My prediction for the Seahawks-Panthers divisional playoff game Sunday at Carolina:
Seattle wins if it trails by two points late in the fourth quarter.
Seattle loses if it’s staked to a two-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
Sounds crazy, I know, but the scenario that gives the Seahawks their best chance of advancing to the NFC Championship Game next week relies on Russell Wilson and his offensive teammates glancing at the scoreboard during the two-minute warning and gathering themselves for a memorable comeback.
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Solving deficits is what they do. It’s who they are.
Since Wilson threw the eternally disputed touchdown pass to Golden Tate that beat the Packers on Sept. 24, 2012, the quarterback has authored 12 fourth-quarter comebacks, including four in the playoffs.
Conversely, if the Hawks are required to stifle a Panthers comeback drive, all bets are off. Check that. All bets, at that point, are on Carolina. Despite its reputation as dominant, Seattle’s defense is vulnerable to a memorable collapse.
Surrendering fourth-quarter leads is what they do. It’s who they are.
Take, for instance, the 10-9 victory at Minnesota last Sunday, when a field goal put the Seahawks ahead with 1:42 remaining. The defense was fired up — as fired up as is possible after competing for three hours in brutally frigid conditions — and had no reason to fear the downfield strikes of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater as Minnesota began its final possession at its own 39-yard line.
But a pass interference penalty on strong safety Kam Chancellor gave the Vikings a 19-yard gain, and Chancellor’s flawed coverage and missed tackle enabled tight end Kyle Rudolph to ramble down the sideline for another 24 yards.
Through 58 minutes, the Vikings were smothered by Seattle’s league-leading defense. And yet, they needed only two plays to put themselves in position to kick a chip-shot field goal.
The last-minute defensive breakdown was consistent with a trend that dates back to the 2012 divisional-round game at Atlanta, when the Seahawks — trailing 27-7 in the fourth quarter — appeared to have mustered the most furious comeback in playoff history.
They led 28-27, with 31 seconds remaining. What could go wrong? A 29-yard pass from Matt Ryan to Harry Douglas went wrong, and a 19-yard completion to Tony Gonzalez went wrong, too. And though Falcons kicker Matt Bryant missed his first 49-yard attempt to win the game, he made good on a reprieve thanks to an ill-fated time out called by the Seahawks.
The defense has changed personnel since 2012 — only Brandon Mebane, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Chancellor remain as starters — and the job of coordinating the unit has been gone from Gus Bradley to Dan Quinn to Kris Richard. But the core is in place, and so is the philosophy.
It’s possible the Seahawks will take advantage of some early turnovers Sunday and turn the game into a version of Super Bowl 48, when they jumped all over the Broncos — the halftime score was 22-0 — and unleashed their nobody-really-wanted-us-in-the-draft fury in the second half.
That’s not happening against a Carolina powerhouse that went 15-1 during the regular season. The score will be close, possessions will be precious, and the team with the lead late in the fourth quarter will be the team required to endure a minute or two in an intolerably uncomfortable pressure cooker.
The Seahawks wouldn’t acknowledge this — for that matter, they don’t even think about this, because it’s at odds with every conventional wisdom about competition — but their chances of winning are much better if they are down by a few points, in possession of the ball late in the fourth quarter, than if they are ahead
I am reminded of what Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway told his Broncos teammates in the 1987 AFC Championship game as they huddled up on their 2-yard line for a fourth-quarter drive with 5:02 showing on the clock. Because Cleveland owned a 20-13 lead, the task was self-evident: Go 98 yards for the tying touchdown,
Said Elway, whose team went on to win, 23-20, in overtime: “We got ’em where we want ’em!”
If the ever-optimistic Wilson is presented a similar challenge Sunday, the quarterback will say something to the same effect. He’ll have the ball. He’ll force the action. He’ll win the game.
Carolina’s Cam Newton is wired no differently. If he’s got the ball, he’s convinced that he’ll force the action and win the game.
Unless the Seahawks are ahead by three touchdowns in a blowout, they will be better off being on the short end of a 21-20 score in the waning minutes, awaiting an offensive possession, than protecting a 21-20 score in the waning minutes, hoping and praying for the defensive stop they probably won’t make.
During the frantic final minutes of a Seahawks game, hopes and prayers tend to favor the guys hiking the ball.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org