The crew of NBC’s “Football Night in America” used Seattle as a backdrop Sunday, which was fitting. For now and the foreseeable future, Seattle is America’s top football market.
Some eight hours before the Seahawks and Carolina Panthers resumed their unlikely rivalry at CenturyLink Field, the Washington Huskies advanced in a more ambiguous competition: They got enough votes, from a jury of 12, to qualify for the fourth and final seed of the College Football Playoff.
The Huskies prevailed over Penn State in a photo finish, and the grumblings out of Not So Happy Valley were immediate. But at the end of the day — or, more accurately, the beginning of it — Washington’s 12-1 record, capped by a no-doubt victory in the conference championship game, was determined to be more impressive than the Nittany Lions’ 11-2 finish.
The case for Penn State was built on how the Huskies didn’t break a sweat while beating the likes of Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State in September. The case for Washington was built on consecutive blowouts of ranked opponents, the Apple Cup thrashing of Washington State, and the Friday night domination of Colorado.
In any event, Sunday posed an opportunity for Seattle-area fans to take a deep, relaxed breath and appreciate the giddy reality: The Huskies are headed to college football’s Final Four, and nobody will be surprised if the Seahawks qualify for a similar distinction in the NFL playoffs.
Two teams, each with legitimate championship aspirations, separated by a few stops on the light-rail track. No other city in the U.S. — no other state, for that matter — can boast such simultaneous football success.
Alabama might be a college dynasty, but the closest thing to an NFL team in Tuscaloosa is the Atlanta Falcons, who are part of the same region but aren’t exactly next-door neighbors. Ohio State shares a table with the woeful Cleveland Browns and disappointing Cincinnati Bengals. Fans in South Carolina regard the Panthers as Clemson’s professional counterpart, but the defending NFC champions have yet to recover from Super Bowl hangover.
And then there’s Seattle, where weekends generally find Huskies coach Chris Petersen leading an exquisitely prepared team out of the locker room on Saturday before the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll takes over on Sunday. Petersen and Carroll aren’t merely accomplished, they’re potential Hall of Famers.
Meanwhile, as for the most important position in sports, does any city have the quarterback star power of Jake Browning and Russell Wilson? It won’t happen this year, but I can envision a 2017 season in which Browning wins the Heisman Trophy and Wilson is named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year.
But that’s a different discussion for a different day. The unusual abundance of good football karma in Seattle is about now: a college program that will be given three and a half weeks to put together a shock-the-world game against Alabama, and an NFL organization on the verge of its third division title in four seasons.
A cool aspect of the prosperity the Huskies and Hawks are enjoying is the mutual admiration Petersen and Carroll have for each other. Their personalities and practice regimens might be as dissimilar as ice is from fire, but the teams are steeped in an old-school belief that winning is a product of ground control and scoring prevention, not piling up points as quickly as possible.
Browning wasn’t especially sharp against Colorado, but thanks to a resourceful, ball-hawking defense, the Huskies still ended up with 41 points.
The Hawks were almost as dominant during the first quarter Sunday night, when linebacker Mike Morgan picked off Carolina backup quarterback Derek Anderson one play into the game. A field goal and subsequent Thomas Rawls touchdown suggested a blowout in the air, but when a defensive player as irreplaceable as Earl Thomas is carted off the field with a broken leg, it sours the most festive of moods.
Thomas’ injury, which was followed by a cryptic Twitter message from the safety suggesting he’s contemplating retirement, served as a reminder of how quickly a football team’s long-term hopes can turn. Which is to say, the good times around here won’t roll forever.
But they’re rolling for the Huskies, among only four teams in America with a chance to win the national championship. And assuming the Thomas injury doesn’t leave the Hawks emotionally devastated for the rest of the season, they’ve got as good a shot as any to return to the Super Bowl.
That’s quite a two-team run. Enjoy it while it lasts.