Richard Sherman called the Seattle Seahawks a “middle-of-the-road” team.
On Sunday, those Seahawks roared into the fast lane in the NFC’s playoff race by blowing the doors off Sherman’s 49ers.
Russell Wilson set his season high with four touchdown passes—within his first 10 completions. Two were to Jaron Brown. All were away from Sherman, now a San Francisco instead of Seattle cornerback.
Linebacker Bobby Wagner was his All-Pro best. He battered the 49ers offense with a 2017 practice-squad quarterback trying to throw without two top wide receivers, and trying to run with their lead running back Matt Breida out with an ankle injury. Then Wagner picked off Nick Mullens and returned the interception a Seahawks-record 98 yards for a TD.
“It was extra nice to be running along the 49ers’ sideline,” Wagner said. “I tried to look at Sherm, but I didn’t see him.”
It was all fun for Seattle. And an easy game, for a change. The Seahawks led 20-0 early en route to their third consecutive victory, 43-16 at CenturyLink Field.
Wilson completed 11 of 17 passes for 185 yards with scoring throws also to Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin. Baldwin also had a 21-yard catch and run against Sherman when his friend from their days as Seahawks and Stanford teammates missed the tackle.
“It’s an exciting time,” Wilson said, after the NFL’s winningest QB at the end of regular seasons since 2012 improved his career record in December to 20-8.
That’s how Seattle (7-5) moved into the fifth of sixth playoff seeds in the NFC thanks to Minnesota (6-5-1) losing at New England.
The Seahawks host the Vikings next, on Monday Dec. 10. Three of Seattle’s final four games are at home. The lone road one is at the 49ers, Dec. 16.
It feels like the Seahawks are peaking in December yet again. That was a signature characteristic of the finishing-strong team that made the playoffs five consecutive years ending last season, including to two consecutive Super Bowls.
“Absolutely. Absolutely—especially when you look at our schedule,” Baldwin said. “There are some challenges in there for us that I think play to our strengths. I look forward to continuing the process.”
Wilson’s first six passes went pretty well for Seattle: Four completions, three for touchdowns. All were away from Sherman.
“We didn’t throw very much, but three touchdown passes out of six attempts, that’s pretty rare,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
The first score was the most memorable.
Nine of Seattle’s first 12 plays were runs. That continued the trend the Seahawks learned two months ago is their only way to be able to pass protect later in games against more-honest defenses, and thus the only way to win. The 12th play was Wilson’s touchdown pass of 4 yards to Jaron Brown, on the right side of San Francisco’s defense opposite Sherman.
Then the Seahawks’ wide receivers continued their season of creative end-zone celebrations. They ran from the left side where Brown scored to the right side of the south end zone. At the same spot on the CenturyLink Field where Sherman tipped a Colin Kaepernick pass to Seahawks teammate Malcolm Smith to beat the 49ers in the January 2014 NFC title game and send Seattle to Super Bowl 48, these Seahawks re-enacted Sherman’s play. Baldwin played the role of Sherman. He tipped ball lofted by Brown to David Moore, who was playing Smith.
The fans in that end one immediately recognized the tribute. They roared.
Who’s idea was that celebration?
“C’mon, now!” said Baldwin, the choreographer. “Of course.”
Baldwin said he didn’t tell Sherman he was going to do that in their many conversations in the past week leading up to Sherman’s return game.
“That was a tribute to my boy,” Baldwin said. “I know all you guys think that we’re robots, and that we’re not humans, that we don’t have emotions. But when you spend so much time with guys and doing what we do, day in and day out, it’s hard. You spend those hard days with the guys that you love.
“Sherm is obviously one of those guys that has done so much for this organization that we thought it would be nice to give him a tribute, and we had an opportunity to do so. I know it was kind of weird—we’re scoring, he’s on the other team, we’re doing the tribute—but that was in our hearts this week.
“It was nice to see him again. I missed him. Missed his voice. Missed his tenacity. It’s just the human being. That’s my brother. I’ve known him for more than 10, 11 years now.”
Sherman’s reaction to Baldwin’s tribute to him in the end zone?
“Oh, I didn’t even see it,” Sherman said.
Wilson’s second touchdown throw of the half came after Chris Carson’s 15-yard run jump-started Seattle’s next drive, early in the second quarter. Wilson stepped to avoid rushing 49ers and threw across the field to Lockett running right to left on a diagonal past Smith, the Seahawks’ MVP of Super Bowl 48.. That 52-yard score extended Lockett’s career high with his ninth touchdown reception, his third in four games. Seattle led 13-0.
“I told him on the field I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Baldwin said of his protege.
San Francisco drove into the red zone on the ensuing possession. Two plays later, Wagner ripped the ball from 49ers rookie running back Jeff Wilson, who was playing more because starter Matt Breida was limited by an ankle injury from early in the game. Wagner’s fumble recovery at the Seattle 14 kept the Seahawks ahead 13-0.
Wilson’s third touchdown pass of the half was on a simple, 1-yard out route by Baldwin on third-and-goal late in the second quarter. That made it 20-0, even though Wilson had only complete four passes.
Such, again, was the impact of running on 11 of the first 14 plays and eventually rushing 29 times in 49 offensive plays for 168 yards. That’s the eighth time in nine games the NFL’s top-ranked rushing offense has gained 150 or more yards on the ground since an 0-2 start (when they passed 73 percent of the time).
“That’s become our identity, man,” left tackle Duane Brown said.
The only time in the last nine games Seattle hasn’t run for 150, it got a 339-yard passing day with two touchdowns in the air to win last week at Carolina.
Lockett’s 84-yard kickoff return from 4 yards deep in the end zone, then a 20-yard touchdown run around left end by rookie Rashaad Penny put Seattle ahead 27-3 before most of another sellout crowd had returned from their halftime retreats.
Dante Pettis, the former University of Washington star receiver, had two touchdown catches as San Francisco tried to rally in the second half. But Wagner obliterated that thought with his pick-6 and 98-yard jaunt that had him searching for Sherman along the Niners’ sideline—then laying on his side in the end zone using the football as a pillow and feigning a nap.
“He did look a little slow,” Baldwin said.
San Francisco has lost its last eight games at Seattle: 0-8 record, combined score of Seahawks 232, 49ers 96.
Seattle’s only concerns came late in the game when right guard D.J. Fluker, its best run blocker left with what Carroll said was a “pretty significant pulled hamstring.” Carson exited early after dislocating his finger following 69 yards on 13 carries.
The Seahawks’ leading rusher said afterward at his locker he was fine. Carroll said Carson should be OK.
Same way this entire team is groovin’ right now.
“Feeling good. We’re putting together the right formula for us to make a push here,” Carroll said.
Then, the coach reminded: “Right now, we’re nowhere. It’s great to have three wins in a row. But we have a long ways to go because of what happened early.”