It was the emotion of the last 12 months, not just the high and lows he’d just experienced in Seattle’s improbable win over Green Bay, that hit Russell Wilson like a ton of bricks on national television Sunday afternoon.
With their 28-22 victory over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks were headed to the Super Bowl (again) and as tears streamed down Wilson’s face, his teammates realized they had never seen their quarterback like this before.
“Just thinking about the game and thinking about, just, I don’t know, just going through the ups and downs of life in the past year ... just winning the Super Bowl last year and people doubting what we could do, this is just an emotional time for me,” Wilson said. “I think about my dad right away. I wish he was here, but he’s watching. He’s got the best seat in the house.”
And on Sunday, what Harrison Wilson — who died in 2010 due to diabetes — watched, along with the club-record crowd of 68,538 that packed into CenturyLink Field, was a certified instant classic, a game that will long be remembered for it’s rare mix of elite players, unusual bounces and mettle-proving ramifications.
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Oh, to be sure, if anyone doubted the heart of the defending Super Bowl champions during or before this game, no one does now.
Not after two of their Pro Bowl defensive backs essentially played parts of the game with one arm due to injuries. Not after Wilson somehow rallied his team to victory after playing the worstthree-and-a-half quarters of his professional career. Not after the defense put him in position to do so by sticking together, getting timely stops and, most importantly, keeping the finger pointing to a minimum.
“We were strong,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, whose team trailed 16-0 after a miserable first half. “We were talking the way we needed to talk at halftime. There was some frustration that it wasn’t quite happening, but we corralled the frustration and turned it into the juice we needed and played really aggressive, tough football in the second half.”
No one epitomized that spirit, that football character, more than Seattle’s quarterback, who managed to keep his cool and hold all his emotions back until after the game, even after he’d thrown his fourth interception of the day with 5:04 left in the fourth quarter and his team trailing 19-7.
But he (and several teammates) would later cite their unwavering belief that they were going to mount a comeback. After all, hadn’t they already been counted out once before this season? The Seahawks’ 24-20 loss to the Chiefs on Nov. 16 dropped them to 6-4, and it began to look like the 2004 New England Patriots would remain the last team to repeat, at least for another year.
“You learn humility in failure,” offensive tackle Russell Okung said.
Three other Seahawks noted that the Chiefs loss changed their season, and it’s hard to argue with the results — Seattle has now won eight straight games.
“That game, it made us all look at ourselves in the mirror,” defensive end Cliff Avril said. “We couldn’t take anything for granted. Had to put our pride and egos aside from the prior year. Some of us got into arguments and fights, and all of that made us stronger as a group.”
The “disease of more” — as famed basketball coach Pat Riley once opined — has claimed more than its fair share of championship teams. But that Chiefs loss marked the start of when the Seahawks rediscovered, as Carroll says, what the connection of what team is all about.
“It kind of goes back to Pete’s coaching philosophy, just in the sense it’s never over, and we have a short-term memory,” center Max Unger said. “It’s a professional approach to the game, and not letting emotion get into it, because it’s really easy to let doubt creep in your mind halfway through the fourth quarter when you’re down by so many points.”
So when the Seahawks got the ball back trailing 19-7 with 3:52 left in the fourth quarter, they knew better to succumb to that kind of thinking. And when Wilson hit running back Marshawn Lynch, who rushed 25 times for 157 yards and a touchdown, on a wheel route out of the backfield and up the right sideline for what appeared to be a 35-yard touchdown, there was a tangible sense the momentum of the game would start to turn, even after the referees said Lynch stepped out of bounds at the 9-yard line.
A few plays later, Wilson scored from a yard out to cut the deficit to 19-14 with 2:09 left.
But even the best comebacks require some luck, and the Seahawks received a dose of that when receiver Chris Matthews improbably recovered the ensuing onside kick after Green Bay receiver Brandon Bostick failed to corral the ball, which bounced off his chest and gave the Seahawks’ sideline a jolt of juice, as Carroll might put it.
“It was frustrating for everyone, but no one was going to let that show, and I didn’t really feel it on the sideline,” tight end Luke Willson said of the offense’s early struggles. “I just kind of felt like, obviously we weren’t ourselves, but it’s kind of ingrained in us that we always feel like we’re going to snap out of the funk.
“And when we did, and we got the onside kick, I was on the sideline like, ‘This is definitely going to happen right now.’ I was kind of giggling to myself.”
The Seahawks promptly marched down and scored, thanks in large part to a 15-yard run by Wilson and the hard running of Lynch, who broke off runs of 32 and 24 yards, the latter of which put the Seahawks ahead 20-19 with 1:33 left.
The Seahawks’ magic, however, still was not done. On the ensuing two-point conversion, Wilson scrambled to his right, retreated several yards, turned around and whipped a high, arching jump ball across his body to Willson, who hauled it in over a defender.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who completed 19 of 34 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, managed to lead his team on a seven play, 48-yard scoring march that forced overtime.
But even in this, the Seahawks’ football character shone through. Facing a third-and-10 at the Seattle 36, receiver Jordy Nelson was stopped for a 6-yard gain by cornerback Richard Sherman, who somehow made the tackle with one arm because he’d injured his left elbow earlier in the game.
Defensive teammates say Sherman, who also had an interception, and safety Earl Thomas, who finished with five tackles, inspired them.
“You see Earl and Sherm — they were hurt the whole game,” Irvin said. “But they put their injuries aside for us, you know? That’s the biggest difference, bro — putting your pride aside and playing for each other.”
That’s what Wilson did after his disastrous start. The Seahawks won the coin toss to start overtime, and Wilson completed his next three passes for 80 yards, with the latter being a gorgeous 35-yard touchdown pass over the middle to receiver Jermaine Kearse, the same player who Wilson never lost confidence in, despite the fact he was picked off four times Sunday while throwing his way.
“Once I saw the coverage I had a feeling he was going to check to that play, and I knew if I could just beat my man, he’s going to give me an opportunity,” Kearse said. “ I wish every ball earlier in the game felt as easy as that one. I just had no dobut in my mind I was going to come down with that play.”
Wilson, who was sacked five times, hit nine more and finished the game 14 of 29 for 209 yards, two total touchdowns and four interceptions, shared that confidence; shortly before the play, he told offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell he was going to throw the game-winning score to Kearse.
“I said ‘Hey, I’m gonna hit Kearse for a touchdown on a check,” Wilson said. “And I did.”
Once he did, CenturyLink Field erupted, and a swam of blue-and-neon-clad men celebrated for the ages, and with good reason. The Seahawks had just capped a comeback for all-time, and the fact their even-keeled quarterback simply couldn’t hold in how much it meant to him afterward was an example of the competitiveness that allowed Wilson and his teammates to accomplish such a feat.
“That’s why I got emotional, just the guys we have around us,” Wilson said. “I’ve been in a lot of games and I’ve played a lot of sports and I’ve seen a lot of great games and I think the resilience of our football team is unmatchable, and the character of the guys we have and the belief of the guys we have, that’s what makes the difference.”