud, Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor told me, that the Seattle defense, which normally has an edge when the crowd is going nuts, had trouble hearing middle linebacker Bobby Wagner call the plays in the defensive huddle. The defense had to use hand signals for those who didn’t hear what Wagner was saying, even in a tight huddle. But it was still a huge edge for Seattle, because obviously it was impossible for Colin Kaepernick to communicate in any way but a non-verbal one. On the Niners’ third futile series of the game, they had a false start and a delay of game in a three-play stretch, and the delay whipped the crowd into a more feverish pitch. Probably the most amazing thing is the place was louder after the 60-minute weather delay, and after halftime: It got to 136.6 decibels in the third quarter, 16.6 decibels louder than the sound generated by a jet engine on an open runway.
“What an amazing night for the 12th Man,’’ Seattle coach Pete Carroll said after his team embarrassed San Francisco 29-3 in a strange affair featuring a one-hour lightning delay. “I’ve been coaching a long time … I’ve never heard a crowd like that. What a frickin’ night for those fans. Our guys felt it. They played to it.”
“It was electric,’’ cornerback Richard Sherman, the star of the show, told me from Seattle. “You could cut the energy in the stadium with a knife. It was different from a regular game—so loud I could feel it in my chest, and it gave me energy.’’
Seattle hasn’t lost at home since Christmas Eve 2011. Nine straight wins. Average score of the last four of those wins: 37-8. That’s why the Seahawks know how important home-field advantage in the playoffs is. Last year, as the fifth playoff seed, Seattle traveled to Washington in the wild-card round and won, then to Atlanta in the divisional round and lost on a long field goal in the final seconds. Had they won that game, they’d have had to play the NFC title game at San Francisco.
The same scenario could play out this year: the Niners or Seahawks winning the top seed in the NFC, and the second-place team in the division earning a wild-card spot and needing three road wins in 15 or 16 days to make the Super Bowl. Which is why Pete Carroll had his team trained well in the wee hours of this morning. “This wasn’t the Super Bowl tonight,’’ said Sherman. “We haven’t won anything yet. We have to act like we’ve been here before. This was just another game, to tell you the truth.’’
No one believes that. And Sherman certainly didn’t act like that in the days before the game. On Thursday, when it looked like fellow starting corner Brandon Browner wasn’t going to play because of a strained hamstring, Sherman went to his coaches to ask if he could shadow Anquan Boldin in certain schemes. Normally, Sherman is the left corner. Period. He moved around to shadow Buffalo’s Stevie Johnson some last season, but mostly he stays left. “The coaches said it was fine,’’ said Sherman. “Sunday night football, everybody is watching, so watch this. I had him when he was split out, when he was in the left slot, right slot. Didn’t matter.’’ Sherman covered Boldin on about 75 percent of the snaps. Last week the Niners receiver caught 12 balls for 208 yards. This week: one for seven yards. And that one catch wasn’t when Sherman was in coverage.
“It makes me feel good—like I can execute a game plan the way it’s called,’’ Sherman said. “But no, I’m not surprised.”
The Seattle secondary played with anvils in the their shoulder pads, and the pass rush (minus the suspended Bruce Irvin and rehabbing Chris Clemons, who accounted for 19.5 combined sacks last year) buzzed around Kaepernick all game. The Seahawks’ front never let Frank Gore breathe. San Francisco backs ran 11 times and gained 13 yards. They’d better figure a way to run it by the time of the rematch Dec. 8 in Candlestick.
The Seahawks were on their best behavior early this morning. No bulletin board stuff from them. They know the truth, and the 49ers do too: If the road to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle, it’s going to be the biggest disadvantage in recent football history for the road team.