At last, the long-anointed Seahawks could celebrate.
“NFC West champs! That ain’t bad,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
You almost forgot the significance until you heard the young Seahawks, who spent most of the regular season downplaying their accomplishments, succumbing to the emotion of a first-time feat. The bulk of this team hadn’t won an NFC West division title, let alone clinched the No. 1 seed in the entire conference and earned home-field advantage until the Super Bowl.
While this was merely another step toward their championship goal, the achievement was special. And for once, the Seahawks allowed themselves a moment to recognize it.
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The march to inevitability had been long and arduous. It seemed like the Seahawks had waited forever for something that so many were certain they would attain. Before the season, it seemed likely they would be in this position. Midway through the season, it advanced to inevitable. A mini-slump in the closing weeks — two losses in a three-game span, gasp! — downgraded it to probable.
But with the pressure on the Seahawks for the first time this season, they played their trademark style in a 27-9 victory over the St. Louis Rams at CenturyLink Field. They dominated the Rams on the defensive end, and eventually in everything else — Marshawn Lynch’s power running, Wilson’s timely playmaking, Golden Tate’s explosiveness — fell into place.
In the back of a locker room overcome with rap music, Seahawks defensive captain Red Bryant wore an NFC West championship hat and a smile befitting his 323-pound frame.
“When we’re on, we’re hard,” Bryant said of the Seahawks’ defense. “And we were hard today. You can’t run it. You can’t throw it. I don’t know what you can do.”
The St. Louis Rams had no idea what to do either, so they went berserk and tried to turn the game into a street fight Sunday. But the Seahawks were more than content to dominate within the rules.
The defense was extraordinary in every category. The Seahawks recorded just two sacks, but they got plenty of pressure on St. Louis quarterback Kellen Clemens to force him into mistakes. The front seven limited the Rams, who rushed for 200 yards against the Seahawks in October, to just 13 yards on the ground, which tied a franchise record for stinginess.
Overall, the Rams mustered only 158 yards of offense. It was the third time in the month of December that the Seahawks had allowed fewer than 200 yards to an opponent.
The Seahawks have had a three-season run of great defense, but even by their high standards, their performance in their five December games has been extraordinary. Opponents averaged just 10.4 points and 230.4 yards this month, and the Seahawks have forced 13 turnovers.
“And the crazy thing about it is we still have stuff we can do better,” safety Earl Thomas said. “We’re still evolving.
“It’s just us. It’s always on us. When the other team gets a big play, it’s because we gave it to them.”
On Sunday, the Rams had only one “explosive” play — a 21-yard pass to tight end Lance Kendricks. Of course, Kendricks was also the player who let a Clemens pass go through his hands in the first quarter. Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith caught it instead, and he zipped into the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown to give Seattle a 7-0 lead.
If it had to, the Seahawks defense probably could’ve held that lead. The Rams had only three points and 87 total yards until they scored a touchdown on the final drive against a Seattle unit that was substituting liberally by then.
During a brilliant 13-3 regular season, the Seahawks showed why they’re a Super Bowl favorite. They have the deepest and most balanced roster in the NFL, and there’s no team that plays with more energy and purpose than they do. But they also showed they can be vulnerable, especially on offense, where their pass-protection issues arise frequently.
Their flaws don’t come close to measuring up to their defensive might, however. The Seahawks led the NFL in points allowed per game (14.4), yards per game (273.6), passing yards per game (172.0), interceptions (28) and turnover margin (plus-20).
When the Seahawks play as well as they did Sunday, when tackle Brandon Mebane is disrupting everything and the linebackers are playing with great control and the defensive backfield is stellar as usual, Bryant is right. What can you do?
“Right now, we’re living in the moment,” Bryant said. “We’re not understanding what we’re doing. But years down the road, when they talk about the Seahawks, they’re going to talk about that 2013 team. We’re still not sure exactly what they’re going to say about us, whether it’s going to be all positive or negative, but we’re going to be remembered.”
During this brief interlude before the postseason, revel in this: The Seahawks have the league’s best defense. That ain’t bad. It’s pretty awesome.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer