History may not remember that Golden Tate actually didn’t score a touchdown on his 71-yard punt return Sunday afternoon.
In fact, all the Seahawks got out of it was a field goal.
But after Seattle had rallied to defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-24 in overtime, many pointed to Tate’s return as the moment the game changed in the Seahawks’ favor.
It was the moment it became apparent the Seahawks truly would turn the potential infamy of losing at home as a 16-point favorite — only one time had they ever been favored by more — into the history of rallying from 21 points down, the biggest comeback in Seattle’s 38 years as an NFL franchise.
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“That just kind of let you know that we’re here, that we’re coming for this win,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll. “It was an incredible play.”
Even if at first, many watching probably were using a different adjective as Tate drifted to his own 4-yard line to catch the ball with just over a minute left in the third quarter and Seattle trailing 24-14.
“You can’t be timid,” said quarterback Russell Wilson. “You’ve got to be able to step up and make a play.”
Tate did just that, breaking or evading six tackles as he crisscrossed the field before being tackled at the Tampa Bay 25.
“We were down; we needed something to happen,” Tate said. “Once I got the ball in my hands, I just played backyard football.”
The Seahawks were forced to settle for a 36-yard Steven Hauschka field goal on the ensuing possession. But that cut the lead to 24-17 and seemed to create a sense of inevitability on each sideline as to how the game would finish.
“You could see the momentum shift, and the crowd got into it and got pumped,” said Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis, who called it “probably the biggest play of the game.”
From there Seattle dominated as Tampa Bay got only two first downs the rest of the game and just 37 yards on four possessions in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Seattle offense, meanwhile, got a 10-yard pass from Wilson to Doug Baldwin with 1:51 left to force overtime. In overtime, the Seahawks completed the comeback with a 51-yard, Marshawn Lynch-led drive to set up Hauschka’s 27-yard game-winning field goal with 8:11 left.
“It’s fun football, isn’t it?,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman asked afterward.
Certainly, it was memorable.
Seattle’s previous largest comeback was 20 points in Denver on Dec. 20, 1995. In that game, the Seahawks were down 20-0 before winning 31-27.
It was also the fourth time this year Seattle has won a game in which it was behind or tied going into the fourth quarter — and that doesn’t count last week’s final-play escape at St. Louis.
“The last two weeks we’ve just been making it harder on ourselves than we need it to be,” safety Earl Thomas said. “But we are winning ugly, and that just shows we are never out of the game. That’s what I love about this — we are always going to fight.”
The Seahawks won despite allowing at least 200 yards rushing (205) for the second straight week against a team that previously hadn’t been very effective on the ground. They won despite giving up three turnovers while not getting any, the first time all year they hadn’t forced a take-away. And they won despite allowing three first-half touchdown passes.
Carroll seemed most concerned about the run defense.
“Right now we’re in a little bit of a funk (in defending the run),” Carroll said. “We’re not tacking very well. We’re trying to take the ball away so much that we’re not tackling very well. Until we fix that, we are going to continue to struggle.”
Tampa Bay rookie Mike James, stepping in for an injured Doug Martin, finished with 158 yards, helping set up three second-quarter touchdowns.
Two came in the span of 39 seconds as the Bucs jumped out to a 21-0 lead. Two Mike Glennon touchdown passes (a 12-yarder to Tim Wright and a 20-yarder to Tiquan Underwood) made it 14-0. Then Jermaine Kearse fumbled a kickoff setting up a James touchdown pass on a trick play from the 2-yard line.
Baldwin said that despite the team’s never-say-quit mantras, “we are human. I looked at the scoreboard and saw it was 21-0 and I was like ‘Damn, something’s got to change.’ ”
It did in a hurry as Wilson led a quick touchdown drive, capped by a 16-yard TD pass to Kearse, to make it 21-7 at halftime.
A 10-yard Wilson TD run with five minutes left in the third quarter made it 24-14. On Tampa Bay’s next drive, a holding penalty set the Bucs back, leading to the punt that Tate brought back into Tampa Bay territory.
Carroll and Tate said that on other days, in other situations, the prudent course might have been to let the ball roll into the end zone. But that day wasn’t Sunday.
“I thought the time was right to make that play and make something happen,” Tate said.
And when the night was over, Seattle had the best record in the NFC at 8-1, second-best in the NFL behind only 9-0 Kansas City.
Baldwin said the way the game went illustrates that “we’ve got a lot to improve on.”
Mounting comebacks, though, apparently isn’t one of them.
“It doesn’t matter what the situation is, what adversity we face,’’ Baldwin said. “We’re going to find a way to come out on top.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bcondotta.