This is coach Pete Carroll's first Super Bowl. Credit: Seattle Seahawks
Editor's note: Art Thiel is covering the Seahawks on the road to the NFL Super Bowl. He will provide updates from Atlanta over the weekend.
This is the Seahawks' seventh appearance in the past 10 NFL postseasons. It should feel normal, expected, almost like Gonzaga in the NCAA tourney field. Making the playoffs should be old hat, not nouveau chapeau. But somehow, this time time feels fresh.
It has to do with a culmination. Over the past four seasons, the Seahawks have changed CEOs, GMs, coaches and all but two players, CB Marcus Trufant and LB Leroy Hill. Paul Allen still owns the team, but everything else has been headsnaps, so many and some so odd that the feeling was more bewilderment more than excitement. Was Terrell Owens really here for a week?
Throw in the interruption of the 2011 lockout, and it has been a ride in the back of a pickup on bad road.
Suddenly, it's a hundred miles of fresh blacktop in a Mercedes. Charlie Whitehurst, Tarvaris Jackson and Jim Mora are teensy specs in the rear-view mirror.
The guy in the chauffeur's cap, Morgan Free . . . uh, Pete Carroll, has noticed.
“I feel like it’s much different than the first time around a couple years ago," he said Friday. "It’s an entirely different roster, but it just feels different."
Part of that is due to the freakish nature of 2010, Carroll's first year. The Seahawks became the first team in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs with a losing (7-9) record, yet flipped the NFL onto its neck with a wild 41-36 home playoff win over defending champion New Orleans. RB Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard run is close behind Ken Griffey Jr.'s 1995 run around third base against the Yankees as the Seattle Sports Play Guaranteed to Raise The Most Neck Hairs in the Retelling.
But as folks in the drug-testing trade might call it, the 2010 outcome was a false positive. It set expectations higher than was justified. So another 7-9 season in 2011 seemed more of a setback than it really was. Recall that in the second half of 2011, the Seahawks had won five of six games before losing by two at home to San Francisco and three on the road (in OT) against Arizona.
They were getting good. Then came April and Russell Wilson. As far as the the long-term narrative in team sports, there is nothing quite as fulfilling as discovering and developing something that everyone else missed.
Beyond the statistical measures of his production, Wilson's precociousness and old-man ways in a young man's body has done a rare thing — simultaneously electrified and pacified his team.
Michael Robinson, the fullback/sage, recalled a moment in the huddle from Dec. 2 in Chicago, a game that all agree transformed a 6-5 team that now has created in the No. 1-seeded Atlanta Falcons a case of dry-mouth heading into the 10 a.m. Sunday meeting with the Seahawks at the Georgia Dome.
"He comes into the huddle," said Robinson, recalling the start of a 90-yard touchdown drive for the lead on the road, "and he says, 'All right, everybody just calm down — including me.' "
Robinson said he glanced around the huddle into the eyes of his teammates with a what-up-with-this-rook? look. Then he laughed.
"His self-awareness was amazing," Robinson said. "He knew everyone was looking at how he was reacting, and instead of being over-hyped, he made a joke. Lots of veteran quarterbacks never get there."
The steely cool from that moment helped the Seahawks ring up the next six opponents by a combined score of 194-57 — 33.2 to 9.5. Roy Scheider had a better chance against the shark in "Jaws."
"We’ve earned a different right to have confidence in our play (with) the background of all these games in the second half of the season and on the road," Carroll said. "We’ve put those together in a sensible way. We have a good confidence level going in. We’ll find out.
"You have to play the game to see how everybody reacts. We’re just trying to take the next step. I think everybody is pretty level-headed about it. We’ve been working on our mentality forever. We’ve been talking about this situation the entire time so when we get here its normal, we’re comfortable with it."
Comfort is not necessarily what the Falcons feel, despite a 13-3 record and a bye week of rest. The Falcons under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have had a splendid run, reaching the playoffs in three of the past four seasons and compiling a 56-24 record in five regular seasons, including wins in all three regular-season meetings with the Seahawks in that time.
But in three playoff appearances under this regime, Atlanta has lost all by a combined 102-47. That's s lot of bad postseason road. While it's true that that was then and Sunday is now, the Seahawks have a playoff road game in the pocket that tells them they were not merely lucky in the regular season.
Seahawks 23-21. The blacktop rolls to Green Bay or San Francisco.
NOTES — Lynch sat out practice all week nursing a sprained foot, but Carroll said he "looks fine" and has a "really good chance to play." Asked what it would take to keep Lynch out, he said, "Miss the flight." … New kicker Ryan Longwell did well in practice: "It looked like everything was the same as normal for us. He got the ball up real quickly.” The other newbie, defensive end Patrick Chukwurah, "did fine," Carroll said. "He’s in a backup role for us, but he showed enough that he’s going to be dressing for the game. “ … Of Atlanta, Carroll said, "We know we’re playing a great club in a difficult situation. They’re well rested, and we’re going to have to play really good football in all phases because they force you to do that. They don’t make a lot of mistakes."