It’s been nearly two years since the Seahawks last played the Patriots.
Yet, still, it’s a rare day Darrell Bevell isn’t thinking about — and being haunted by — his final play call of Super Bowl 49.
“Of course. It’s a terrible memory,” Seattle’s offensive coordinator said this past week. “Every time it comes up it just sticks in your gut.”
“It,” of course, is Bevell’s call for Russell Wilson to throw a slant to slot receiver Ricardo Lockett from New England’s 1-yard line with 26 seconds left and the Seahawks down 28-24. Instead of handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch, Wilson threw the infamous pass that the Patriots’ Malcolm Butler intercepted just inside the goal line to snatch victory from Seattle, which could have won its second consecutive Super Bowl.
“It’s a new season; it was two years ago. It’s something that’s always there — it’s something I’ve grown from, something that I learned from,” Bevell said. “But that isn’t going away.
“It’s always going to be there.”
Sunday night, the play caller, the quarterback and 18 other Seahawks who played in that epic Super Bowl will get their rematch against the Patriots in a nationally televised showdown down the road from the Seahawks’ hotel in south Boston, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
But Bevell, Wilson and the Seahawks have a weapon for this one that they didn’t have on Feb. 1, 2015, in Glendale, Arizona. If they had, they could have thrown it to this giant dominator on the goal line instead.
But Jimmy Graham was a Saint then.
He could be Seattle’s savior now.
Graham is coming off his most spectacular game in two seasons since the Seahawks traded a pricey sum for him. His two one-handed catches for touchdowns in the first half led Monday night’s 31-25 win over Buffalo.
“He’s making a statement,” Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse said. “He is showing the world he is the same Jimmy Graham.”
More important, he’s showed Wilson what Drew Brees knew about Graham for years in New Orleans: The quarterback can trust him to catch whatever he throws his way. That’s no matter whether he’s covered or whether a defender is holding Graham’s arm, as a Bills cover man was on each of his touchdown catches.
Wilson’s trust is finally showing up during games, 20 months after the Seahawks traded two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger plus a first-round draft pick to New Orleans to get Graham, 12 months after Graham tore the patellar tendon in his knee and two months since he fully returned to the field from that.
Graham had stretches of doubt during his recovery from a knee surgery from which others — such as the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz — took two years to return. Graham has had stretches of detachment within some games since his return, too.
In Seattle’s loss at the Saints on Oct. 30, Graham had three catches for 34 inconsequential yards and was not a factor in the Seahawks’ final push to win the game in the final seconds. Afterward he walked the length of the Superdome field with reporters matching him stride for stride, and he said nothing.
After eight catches for 103 yards and those two touchdowns against Buffalo Monday, he’s motivated now.
“When the ball is in the air … I think of all those days I had this offseason and all those moments I had when I wasn’t out there,” Graham said. “I think more of want-to than anything.
“For me (now), it’s one of those things where I cherish every second on the field … because of how it was taken away from me — at times not knowing if I’d get it back.”
The Patriots are ranked 15th in the NFL in total defense and 18th in pass defense. They — like every team Seattle faces — don’t have a 6-foot-7, 270-pound college basketball power forward to match up eye-to-eye with Graham.
That’s a literally huge advantage Seattle has over New England that it didn’t have in Super Bowl 49.
As for the bigger picture, this showdown of NFL titans and beyond, the Seahawks are entering the crux of their season that in previous years has been decisively successful for them.
“Now, to get some momentum going into the second half of the season, that’s huge for us,” Graham said. “The season is made in November and December.”
Graham’s got that right.
Seattle is 29-6 (a .829 winning percentage) in November and December since Wilson became the Seahawks’ starting quarterback as a rookie in 2012.
Wilson said this past week he feels healthier than he’s been since the first game. That was Sept. 11, when he got a high-ankle sprain on his right leg getting sacked against Miami. Two weeks later he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
“It feels good, finally. It feels good. It feels like week one,” he said. “I feel better even than last week, so that’s a good thing.”
It’s essential, with Seattle’s running game becoming an afterthought. It is 30th in the league in rushing yardage after just 12 running plays against Buffalo. The running backs gained 10 yards on eight carries.
Christine Michael ran five times for 1 yard. He’s listed as questionable with a new hamstring injury from Friday. Thomas Rawls is still at least a week away from returning from a cracked fibula, so rookie third-round pick C.J. Prosise might get his first career start — and the bulk of the running work. The Seahawks drafted him to be their third-down back.
On defense, Seattle is getting safety Kam Chancellor for the first time in five games, back from a pulled groin. He, free safety Earl Thomas and nickel back Jeremy Lane will have to limit New England’s double tight-end threat of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett down the field, especially the hashmark area. That has given the Seahawks trouble for two years.
Bennett’s brother Michael won’t play; he had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last week. The Pro Bowl defensive end dominated much of the line play with fellow end Cliff Avril the last time these teams met, in that Super Bowl. Without Bennett, Avril is going to get double teamed. And without Bennett, the key to this game — affecting Brady with pressure and rushing his throws — becomes a key problem for Seattle.
“That’s the thing: They get the ball out really quick. That’s their offense,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. “Intermediate passing game, trying to get the ball into the hands of their receivers that are really good, run and catch. Edelman, 11, 80 (fellow wide receiver Danny Amendola), all their guys. Those shallow crosses, out in the flats, things like that. That’s the game.”
With all the disarray in his backfield and the real possibility Brady stays red hot passing without Bennett there to chase him, expect Wilson to pass plenty against the Patriots to try to keep up. And that means another chance for Graham to continue his surge toward long-awaited dominance.
“I’m excited, because a lot of people didn’t think I’d make it back,” Graham said. “They just didn’t believe that I’d be able to be me again.
“When I was in the shadows I was working, when nobody was watching.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (5-2-1) AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (7-1)
Sunday 5:30 p.m., Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
TV: Ch. 5. Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
The series: This is the 18th meeting. You might recall the 17th: Tom Brady rallied the Patriots with two touchdowns in the final 10 minutes on Feb. 1, 2015. That turned Seattle’s 24-14 lead in Super Bowl 49 into a crazy, 28-24 New England win for the NFL title — sealed by Malcolm Butler’s interception of Russell Wilson at the goal line in the final seconds in Glendale, Arizona. Each team has won eight times in the regular-season series. This is Seattle’s first game in Massachusetts since Oct. 17, 2004. Corey Dillon ran for two touchdowns that day, Brady completed 19 of 30 throws with a touchdown and interception, and New England won 30-20 after intercepting Matt Hasselbeck twice and sacking him three times. The Patriots’ last home loss to Seattle was in 1993, when Rick Mirer beat Drew Bledsoe.
Line: Patriots by 7 1/2.
Finally turn Wilson loose: Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said this past week the team had placed “reigns” on Russell Wilson since the third quarter of the first game eight weeks ago. That was when the do-it-all key to the franchise sprained his ankle. Then he badly sprained his left knee two weeks later. In exchange for him not sitting as doctors advised, Wilson didn’t run. Well, Monday night against Buffalo some of the reigns came off. He ran some and looked normal doing it. Now he says he feels his best since week one —“fast and strong…finally,” he said. Bevell is likely to call more read-option runs for Wilson in this one than he has in the first eight games combined. And if Wilson is as healthy as he says he is, we may see his escaping and improvisational passes again. That would be the biggest development this offense has had all year — and at a time when it absolutely needs it, against a rested, favored kingpin on that top dog’s home field.
Find another source of pass rush: Tom Brady’s relieved Michael Bennett isn’t playing in this one. The Patriots’ All-World quarterback said this past week no defender in the NFL is better than Seattle’s Pro Bowl end. But Bennett is out for a couple more weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery. Brady is soaring; 12 touchdown passes, no interceptions, a 73-percent completion rate a league-best passer rating of 133.9. But the 39-year-old has uncharacteristically been sacked eight times in four games. Cliff Avril (nine sacks) is going to get New England’s blocking attention. That leaves Frank Clark with a chance to produce even a fraction of the pressure Bennett has been for two years.
Keep Graham happy. And early: Jimmy Graham is a different, devastating force when he catches passes early in games. No one will say what my eyes have seen: When Wilson doesn’t target him early, Graham appears to get disinterested and, at times, negligent. The Seahawks need him to be what he was in Buffalo: The exquisite tight end that dominates games even when covered and held onto, as he was while catching two TD passes with one hand in the first half. They can’t afford him to drift from relevance at any point in this one.
The pick: This would be perhaps the greatest regular-season coup of the Pete Carroll era: Playing late into Monday night, flying 2,500 miles four days later then playing at a championship team on its home field with a legend at quarterback performing at his best — and without Seattle’s Pro Bowl defensive end. Bennett’s absence will mean less heat than the Seahawks might have gotten on Brady. And that will be decisive. Patriots, 24-20.
31 — Kam Chancellor, SS (6-3, 225, seventh season): “The Enforcer” is back after 4 games missed (groin). No break-in period. Must thump from the jump.
55 — Frank Clark, DE (6-3, 260, second season): With Bennett out and NE likely to focus on blocking Avril, Clark needs to bring heat on Brady.
88 — Jimmy Graham, TE (6-7, 265, seventh season): Can he be that great 2 consecutive weeks? He was for New Orleans. Wilson now trusts him.
12 — Tom Brady, QB (6-4, 225, 17th season): At age 39, he’s off to best start of legendary career. But if Seattle can somehow pressure him.
29 — LeGarrette Blount, RB (6-0, 241, seventh season): With all attention on Brady, people don’t realize Blount co-leads NFL with 9 TD runs. Has 609 rush yds.
87 — Rob Gronkowski, TE (6-6, 265, seventh season): Brady uses him and Martellus Bennett in NFL’s best TE pair. Chancellor may get task on inside seams.
Gregg Bell: firstname.lastname@example.org