The last time the New England Patriots played in Seattle, Russell Wilson was a still-unproven rookie, starting just his sixth NFL game.
In his previous two games, he’d combined for five interceptions and just one touchdown, and if there was ever a time in his Seattle career when anyone might really have doubted him much it was in that stretch.
But on a rainy October afternoon, the legend of Wilson — which until that point consisted mostly of the fluky Fail Mary pass to beat Green Bay — began to truly grow.
With the Seahawks down 23-10 and 9:21 left, Wilson led two TD drives, completing 5 of 9 passes for 124 yards (more than half of what he’d thrown for in any one game to that point) and two TDs (the last one a 46-yard strike to Sidney Rice with 1:18 left) as Seattle pulled off a stunning 24-23 win that left Tom Brady mad, bro, but Seahawks fans delirious.
And while a game later that season in Chicago where Wilson led a late comeback to an overtime road win is usually regarded as the moment his teammates unconditionally bought in to his ability to lead them to greatness, the Patriots game was a not-insignificant step along the way.
“That was kind of the game that I think I knew I was ready,’’ Wilson recalled this week when he spoke to the media via Zoom. “I think people started recognizing, ‘Okay, he may be ready to play.’’’
Maybe, it could be said, that was the first time the Seahawks Let Russ, well, you know.
Now the Patriots return for a Sunday night game on NBC, and the only question about Wilson anymore is whether the Seahawks lean on him enough.
Last Sunday in Atlanta was a rare time there was no debate about Wilson’s use. The Seahawks passed early and often until they had the Falcons safely locked up, Wilson throwing for 322 yards and four touchdowns in a basically flawless performance that earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
It was a performance that all week has been portrayed as Pete Carroll finally coming to his senses and using Wilson the way he should be used, with one play in particular standing out — a decision to go for it on fourth-and-five at the Atlanta 38 on the first possession of the second half, Seattle clinging to a 14-12 lead.
“Last year we probably would have punted in that situation,’’ said receiver DK Metcalf.
This year, the Seahawks let Wilson throw a 38-yard TD to Metcalf that put Seattle up by two or more scores for good.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer cautioned that the Seahawks won’t necessarily just air it out every week saying what should be no surprise to anyone — that the opponent will always help dictate the game plan.
“Who knows what this week looks like,’’ Schottenheimer said.
But if the Seahawks have always had confidence in Wilson, Schottenheimer acknowledged that the fourth-down play a week ago showed that more than ever, they are willing to err on the side of riding on his right arm.
“This one does show a little bit of the aggressiveness that we’re looking for, or we’re looking for those opportunities at different times,’’ Schottenheimer said.
Wilson later said the decision to go for it there was aided and abetted a little bit by seeing how enthusiastically the Falcons had celebrated a third-down stop.
But Schottenheimer said the decision was actually much longer in the making, borne out of discussions in the offseason about how to best maximize the talent of the best quarterback in franchise history and maybe the best in the NFL today.
“I would say, 100% we’ve talked more about it,’’ Schottenheimer said. “We started talking about in the offseason in terms of ‘OK, hey, we’ve got a great player in Russ. We’ve got great weapons around him.’ You know, Pete likes to be aggressive anyways, so we certainly have had way more discussions this year about it.’’
But as Schottenheimer noted, football realities mean the Seahawks can’t simply roll with Russ on every single play.
And to that extent, the matchup with the Patriots looms as a truer test of whether the Seahawks have what they need around Wilson to truly make the most of his abilities.
The Patriots again boast one of the better secondaries in the NFL led by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year cornerback Stephon Gilmore. But the front seven has undergone some significant change and that makes this a game when the Seahawks may want to run it more.
And where the defense last week had to deal with one of the most pass-happy offenses in the NFL, the challenge this week is a New England running attack led by one of the best rushing QBs in league history in Cam Newton.
Wilson, who has at times during the offseason made comments to help fuel the debate about Seattle’s offensive philosophy, seemed to foreshadow a potentially more-balanced approach this week when he talked to media via Zoom.
“I just want to win,’’ Wilson said. “Whatever it takes to win. I think I can definitely help us win, that’s for sure. But I think it’s not just me. We’ve got so many great players. And we can do it in so many different ways.’’
But inevitably, as it seemingly has almost every game since that 2012 visit by the Patriots, Wilson will find himself at the center of it all.