SEATTLE — With 6:27 to go in the first quarter Monday night, the ground shook beneath CenturyLink Field, where defensive end Michael Bennett grabbed a fumble out of the air and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown. Four and a half minutes later, when Zach Miller’s two-yard catch pushed the Seahawks’ lead to 17-0 over the Saints, the ground shook again. Only this time it was beneath the NFC.
The Seahawks turned what was supposed to be a showdown into a beatdown, dominating the Saints 34-7 and serving notice that the NFC’s road to the Super Bowl will almost certainly go through the Pacific Northwest, where Seattle has won its last 14 games by an average of 31-13. When the demolition of New Orleans was complete and All-Pro QB Drew Brees had been held to 147 yards passing, his lowest total in seven years, the only ones who walked away unimpressed were the Seahawks.
“I’m not just saying this because it happened,” opined safety Earl Thomas, “but this is what we envisioned to happen.”
“All we proved is that we are the team we’ve been all year,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “I mean, if people saw something else or hadn’t watched the film, then maybe they were impressed today. But as a team we saw what we usually see.”
The Seahawks are walking that fine line between confidence and cockiness. They know they’re good and don’t have a problem telling you. They talked the same way last season, but there was a sense they were trying to convince themselves as much as everyone else after four straight non-winning seasons.
This year’s there’s no uncertainty. They’ve won seven in a row, are 11-1 overall and have essentially a three-game lead over Carolina and New Orleans with four to play—Seattle is two games ahead in the standings and holds the tiebreakers—in the race for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Seahawks’ last three wins have been by an aggregate 108-37, and their last two at home have been decided by a count of 75-27.
Monday night they dominated despite being without two of their top three cornerbacks and dynamic all-purpose wideout Percy Harvin. That type of depth combined with the noise created by the league’s loudest outdoor crowd makes it practically impossible to imagine anyone beating them at CenturyLink Field in the playoffs.
The crowd noise forces teams such as the Saints—who have one of the league’s more creative passing games—to be more static with their formations. They struggle to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage or use shifts and motions with regularity. In essence the noise forces opponents to line up and run the play that’s called, reducing each down to your best against their best. The Seahawks don’t believe yours is better than theirs.
“We never let anybody dictate what we’re going to do,” Thomas said. “We’ve got Pro Bowl players back there. We’ve got special players. We’re not like everybody else. We prepare better than anybody. And the crowd—offenses can’t do what they want to do. They can’t communicate. They can’t get exotic. They have to kind of stay basic or within themselves because of the crowd. We have a hard time communicating, too, but we’re used to it. In practice we just use hand signals, and we have chemistry so we can kind of feel where everybody will be. …[But] we do what we always do: single safety high, challenge the quarterback, challenge with our corners. Tonight we made them look normal.”
The Seahawks’ confidence stems from their work during the week. Their practices are uptempo and intense. Players work as if they’re trying to earn a roster spot and hold individuals accountable when mistakes are made.
“We’re challenging each other like it’s training camp each day,” says tackle Russell Okung. “Guys just want to be so far ahead of the competition, and really what’s happening is that the things we do in practice are translating onto the field in games. All the work we’re putting in is really coming to fruition. We’re harping on the fundamentals and getting back to the things that are important, and it’s showing. It took us a while to get into it because of injuries and things, but it’s coming. I love my team.”
What’s not for him to love? The Seahawks took what was widely considered the second-best team in the NFC and made it look like a scout unit. Officially the game ended at 11:50 last night, but unofficially it was over midway through the first quarter when Miller’s touchdown caused a nearby seismometer to register a magnitude 1 or 2 earthquake.
The Saints did not achieve a first down until their fourth possession (remember they had 40 several weeks ago against Dallas), gained only 127 yards on 40 plays through three quarters, and had absolutely no answer for quarterback Russell Wilson, who frustrated them with his mobility and accuracy. The second-year pro consistently scrambled out of danger and was 14 of 19 for 226 yards and two scores in the opening half alone. He finished 22 of 30 for 310 yards and three scores on the evening.
He texted coach Pete Carroll the night before the game and said he thought the team had its best week of practice in his two years with the club. Then he carried it over to the field.
Even if they were somehow to lose home-field—the Seahawks are at the 49ers and Giants the next two weeks, then home against the Cardinals and Rams—there would be no lack of confidence. “It doesn’t matter where we go,” Okung said. “We’ll play people anywhere. I don’t care if we play them on concrete. We’ll play them anywhere and still get the same result.”