Thursday, January 26, 2006

NFC in the Can: Seattle learns
to disbelieve the hype

Are those uniforms blue? Green? Either way, they look like a 33-19 lossIn an interesting twist on the dominant meme of the 2005 NFL season, the Seattle Seahawks and their fans haven't claimed to be disrespected as much as ignored. Their beef -- and to an extent, it's a legitimate one -- is that national sports reporters, headquartered 3,000 miles away on the East Coast, willfully overlooked Seattle's emergence as the NFC's dominant team and instead heaped love and adulation on the fundamentally flawed Chicago Bears because Illinois was as far west as anyone was willing to travel. Now, however, the Seahawks have made the Super Bowl, meaning the sports media establishment no longer has a choice but to venture to the Pacific Northwest. At the moment, they're all at Citibank trying to change dollars into whatever people use for money up there.

The national exposure really got rolling Tuesday with this story from The New York Times, which rather convincingly settles the question of "What's worse than being ignored?" Answer: Being condescended to. The story, nonsensically headlined "A New Breed of Pocket Protector," is built upon the idea that the Seahawks are a team of nerds, by nerds and for nerds. Armed with this hammer, the Times went in search of nails:
  • Team owner Paul Allen made his fortune as the co-founder of Microsoft and, especially damning, wears eyeglasses.
  • Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is bald and wore a sweater last week.
  • Running back Shaun Alexander enjoys chess and cleaned up his house last week.
Yeah, they're geeks, all right. Really, the Times is such an easy, slow-moving target that it's almost unfair to pick on it. But the story is an excellent case study in the kind of treatment the Seahawks have been receiving all year. (On the bright side, at least there were no coffee jokes. And the grunge angle appears to be played out. Finally.) It's too bad, because in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks put on the most impressive display of any team in the conference yet this year, and they proved beyond any doubt why they deserve to be the annual sacrifice on the AFC altar.

The big question leading up to the NFC title game was how Seattle was going to contain Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, who, despite being his team's only remaining weapon, had run circles around the impressive Bears defense the previous week. After the Seahawks had thoroughly stifled Smith, the big question changed to: Just how impressive can the Bears defense really be? We'll find out next year, I guess, because in 2005 the toughest opponent Chicago faced -- the one that finally did it in -- was its own hype.

Hype is a conniving mistress in the NFL. Smart teams that keep her at arm's length make it through the season with their pants still buckled and their wallets still safely in their pockets. Teams foolish enough to cozy up and listen to her acid whispers wake up in late December in a tub full of ice water without kidneys or playoff hopes. How's that for a metaphor?

After they opened the season 1-3, the Bears weren't on anyone's radar as far as being serious contenders for the NFC title. They then won 10 out of their next 11, including eight straight, and the hype machine was howling. The only thing left to be determined was whether the Bears would hold the Colts (speaking of hype) under 10 points in the Super Bowl. So sure were the Bears that 2005 would not see a repeat of 2001's epic, and totally foreseeable, playoff collapse that they sat their starters for the final regular season game and put their postseason fate in the hands of a quarterback with 90 minutes of game experience in the preceding year and a half. As they say in Russia: "Who needs QB able to hit open man when you have defense strong like brick wall?" The Bears believed the hype, and they paid for it against Carolina in the playoffs as Jake Delhomme and Smith played a spirited game of catch while Chicago bumbled, stumbled, fumbled and was ultimately humbled. The only team in the NFC laid lower by hype this year was the Minnesota Vikings, who fell victim to positive press twice -- once at the start of the season and again during their six-game, smoke-and-mirrors winning streak.

The Seahawks did just the opposite of the Bears this season, which is why Seattleites are decked out in "NFC Champions" gear while Chicago has to make do with the division-title stuff. The Seahawks, no strangers to hot buttered disappointment, knew enough to disbelieve the hype because of what happened to them in 2004. Remember? Seattle opened with three straight wins by a combined 65-13, which had everyone looking ahead to the titanic Week 5 collision with the defending champion Patriots. Seattle proceeded to drop three straight, eventually limped into the playoffs at 9-7 and crapped out in the first round. That's guaranteed to hurt -- and guaranteed to stick with you. For all the grumbling about being ignored by the East Coast elites, one thing the Seahawks didn't have to worry about this year was being distracted by all those fawning profiles in The New York Review of Books.

Besides, as Rodney Harrison taught us two years ago, as Tom Brady tried to demonstrate this year, and as Ben Roethlisberger asserted this week when it no longer mattered, perceived disrespect can make you a fiercer player, if not exactly a better human being. So as the postseason got underway this month, the Seattle Seahawks -- winless in the playoffs since beating the Los Angeles Raiders in Ronald Reagan's first term -- stormed out of the tunnel hopped up on motivation and crowd noise, and collided head-first (literally, in Shaun Alexander's case) with, of all people, the Washington Redskins.

The Redskins had nearly committed hypicide themselves earlier in the season as they won their first three by a total of six points, came to believe they were Super Bowl-bound, then crashed back to Earth with a 2-6 run. Unlike the Bears, however, the Redskins got their humble pie down without choking. They ran the table to make the playoffs, and by the time they rolled into Seattle, they were full of confidence. And painkillers. So banged up were the Redskins that the Seahawks beat them by 10 with less than an inspired effort. Seattle played the game like it was afraid of losing, which, frankly, was understandable, considering the history. Fortunately for the boys in blue (or is it green?), Washington played the game like it was losing the feeling in both its arms, and Seattle was on to the next round.

It's amazing what one win will do. A week later, it was a new Seahawks team that stormed the field. The defense was angrier, the coaches were craftier, Alexander was shiftier, the crowd was crazier, Matt Hasselbeck was balder and badder than ever. And they tore the Panthers limb from limb. Final score: Seattle 34, Carolina 14. Let's go to the prop bets:

Interceptions thrown by Delhomme
Our prediction: 2. Actual outcome: 3.
Passing yards for Delhomme
Our prediction: Under 300. Actual outcome: 196.
Passing TDs for Delhomme
Our prediction: 2. Actual outcome: 1.
Receptions by Smith
Our prediction: Under 10. Actual outcome: 5.
Receiving yards for Smith
Our prediction: Over 100. Actual outcome: 33.
Rushing yards for Nick Goings
Our prediction: Under 75. Actual outcome: 2.
Sacks by Seahawks defense
Our prediction: 5. Actual outcome: 2.

The thinking behind these predictions was that Steve Smith could not be stopped, only contained. It seemed reasonable to expect that he would break off at least one long catch-and-run for 50, 60 yards, even if the Seattle defense was on him like a limpet. Yeah, I know. Made sense a week ago, when that historic Bears D was on the case. Not so much now. As it happens, the only person more hounded that Carolina's star receiver was its star(?) quarterback, and Delhomme ended up completing nearly as many passes to Seattle as to Smith.

Interceptions thrown by Hasselbeck
Our prediction: 0. Actual outcome: 0.
Passing yards for Hasselbeck
Our prediction: Under 300. Actual outcome: 219.
Passing TDs for Hasselbeck
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 2.
Rushing yards for Alexander
Our prediction: Under 100. Actual outcome: 132.
Rushing TDs for Alexander
Our prediction: 1. Actual outcome: 2.
Sacks by Carolina defense
Our prediction: 2. Actual outcome: 2.

These predictions were pretty much on the mark as far as Hasselbeck was concerned, but way short of it on Alexander. Seattle was headed downfield all day long, except for that one time when Darrell Jackson caught the ball and ran the wrong way. That was something you don't see every day.

Coin flip winner
Our prediction: Carolina. Actual outcome: Carolina.
First points scored
Our prediction: John Kasay. Actual outcome: Jerramy Stevens.
False start penalties on Carolina
Our prediction: 2. Actual outcome: 1.
Pass interference/illegal contact penalties on Seattle
Our prediction: 3. Actual outcome: 0.
Total points scored by defense/special teams (excluding kicks)
Our prediction: 0. Actual outcome: 6.

OK, so there was one area in which Seattle was unable to contain Smith: on that one punt return. If only Carolina had been able to force the Seahawks to punt more times that it allowed them to score. These were the six special teams points I had expected to be scored in the Steelers-Broncos game. I just misplaced them.

Seattle is the first team to get to the Super Bowl without having to play another division champion in the playoffs. Their wins have come against two wildcard teams: No. 6 seed Washington and No. 5 Carolina. I'm not sure what this means. Perhaps the top teams in the NFC are so evenly matched that there was relatively little difference from the No. 1 seed to No. 6. Or perhaps the NFC has gotten so comically limp that a division title has lost all import -- that it's still Snow White and the 15 Dwarves, except Seattle has taken over the Snow White role from Philadelphia. If it's the former, then maybe the NFC has achieved some kind of parity with the AFC. If the latter, then we can say with certainty that the Seattle Seahawks are the ultimate winners of the 2002 divisional realignment.

Whichever, it's not like the Seahawks chose their path. They played whomever the league sent to Qwest Field, and they won every time. This is an excellent team that has earned its trip to Detroit. I still expect Pittsburgh to win the Super Bowl, but a Seattle victory wouldn't surprise me in the least. They're playing another wildcard, after all.

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