Seahawks stay strong, let Packers hand them Super Bowl berth
Aaron Rodgers said Green Bay "gave it away" in a 28-22 overtime loss to Seattle in the NFC championship game.
The opposing quarterback sees it differently.
"I think we had to go and get it ourselves," Seattle's Russell Wilson said when I asked him afterward.
They're both right.
The Packers wasted far too many chances on a blustery Sunday afternoon to put away Seattle in the season's most important game. And the Seahawks simply refused to quit when they had every reason to think a trip to Super Bowl XLIX was out of the question.
"Five turnovers and we still win?" Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin said with incredulity. "That's crazy."
Irvin wasn't the only one in disbelief at the third-largest comeback (16 points) in the history of conference title games.
"It's hard for me to describe what happened," said Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who still appeared shell-shocked by the look on his face long after a lengthy postgame celebration on the CenturyLink Field had ended. "I'm clueless right now."
"Clueless" also would aptly describe the Packers from the final 5:04 of regulation until Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse caught the game-winning 35-yard touchdown pass from Wilson.
Four previous attempts by Wilson to connect with Kearse had resulted in interceptions, including one by Packers safety Morgan Burnett at that aforementioned mark of the fourth quarter. But in overtime, Wilson recognized before the snap that Green Bay was playing cover-zero pass defense with the safeties moved up to stop Marshawn Lynch from adding to his 157-yard rushing total.
He also spotted Kearse matched in single coverage with Packers cornerback Tramon Williams. Wilson audibled to a play the Seahawks had practiced repeatedly throughout the week with different receivers but the same great results. Wilson lofted the ball to Kearse with a pass that Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll described as "exquisite."
"I knew if I could just beat my man (Wilson) was going to give me an opportunity," said Kearse, who had two of Wilson's interceptions ricochet off his hands and into those of Packers defensive backs. "I wish every ball earlier in the game was as easy as that one. I just had no doubt in my mind I was going to come down with that play."
Kearse, though, should never have gotten his chance at redemption. Nor should the Seahawks be the first team since New England a decade ago with the chance to defend its Super Bowl title.
The Packers blew this one -- plain and simple.
The squandered opportunities began in the first quarter. Green Bay was forced to settle for 18- and 19-yard field goals when drives sputtered near the goal line, plus Rodgers was intercepted in the end zone by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman on a drive that reached the Seattle 29-yard line.
"Against a team like that you need touchdowns when you're down in the red zone like that," Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "Points are good, but touchdowns are better."
Although the Packers held a 16-0 halftime lead, the Seahawks entered their locker room knowing they had overcome the same deficit twice since 2013.
"Guess what we said -- don't trip," Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin screamed at a media contingent during an obscenity-laden postgame rant outside the team's locker room. "You don't win the game in the first half. You win the game in the second half."
Or lose it, depending on your point of view.
When Burnett intercepted Wilson, he quickly slid to the ground like a player who was simply trying to preserve his team's victory. Perhaps it wouldn't have made a difference in the final outcome had Burnett continued his return. Perhaps the Packers had taken a page from Rodgers and began to R-E-L-A-X a little too early.
Regardless, the game was far from over as Green Bay blew multiple chances to seal the deal.
"We were sitting there with two scores (ahead) late in the game with the ball," said Rodgers, who gutted his way through a calf injury for a 19-of-34, 178-yard passing performance that included one touchdown and two interceptions.
"You expect to put that thing away."
After the Packers went three-and-out on their next series, Lynch and Wilson started heating up. The two connected on a wheel route that gained 26 yards, leading to a one-yard Wilson touchdown run that cut Green Bay's lead to 19-14.
The Seahawks then capitalized on their second big special teams play. Seattle's first score came in the third quarter when punter Jon Ryan took the hold on a fake field goal and tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to tackle-eligible Garry Gilliam.
The Packers were undressed again when Seahawks wide receiver Chris Matthews recovered Steven Hauschka's onsides kick. The football had slipped through the arms of Brandon Bostick and bounced off the reserve tight end's face mask.
Bostick said his job was to block and clear a path for wide receiver Jordy Nelson to catch Hauschka's kick.
"I feel like I let everyone down," Bostick said.
He wasn't the only one who faltered.
Green Bay's defense couldn't stop Lynch from slicing through it on a 24-yard touchdown run with 1:25 remaining or Wilson from converting the subsequent two-point conversion attempt on a cross-field prayer to tight end Luke Willson.
Wilson laughed when asked how many times he would be able to connect with Willson if they ran that play again.
"Never," said Wilson, who winged the football skyward while being spun around by Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. "That's just knowing the game and trusting the guys that are going to make a play and throwing it up."
Seattle's belief and trust in each other remained rock-solid even after a gimpy Rodgers led the Packers to the 49-yard Mason Crosby field goal that sent the game into overtime. Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor gathered his teammates together on the sideline and delivered a pep talk before the extra stanza began.
"The message was that we're the best finishing team," Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell said. "Let's finish."
The Seahawks did. That's why the Packers are finished and Seattle will be facing New England on February 1 in Glendale, Arizona.