Entering Saturday’s Wild Card game with the No. 1 ranked rushing offense, the Seattle Seahawks were hell-bent to line up and punch the Dallas Cowboys in the mouth in a physical battle royale.
Despite the Cowboys stellar fifth overall ranking defending the run, the Seahawks believed the return of guards D.J. Fluker and J.R. Sweezy would allow them to control the line of scrimmage and impose their will on the opponent. Based on their success most of the season, coordinating such a game plan made sense.
But for the first time in nearly two months, the Seahawks weren’t able to find success any running the football, averaging 2.2 yards per carry in the first half. Playing off schedule against a stout Cowboys defense, they went three-and-out on their first three possessions and converted only one out of six third down conversion opportunities.
“It was a different game for us to play and not being able to run the ball like we want to, really is a product of the third down issues that we had too – we’ve always known that.” Coach Pete Carroll said. “It just didn’t really come out the way we planned and so we had to adjust and do some things.”
The problem with that statement? The Seahawks didn’t make adjustments, letting a winnable playoff game slip from their grasps and taking the football out of their quarterback’s hands until it was too late.
Carroll wasn’t wrong when he said that fortunes running the football can change over the course of the game – abandoning the run altogether wasn’t necessary trailing only 10-6 at halftime – but it was apparent throughout the first half that the Seahawks weren’t going to be able to line up and sustain drives built around the ground game in this one.
If the Cowboys had any kinks in their armor coming into this game defensively, it came in the form of a pass defense that ranked 31st in success rate over the past month according to Sharp Football.
In the rare instances where the Seahawks found offensive success in the first half, it came riding the arm of Russell Wilson. He completed 26 and 40-yard passes to tight end Ed Dickson and Tyler Lockett respectively to position Seattle for its first points of the game early in the second quarter and later hit Lockett for a 25-yard strike to get another field goal heading towards halftime.
Working off the play action passing game, the Seahawks found success with downfield throws during those two scoring drives. As he did during a win at Carolina earlier this year, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer should’ve revised his game plan by giving the keys to his playoff-tested quarterback and letting him win the game.
Instead, Seattle’s coaches refused to adapt to what was working and stuck to status quo with undeniable obstinacy. Running back Chris Carson got stuffed on back-to-back runs to open the third quarter, leaving Wilson to try and salvage another drive on third-and-long.
As was the case throughout the first two quarters, the Seahawks couldn’t move the chains after putting their franchise quarterback in a tough spot, immediately punting the ball back to their opponent.
Despite being hamstrung by an objectionable strategy against a top-flight defense, Wilson kept his team in the game. Taking advantage of great starting field position after Seattle’s defense stuffed Dallas inside their own five-yard line, he connected with receiver Doug Baldwin along the sideline for a 22-yard fourth down conversion and ran the football into the end zone a few plays later to help recapture a 14-10 lead.
With a scoring drive aided once again by explosive pass plays, all signs kept pointing to opening up the playbook and letting Wilson guide his team to victory. It worked against Carolina, one of the few teams to hold Seattle to under 100 rushing yards this year, so why wouldn’t it work against Dallas?
Blinded by their faith and commitment to running the ball, however, the Seahawks failed to take hold of the game at a critical juncture early in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys immediately followed Wilson’s touchdown run with a quick touchdown scoring drive of their own, marching 67 yards on nine plays as the drive culminated with a one-yard plunge into the end zone by Ezekiel Elliott.
How did Seattle respond? Handing it off to Carson up the middle, who got hammered in the backfield for a one-yard loss to once again take the Seahawks off schedule. Two quick pass plays later and Michael Dickson came on for another punt on a wasted possession.
Luckily, Seattle’s defense came through in the clutch to negate the offensive ineptitude, giving Carroll and Schottenheimer another chance to make proper modifications.
Trailing by three points with the Cowboys once again knocking on the goal line following an explosive punt return by Tavon Austin and a long reception by Amari Cooper, Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright jumped a fade route to tight end Noah Brown and made a sensational interception.
Unfortunate penalties against center Justin Britt and Fluker drove the Seahawks all the way back to their own eight-yard line. Rather than be aggressive picking up yardage, Schottenheimer called a short pass to Lockett and a screen to running back Mike Davis, ultimately waiving the white flag.
Hungry for a playoff win, the Cowboys beat the Seahawks at their own game, using a methodical drive featuring several handoffs to Elliott and designed runs by Prescott to chew over five minutes off the clock. Seattle aided the effort with two critical pass interference penalties on Wright and cornerback Justin Coleman.
“I knew I grabbed him. I should’ve let go a little early.” Wright said. “Those calls down the stretch really hurt us… We have to finish better than that last drive.”
With the visitors forced to burn all of their timeouts, Prescott leaped into the end zone to extend Dallas’s lead to 24-14 just before the two-minute warning, sealing their first playoff win since 2014.
Wilson padded the stat sheet in Seattle’s two-minute offense, completing a 53-yard bomb to Lockett and finding reserve running back J.D. McKissic for a late touchdown to make it a one-score game. But it proved to be too little, too late as an onside kick attempt by Dickson fell into Cole Beasley’s hands for an easy recovery. Game, match, point.
After the game, Carroll again emphasized that the Seahawks didn’t get enough carries to find their offensive rhythm, citing third down struggles throughout the evening. But this response misses the big picture, as Seattle simply waited too long to become aggressive with the vertical passing game as Dallas sold out to stop Carson, ending a magical season that now somehow feels incomplete.
When asked if the Seahawks should’ve passed more often given the success Wilson had completing passes downfield, Carroll responded, “Yea, we would’ve liked to. The protection was really good on play passes and he threw some strikes… it’s easy to say that now.”
For Carroll and his staff, it’s easy to look back in hindsight and wonder what could have been if necessary adjustments would have been made. And in a year that yielded results far greater than expected, there's plenty of positives to reflect upon going into the offseason.
What won’t be easy? Moving past a game chocked full of squandered opportunities that players, coaches, and others in the organization will now have to stew over for the next several months.