The Seattle Seahawks have the greatest home-field advantage in the NFL. They are 4-0 this season when playing in Tanzania.
It was the height of the rainy season on Sunday in Tanzania, where the Seahawks now play their home games. As usual, the local crowd was howling: You could hear their enthusiasm from Zanzibar to Dodoma. The Seahawks trailed 23-10, but locals who live in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro know that no obstacle is too steep for rookie quarterback Russell Wilson and the NFL’s best secondary. Wilson threw two late touchdowns, the secondary shut down Tom Brady and the Tanzania Seahawks beat the Patriots 24-23.
You may not have heard the news about the Seahawks’ move to Tanzania. If you watched their upset of the Patriots, you could see their new host nation’s name written in several prominent places around CenturyLink field. That’s Kilimanjaro, not Mount Rainer, in the long camera shots. The new facility has ample parking inside and around the Ngorongoro Crater.
Speaking of craters, how about that Patriots’ second-half game plan? They had a 20-10 lead in the rain. They faced the best secondary in the NFL. Roughly 30 other NFL teams would start running the ball to control the clock. But the Patriots are the PATRIOTS, and while rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, they think it beads off them.
So Tom Brady threw pass after pass, and being Brady, he completed many of them. But one drive of four passes and two runs ended in an interception by Richard Sherman, who may be the best cornerback in the NFL right now. Another drive of eight passes and three runs ended with an interception in the end zone by Earl Thomas, an excellent safety. On their last two drives, with the Seahawks trailing by six points and the clock very much in play, the Patriots burned just 3:49 seconds and covered just 28 yards on 10 plays, six of them passes. They even obligingly called a timeout just before the two-minute warning to give the Seahawks some additional seconds (the Patriots had 12 men on the field).
The only way the Patriots’ late-game strategy could have been any worse is if it became the Eagles’ late-game strategy. At least the Patriots were ignoring Stevan Ridley, not LeSean McCoy.
But this is not about the Patriots’ arrogance. It is about the Seahawks’ ability to play from behind. A good team needs a plan when playing from behind. The Seahawks now have one. The best secondary in the NFL keeps the game from getting out of hand. Wilson’s bombing keeps the Seahawks a play or two away. Wilson’s bombs look like fly balls to deep center field. They arch high and float for longer than gravity should allow, as if there’s a parachute on the ball. The orbital trajectory of the throws gives Seahawks receivers a chance to run under the ball or trade paint with their defenders. The Seahawks get a few long completions, plus some timely interference penalties. When Marshawn Lynch and the running game are humming (they weren’t for much of Sunday), the bomb-and-defense strategy makes the Seahawks look a little like the Ravens, except that they play on the east coast of Africa, not America.
Not every good team has a good plan for coming from behind. Take the 49ers, for example. The Giants took a 17-3 lead, and the 49ers panicked like a commuter at the turnstile who hears the subway doors closing, dropping his or her umbrella and transit pass and falling down a flight of stairs. They ran Colin Kaepernick on and off the field for a series of batty wildcat plays. They did not just abandon the run, but tied it in a sack and tossed it off a freeway overpass. The 49ers have the best overall defense in the NFL -- better than the Seahawks’ -- but a defense cannot help at all when the offense insists on surrendering the ball at the 12-yard line after some wildcat/end around/draw-something-new-in-the-dirt tomfoolery.
The Seahawks also turned the ball over while engineering their comeback, but they didn’t do it in the shadow of their goal posts, and they did not resort to some kind of weird Wilson-Matt Flynn juggling act, though that looked like a tempting option about two weeks ago.
The 49ers’ problems started in the first quarter, when they ran 22 offensive plays and scored exactly three points. Like the Patriots, they worked hard on offense but saw little payoff. On a Sunday defined by heroic field goals by Jason Hanson, Matt Bryant and Jay Feely (whose 61-yard game-tying strike set the stage for a missed 38-yard game winner), short field goals turned out to be killers for the teams forced to settle for them.
The Vikings opened up a 9-0 lead on the Redskins on the strength, if you can call it strength, of a 20- and two 27-yard field goals by Blair Walsh. The Vikings completely dominated the first quarter, and a 21-0 or 17-0 lead might have forced the Redskins to abandon a game plan full of Robert Griffin III pistol-option wrinkles. Thanks to all the stalled Vikings drives, the Redskins stayed balanced and scored 24 unanswered points en route to a 38-26 win. If you want to see a team that is Jekyll-and-Hyde when leading and trailing, and you are really sick of watching/hearing/thinking about the Jets, check out the Vikings.
The Cowboys settled for a 34-yard field goal while trailing by four in the fourth quarter. They still nearly won, thanks to an 18-play drive and an onside kick recovery, but the Ravens held on for a 31-29 victory. In general, it’s much easier to just punch the ball in the end zone when you are close than to rely on an 18-play drive and an onside kick recovery.
The Rams asked too much of rookie sensation Greg “Legatron” Zuerlein, who kicked two first-quarter field goals, then missed three others (one of which was 66 yards). The Dolphins beat the Rams 17-14 despite gaining just 192 net offensive yards to the Rams’ 462; that will happen when you score touchdowns while your opponent settles for field-goal attempts. That win, the Bills’ upset at Arizona and the Seahawks’ victory in Tanzania knotted all four AFC East teams at .500, while all four NFC West teams are at or above .500. It’s enough to send a sane person screaming into the Serengeti, which is easy enough to do from CenturyLink Field: Just exit a tunnel, walk half a mile and turn left at the giraffe.
It’s easy to overreact to one huge upset. All but one of the Seahawks’ games this year were decided in the final two minutes, most on the game’s final play. The Seahawks could be 6-0 or 1-5 (there is no scenario in which they lose the Cowboys game) based on a handful of last-second bounces, tips or labor agreements. With cold, Kolb reality settling in for the Cardinals, the NFC West is starting to shake out as the 49ers versus the Seahawks, which is about what everyone expected before the big move to Tanzania.
Oh yes, about the Tanzania thing. The Tanzanian tourist board paid for several high-visibility signs around Seattle’s CenturyLink Field. They apparently bought the signage through the Seattle soccer team, which sounds like the bargain of the century: Pay for a sign during the Seattle Sounders versus Portland Timbers game, and it stays up for Seahawks-Patriots. It’s a little like buying a ticket for the local police motorcycle thrill show, constructing an apartment around your seat and living in the stadium through NFL season. Even if the Tanzanian tourism bureau paid extra for Seahawks games, the advertising deal probably worked out for them, if only because of all the trips booked by New Englanders who suddenly felt the need to be as far away from the NFL as possible on Sunday.
So the Seahawks are still in Seattle. They are there with the rain, the noisy 12th man, the satellite-launching rookie quarterback, the best secondary in the NFL and a plan for playing from behind against a perennial contender led by a Hall of Fame quarterback. Unlike Tanzania, there is no big-game hunting in Seattle, but with the Seahawks traveling to San Francisco on Thursday night, there are about to be some big games.
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Putting Out the Fires
October is Fire Prevention Month, a time when eager elementary school tykes come home insisting that their parents create an emergency evacuation plan for the house, and busy parents respond with: “We’ll be fine. You can parkour down from the porch roof, then wait in the flower bed to catch your baby sister.”
My own 6-year-old firefighting enthusiast came home on Friday with a clear understanding of what he was taught by our local volunteers: “When your house is on fire, you should check to make sure your smoke alarm batteries work, and you should never try to put out a fire with butter.” He also learned Stop, Drop and Roll, which has been renamed “act like Chris Johnson approaching the line of scrimmage.”
My son’s garbled interpretation of fire safety tips contain a kernel of truth about human nature: We often react far too late to impending crises, and our panicky responses sometimes amount to throwing something oily and flammable onto an already combustible problem. The best response to a crisis is often to do something that looks counterintuitive and silly, like roll around on the ground, or use Alex Green as a featured running back.
Several NFL teams found themselves on the brink of fiery catastrophe in recent weeks. Did they keep cool when things get hot in Week 6, or did they reach for the batteries/ butter when they should have been dropping and rolling? Let’s examine a few cases:
Lions Special Teams Fire: The Lions gave up four special-teams touchdowns in their first four games, leading kicker Jason Hanson to refer to the guys who block for him and run down his kickoffs as “garbage.”
Stop, Drop and Roll: The “garbage” label attracted some Philadelphia-area pigeons, who mistook the playing surface of Lincoln Financial Field for a scow, happily nibbling away at heaven-knows-what all through the game. The pigeons flew into action during a few special-teams plays, but otherwise they cooed unobtrusively as Hanson kicked four field goals and the coverage and return units played solid football in a 26-23 overtime win. Stefan Logan had a long return early in the game and quickly retrieved his own overtime fumble, while Kassim Osgood (a kick gunner by profession) made a great tackle when DeSean Jackson showed up before halftime as a special guest return man. This fire appears to be doused.
But back to the pigeons: They showed a lot of courage by pecking away on the dangerous ground where a Michael Vick fumble could land at any time. Back in the days of old Veterans Stadium, the rats would have eaten the pigeons, giving angry Eagles fans something to cheer for.
Eagles Turnover Fire: The Eagles turn the ball over. A lot.
Butter Zone: The Eagles committed three more turnovers. The highlight was a snap that whizzed by Vick’s head as he barked orders from the shotgun. Vick pointed forward as the ball hummed past his left ear, looking a little like a politician surprised during a key point in a debate. “My policies will get this nation headed in the right direc … what the heck was that?”
Vick also got sacked on back-to-back plays in overtime to set up a fourth-and-31 punt, which essentially iced the game for the Lions. The pigeons were not dining in the Eagles backfield on those plays. Like the Lions defense, they knew exactly what was coming.
Cowboys Romo Fire: Tony Romo threw five interceptions two weeks ago against the Bears, and while several of them weren’t his fault, it is never a good sign when you can say “several of them” when discussing a quarterback’s interceptions in a single game.
Butter Zone: The Cowboys took the ball out of Romo’s hands for most of the game against the Ravens. They ran the ball 42 times and attempted 36 passes, but those numbers are inflated by two end-of-game drives that included 15 Romo passes. The Cowboys even handed off a few times when down by eight points with less than three minutes to play.
The close-to-the-vest strategy might have worked if the Cowboys didn’t commit 13 penalties, many of them in the red zone or on positive plays by the offense. It may have also been more successful if DeMarco Murray did not get hurt midway through the game, forcing Phillip Tanner to carry nine times. So while Romo threw just one interception, Tanner got more touches than Jason Witten and Miles Austin, resulting in a cure that was little better than the illness. You can prevent household fires by coating everything with asbestos, but it is a terrible, terrible idea.
Packers Running Back Fire: An injury to Cedric Benson and poor play by several other candidates left the Packers with unheralded Alex Green at running back. That’s “Alex” Green, not “Ahman” Green, though the Packers are so desperate for running backs that they may have called him, too.
Stop, Drop and Roll: Green was not terrible (22 carries, 65 yards), and the Packers made a commitment to getting him the ball on a semi-regular basis, even before the clock became a major factor in their 42-24 win. Remember, the Packers do not need offensive balance; they just need someone to gain four yards every fourth play, when the receivers are gassed from too many fly routes. Green could be that caliber of back, and only that caliber of back.
Bills Defensive Fire: There are motorized plastic skeletons decorating haunted hayrides right now that are more mobile and effectual than Bills defenders were in the second half against the Patriots and all four quarters against the 49ers.
Stop, Drop and Roll: The Bills sacked Kevin Kolb five times, once for a safety, and knocked him out of the game with a rib injury in a 19-16 overtime win. Then again, the Dolphins sacked Kolb eight times, and the Rams sacked him nine times, so five sacks are nothing to brag about. Also, chasing Kolb from a game is something of a mixed blessing, and a street free-agent running back named William Powell rushed for 70 yards. This fire may be smoldering; all it needs is a real offense to start spreading again.
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Old Folks Boogie
A roundup of new tricks displayed by some established players:
John Abraham: Compassionate Aggression. The Falcons’ defensive end recorded three sacks against the Raiders, but none of them were bone-crunching, penalty-inducing thumps. On his first sack, Abraham hugged Carson Palmer warmly, as if they were meeting at an offseason golf tournament, then lowered him gently to the ground like a baby into a crib. On the second sack, Abraham clubbed down with both hands on the ball to force a fumble, causing maximum game impact but minimal impact to Palmer. On the third, Palmer fell to the ground, and Abraham simply tagged him. Abraham may be innovating a whole new era in defensive line play for the post bounty era: Pass rushers will swaddle quarterbacks in blankets before sacking them, like antiques getting tossed into the back of a moving van.
Tom Brady: Misdirection Pointing. Late in the fourth-quarter Time of Stubbornness for the Patriots’ offense against the Seahawks, Brady threw a wobbly pass to one of his offensive linemen just as Chris Clemons swallowed Brady like a martini olive. Throwing to a lineman is intentional grounding, but Brady can be forgiven for trying to get a star call. He stood up and pointed to his “real” intended receiver, Wes Welker. The only problem: Welker was so far away from where the ball landed that Brady might as well have pointed to Google Maps, or in the general easterly direction of Kevin Faulk’s house. The officials didn’t buy it, but “I was throwing to him” remains the second best on-field pointing maneuver in football, behind only “we recovered that fumble” as gestured by a player 30 yards away from a writhing pile.
Adrian Peterson: The Wormhole Effect. The Vikings had a rough day, but Peterson had a signature moment in the first quarter. He plunged into the line and appeared to be stopped for about a two-yard gain, the pile collapsing around him in a way that makes officials walk up to spot the ball and antsy sportswriters turn their head to watch a Giants-49ers play. But somehow, Peterson maintained forward progress, kept his knees from the ground and plowed through the entire Redskins defense, emerging from the scrum like a miner escaping a cave-in and squirting away for a 32-yard gain. Peterson limped off the field later with an apparent injury, but then returned, because the laws of human anatomy mean less to him than the laws of physics.
Jason Hanson: Play the Eighth at Pebble Beach. It was not that windy in Philadelphia, but stadiums have a meteorology all their own, and the flags were visibly flapping over the goal posts every time Hanson lined up to kick. But like a savvy golf pro, Hanson played the wind perfectly time and time again, his field goals slicing elegantly through the uprights. Hanson could have a career in golf if he ever retires from kicking, but that may never happen.
Adam Vinatieri: Doing Without Dye. Vinatieri did nothing special this week; his three field goals helped a few fantasy leagues but did nothing in the Colts’ 35-9 loss to the Jets. But have you seen Vinatieri’s beard lately? His grayish-white whiskers lie somewhere between Gandalf and the Most Interesting Man in the World. Vinatieri has replaced Kerry Collins as the active player who looks most like someone who was just selected to the Hall of Fame by the senior committee. And he is two-and-a-half years younger than Jason Hanson.
Marvin Lewis: Going Paperless. When the Bengals’ head coach saw a stack of stapled papers float over in the wind from the opposite sideline, he did what any experienced head coach would do: He snatched them up and started reading. Lewis’ demeanor was priceless -- he looked a little like he had just grabbed his little sister’s diary -- as he flipped through the papers in search of Browns secrets.
There was no word at press time exactly what the Bengals’ document contained. Perhaps it detailed Pat Shurmur’s plan to beat the Bengals with the reliable production of Montario Hardesty (pressed into service after a Trent Richardson injury), and Lewis grew overconfident. Or perhaps it contained some “Argo”-style disinformation (“Sheldon Brown has retired and is now filming a science fiction movie in the shallow zone, so ignore him”).
No matter its contents, the leaked information was of no use to Lewis, as the Browns beat the Bengals 34-24. Sometimes, the answer isn’t blowing in the wind, and it’s best to take the advice of teachers around the country and keep your eyes on your own paper.