CHICAGO - The stars were aligned Sunday for the Seahawks to continue their implausible postseason journey.
As goofy as it sounded, as ridiculous as it was to consider, the least qualified playoff team in NFL history was four quarters away from returning to Qwest Field for the NFC championship game.
And then the Hawks, instead of playing loose and fast, succumbed to the pressure of a January elimination game on a snowy afternoon in Chicago. It was as if they forgot their place in the food chain of Super Bowl aspirants.
During a 35-24 defeat less suspenseful than the 11-point margin indicates, potential completions went through Seahawks receivers’ fingers. Defensive backs failed to hang onto easy interceptions. Most surprising was how coach Pete Carroll abandoned the go-for-broke aggressiveness of a prohibitive underdog. With nothing to lose, Carroll’s strategy suggested his team had everything to lose.
Case in point: On the second Seattle possession of the first quarter, after the Bears had taken an early 7-0 lead, Matt Hasselbeck’s pass to tight end Cameron Morrah set up a fourth-and-1 and the Chicago 40. A timely opportunity to take a gamble that had a reasonable chance of paying off, no?
But Carroll renounced the fourth-and-1 shot for a Jon Ryan punt, deciding to engage the Bears in a field-position joust.
“I didn’t want to make it look like we were in a desperate situation,” Carroll explained. “I wanted to make sure, if we were gonna play defense, we’ll kick the ball really deep. And Jon put the ball at about the 8-yard line, like he always does.
“I just didn’t want to reach out too fast.”
Were Carroll coaching a conventional playoff team – a team, say, that had won more times than it lost – a first-quarter decision that emphasizes field position is logical. But since when did logic have anything to do with the 2010 Seahawks?
Winning a division title with a 7-9 record wasn’t logical.
Upsetting the defending Super Bowl champion Saints in the wild-card round wasn’t logical. Heaven knows any scenario to take on the Green Bay Packers this week in Qwest Field, for the right to advance to the Super Bowl, wasn’t logical.
And now here was Carroll, who has achieved a reputation for his fearless snubbing of logic, proceeding with caution.
Yes, Ryan’s punt was executed to perfection. And the perfect punt netted the Seahawks nothing but the opportunity to begin their next drive at the Seattle 37, a drive which stalled, enabling the incomparable Devin Hester to return another Ryan punt to midfield.
Six plays later, the Bears were facing a fourth-and-1 inside the Seahawks’ 5-yard line. The safe move for coach Lovie Smith would’ve been to send in Robbie Gould for a routine field goal to give Chicago a 10-0 lead.
Instead, Smith went for the first down – a Jay Cutler quarterback sneak – setting up the Chester Taylor touchdown that had the effect of a knockout punch.
“You guys who have been around here know we have gone for it on fourth down a few times, especially when we felt like we needed a little momentum and felt like we had a good play,” Smith said. “We felt like it was important to try to get a touchdown then and not just settle for a field goal.”
Something was wrong with this picture: Carroll, whose team had every reason to ignore the percentages, locked into a “don’t look desperate” mode while Smith was shrugging off the possibility that the field goal not kicked would come back to haunt him – even though it was the Bears who were risking the humiliation of following the Saints as victims of an epic playoff upset.
There aren’t a lot of advantages to entering the playoffs with a record below .500, but there’s one: When nobody to expects you to win, you can devise a gameplan as if nobody expects you to win. The Seahawks took the opposite tact.
Remember those defensive-back blitzes that helped produce six sacks of Cutler during the Seahawks’ regular-season victory in Chicago in October? They were rarely implemented.
“We didn’t pressure like we did the first game,” Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas said. “We just sat back. If you look back at our games, when we sit back, we’re vulnerable. We didn’t get the pressure we wanted on the quarterback, and he took advantage of that.”
Carroll’s explanation for the conservative defense was logical – the Bears were too often looking at third-and-short Sunday, as opposed to the third-and-long, bring-on-the-blitz situations in October – but, again, why was he so tethered to logic?
“I would have loved to get this game today, because so many people felt we couldn’t do this,” Carroll said. “These guys believed they could. It would have been a great statement to make, something we would have cherished very much.
“To go back home and play a championship game in our place? Everything fell in line, and kept falling in line, and falling in line ”
And then the Seahawks blinked. They got to a place in the playoffs nobody expected, only to follow the conventional wisdom of a team that took the field as if it were worried about losing.
Thing is, the Seahawks lost nine times before Sunday. You’d think such an intimate familiarity with the experience would’ve eased any fears about repeating it.