Seahawks prove it is better to be lucky than good and rest of the NFC better watch out
MINNEAPOLIS -- The third-coldest game in NFL history had just come to a shocking conclusion, and his team had just won, but that did not mean Seattle Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka was in a raucous and celebratory mood as he stood shirtless at his locker after Sunday's 10-9 wild-card playoff win.
As music blared in the visitors' locker room, as wide receiver Doug Baldwin told reporters he did not believe in luck -- but couldn't come up with another word for what had just transpired -- Hauschka's mind was somewhere else.
Specifically, it was on the other end of the frigid TCF Bank Stadium, where Blair Walsh, the Minnesota Vikings kicker who had just missed a 27-yard chip shot that likely would have sent the Vikings to its first playoff victory since 2009, was at his locker, crying.
The life of an NFL kicker is a harsh life, at least by the standards of millionaire professional athletes. You make three field goals to put your team ahead, including a 47-yarder that with the minus-6 temperatures might as well have been a 60-yarder, and it feels like you're sitting pretty.
Yet it's that one end-of-game, wide-left shank that people will remember, and that will cement your place in NFL history alongside names like Scott Norwood and Gary Anderson and Billy Cundiff. With one errant swing of his right leg, Blair Walsh had just become a member of the club that no NFL kicker wants to join, and at the moment every NFL kicker past or present was feeling for him.
Hauschka didn't see the kick. He didn't hear his teammate, Jermaine Kearse, turn to another wide receiver and say just before the snap, "He's gonna miss it." He didn't see the laces-in hold.
Instead, he was at the net on the sidelines, warming up for his own possible game-winner with a football that felt like a rock when it made contact with his now-bruised foot.
And that was when Hauschka heard a weird noise from the crowd.
Hauschka's kicking counterpart had missed. The Seahawks had survived. Hauschka immediately thought of the 2015 U.S. Open, when Dustin Johnson pulled a four-foot putt wide left to give the trophy to Jordan Spieth.
"It's kind of a sick feeling you have when you see something like that happen," Hauschka said quietly in the locker room. "You miss one kick and everyone's on you."
So why did the Seahawks win Sunday's North Pole Bowl? (It was colder in Minneapolis on Sunday than it was in North Pole, Alaska, by the way.)
And why did the Vikings lose?
You can come up with a few dozen reasons.
It was because of Walsh's missed field goal from a distance where NFL kickers this season made 99 percent of their attempts.
It was because the Vikings' couldn't punch the ball into the end zone all game long.
It was because Adrian Peterson again made a big mistake on the biggest of stages, with a fourth-quarter fumble in his own territory that led to the Seahawks game-winning field goal. It was Peterson's third fumble in five career playoff games.
It was because of Russell Wilson's remarkable play in the beginning of the fourth quarter. A snap sailed past him, but he recovered, scrambled, then found an open Tyler Lockett for a 35-yard gain that led to the game's only touchdown two plays later.
But let's stop the talk of missed field goals and dropped fumbles and the Vikings' stuttering rushing attack and the dearth of big plays. Instead, let's break Sunday's game down to its bare essentials:
The Seahawks, a franchise that sometimes seems blessed with an abundance of good luck, had some more go their way (See: Fail Mary, Calvin Johnson, just to name a couple).
And the Vikings, a franchise that seems cursed with an abundance of bad luck, had some more get forced down their fan base's weary throats.
How did the Seahawks win and the Vikings lose in a game where these two smash-mouth teams seemed as evenly matched as you could get?
One word: Luck.
I know what you're thinking: There's no such thing as luck; luck is where preparation meets opportunity; you make your own luck; blah, blah, blah.
Throw me a few more cliches about luck, please.
But let me ask you this: Which team played better on Sunday?
It was pretty close to even, but it was the Vikings who controlled most of the game, and it was the Vikings who were in a position to seal the game with a play that succeeds 99 percent of the time, and it was the Vikings who, let's be honest, should have won.
There was a lot of talk about the football gods in the Seahawks locker room, and there was no doubt whose side they were on Sunday.
"It looked dire," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said. "They ran the clock down, took the field goal, short chip shot. But the football gods were with us today... 'Thank you, Jesus.' That (feeling) was immediate."
Before the missed field goal, there had been some Seahawks luck too -- none more important than at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Seattle was driving. It was first-and-10 on the Minnesota 39-yard-line when Wilson tried to change the play at the line of scrimmage.
But center Patrick Lewis snapped the ball when Wilson wasn't looking, and the ball sailed past him. Wilson sprinted back and slid feet-first to recover the ball at midfield, and instead of just falling on it, picked it up and sprinted to his right. Five Vikings were in hot pursuit.
"Seemed like a whole bunch of bears chasing me and I was just trying to get away," Wilson said.
He made sure his linemen weren't too far downfield, then he started looking for open receivers. He found Tyler Lockett in the middle of the field. Lockett snatched the pass and ran it down to four yards of the end zone. It was the type of play only a handful of quarterbacks could pull off -- and damned lucky too.
"Anything could have happened," Lockett said. "They could have picked the ball up, scored. It could have been their ball in the middle of the field. They would have had the momentum."
But the Vikings didn't, and the Seahawks scored, and Walsh missed his field goal, and the situation we now have in the NFC playoffs is this: A surging Seahawks team that has won seven of its past eight will head to Carolina to face the NFL's winningest regular-season team. Cam Newton should be worried.
This Seahawks team should have lost Sunday, with weather conditions and intangibles that played right into the Vikings' wheelhouse, and yet they didn't. This Seahawks team dodged a bullet. The Seahawks ought to be considered the most dangerous of all the teams to come out of the wild-card round.
"We were fortunate, very fortunate," Wilson said. "Anything can happen in the playoffs."
Now, they advance to next weekend. Look out. It would not surprise me in the least if this lucky Seahawks' nail-biter propels them to become the seventh wild-card team to win a Super Bowl.
"Sometimes it takes a challenge like this, a struggle like this, to bring a team together," Sherman said.
The Vikings locker room was a lot quieter. Around the same time that Seahawks running back Fred Jackson was telling me how much his heart went out to Blair Walsh -- how he just wanted to give the guy a hug -- the flip side of the Seahawks' good luck was bearing its ugly head.
Walsh was at his locker in front of a flurry of cameras and tape recorders. Peterson had told Walsh to keep his head up, that his three made field goals were the reason the team was in the position for the game-winning field goal in the first place.
But Walsh owned it.
He took the blame for the loss. He didn't complain about the snap or the hold. He didn't blame it on luck, because there's no place for luck in an NFL locker room. Take the blame on your own shoulders. Don't foist it off on the unseen forces that were so clearly at play.
"It is the life of a kicker," he shrugged, and you couldn't help but feel awful for the guy who'd just been on the receiving end of some terrible, terrible luck.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.