Michael Bennett makes it sound like none of this matters.
Not the season’s first 15 games. Not the Seahawks’ latest face plant that had their fans booing and leaving the stadium early.
“It’s never an opportunity lost when you have a chance. The opportunity is when the playoffs start,” the Pro Bowl defensive end said Saturday after his Seahawks offense blew the first half and his NFC West-champion defense blew the second half in the 34-31 loss to Arizona.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the Lombardi,” Bennett said of the Super Bowl trophy.
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“To you, it’s something about ‘Home game this, away game that.’ It’s just about what you do in the playoffs, really.”
Well, not really.
The regular season shapes how easy or difficult your team’s path will be once in the postseason. More basically, of course, the regular season determines a team’s ability to make the playoffs to begin with.
Just ask San Francisco.
The price of Seattle’s loss on Saturday could be steep for a team that is 7-1 at home and 2-4-1 on the road. The Seahawks (9-5-1) squandered their prime position for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. That carries a first-round bye with only one home playoff win needed to reach the conference title game.
Now it will take three musts for Seattle to get that second seed and a bye. NFC South-champion Atlanta must lose next weekend to eliminated New Orleans (7-8). Detroit must lose either at top-seeded Dallas (12-2) on Monday night or at home to hot Green Bay (9-6) on Sunday in the NFC North championship game. And the Seahawks must win at the 49ers (2-13) on New Year’s Day.
San Francisco won Saturday for the first time in 3½ months by scoring 15 points in the final 5:06 at Los Angeles. Colin Kaepernick’s touchdown pass to Rod Streater and Kaepernick’s two-point conversion run with 31 seconds remaining beat the Rams, 22-21. San Francisco’s only other win this season was Sept. 12 in their opener against the Rams.
Bennett’s view of nothing mattering for the Seahawks until the playoffs shows blind faith in his team’s ability to suddenly flip the switch to “on.” To, with the snap of fingers in the postseason, summon their talent, experience and confidence and — presto! — Seattle will be Super Bowl bound for the third time in four years.
Doug Baldwin sounded a little less presto! Saturday.
About a half-hour after the loss to the Cardinals ended on what was a career day for him, Baldwin took a step back from the podium and sighed before he began his postgame news conference. He looked like all of Western Washington felt about the game and his puzzling, maddening team.
Baldwin started off by comparing the offense’s three points and 94 total yards in the first half — eight snaps inside the Arizona 10-yard line without a touchdown — with Seattle’s 28 points and 297 yards after halftime
“We definitely had more confidence in ourselves, and we executed at a much higher level,” he said.
“I don’t know what was going on with us in the first half. We had a lot of mistakes. We just couldn’t do anything right.”
Baldwin was asked how a team this experienced and accomplished, on its way to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, could have a confidence issue.
“I don’t know if it’s a lacking of confidence,” he said. “It’s just that we have a lot of young guys, especially up front.”
The two goal-line fiascos in Saturday’s first half further exposed the Seahawks’ offensive line with four new starters, two of them rookies, all five of them with three years or fewer of NFL experience.
On four plays from a half-yard away from the goal line, immediately after Tyler Lockett’s touchdown catch — while he broke his leg — got reversed upon review, the Seahawks’ five blockers got manhandled by Arizona’s front four.
Undrafted rookie left tackle George Fant, left guard Mark Glowinski, center Justin Britt, rookie right guard Germain Ifedi, right tackle Garry Gilliam and even fullback Marcel Reece got zero push on Thomas Rawls’ dive play. The line got no push on Russell Wilson’s quarterback sneak. Wilson got hit on third down by free-rushing Cardinals defensive end Josh Mauro on an incomplete pass.
On fourth down, Wilson turned to sell a fake handoff to Rawls out of I formation. Arizona defensive tackle Rodney Gunter stormed through a void created when Glowinski crashed down to his right to join Britt on a double team of the Cardinals nose tackle and Fant went to his left to block the defensive end that Jimmy Graham was already chipping on his way to a pass route into the end zone. Gunter had a free path to crumple Wilson before he could even turn around from the fake handoff.
“We made a big mistake on the sack on the last play,” coach Pete Carroll said. “We airballed their defensive tackle.”
Left tackle Russell Okung, right guard J.R. Sweezy and center Patrick Lewis all left because Seattle chose not to re-sign them last offseason. The result is these division-champion Seahawks are not as experienced, deep or, to Baldwin’s point, experienced as the ones who went into last season’s playoffs as a wild-card team. That’s especially true along the offensive and defensive lines.
The Seahawks are 27th in the NFL in converting red-zone opportunities inside the opponent’s 20-yard line into touchdowns, at 48 percent. They are tied for 29th in scoring touchdowns in goal-to-go situations, at 57.1 percent. Both figures are the lowest of any NFC playoff team.
Once the field gets tight, the Seahawks haven’t consistently moved defenders off the ball to run, or given Wilson time to throw.
“It’s a process to get to that point you have that confidence in you,” Baldwin said of the inexperience, and the offense’s scattered effectiveness. “Sometimes it takes a while to realize that you are as good as you are.”
Or, perhaps, not as good.
The fact the Seahawks are going to get a home game this postseason — increasingly likely on Jan. 7 or Jan. 8 in the first round against a wild-card team that right now is either Green Bay or the New York Giants — is more a statement about the rest of the NFC West being awful than Seattle being stronger than it was while starting last season’s playoffs on the road.
Even before the loss to the Cardinals, evidence was mounting that these Seahawks are not as equipped to go to the Super Bowl as last season’s team was, even though the 2015 team was a wild-card entrant and this year’s club is a division winner again.
But this year’s Seahawks were on track to have an easier path to go farther than last year’s. After Saturday, that path is probably not going to be much easier.