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Seahawks take advantage of everything they’ve earned

Posted Jan 11, 2014

In their postseason opener, the No. 1-seed Seahawks slammed the door on the New Orleans Saints for three quarters in a 23-15 victory on Saturday that allowed them to host next Sunday’s NFC title game.

Michael Bennett made his first NFL playoff game one to not only remember, but savior.

The free-agent defensive lineman who signed with the Seahawks in free agency this season was here, there and seemingly everywhere in Saturday’s 23-15 victory over the New Orleans Saints before a CenturyLink Field-record crowd of 68,388 that sends Bennett and his teammates into next Sunday’s NFC Championship game.

The Seahawks will host either the San Francisco 49ers or Carolina Panthers, who meet this Sunday in the NFC’s other divisional playoff game. The Seahawks have beaten both teams this season, but Bennett and his teammates said the site of the title game – CenturyLink Field – is more important than the opponent.

“It’s a big deal to play here,” said All-Pro and Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman. “We’ve earned that right. We’ve earned that right to play them at home, to be on our home field in front of our fans. And our fans have earned that right.

“It’s something that’s humbling and a blessing.”

On this wind-blown, rain-swept afternoon, the Seahawks humbled the Saints for the second time in six weeks – they also beat New Orleans 34-7 in Week 13. And while the defense not only set the tempo, but also set up the Seahawks’ first touchdown; it was a full-unit victory.

The defense held the Saints scoreless for three quarters, thanks to a couple of fourth-down stops, a forced fumble and recovery by Bennett and two missed field goals by New Orleans kicker Shayne Graham. The offense got a 140-yard, two-touchdown effort by Marshawn Lynch, who had gone six games without hitting triple digits. The special teams chipped in with three field goals by the unflappable Steven Hauschka.

But everything started with a Seahawks defense that led the league in average points, yards and passing yards allowed, as well as interceptions and turnovers during the regular season. And that takes us back to Bennett, who signed with the Seahawks as a rookie free agent in 2009, only to spend the rest of that season and the next three with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“That was fun, man,” Bennett said. “I’m just lucky to be able to play with so many great players, at every position. … I knew playing in the postseason was good. I’d seen people holding up those trophies and be out there making plays.

“So I just feel good right now.”

And his teammates also are feeling pretty good, in large part because of the plays Bennett was able to make. And none was bigger than the fumble-forcing hit he put on Saints running back Mark Ingram on the first play of the second quarter. Bennett also recovered at the Saints’ 24-yard line, and Lynch scored on a 15-yard run two plays later to make it 13-0.

“It was just so quick,” Bennett said. “Boom, got the ball. Let’s play. I just knew we had to come out and make big plays to be able to win this game.”

In an era of specialization on the defensive line, Bennett is a Swiss army knife performer, lining up at tackle and end in the base and nickel defenses. Before his day was over, he had forced a second fumble when he and rush-end Cliff Avril combined for a third-down sack of Drew Brees in the third quarter and also blown up another play that resulted in him dropping running back Khiry Robinson for a 5-yard loss.  

“Mike’s been a great addition,” coach Pete Carroll said. “Shoot, he’s made plays all year. We move him around and do all kinds of things with him. To force the fumble and recover it and be part of another sack, too, just the way he plays is so fitting for us.”

But this one wasn’t without its nervous moments at the end, as the Saints scored 15 fourth-quarter points and then recovered an onside kick with 24 seconds to play.

That’s what made the second touchdown scored by Lynch so important. His 31-yard scoring run with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left gave the Seahawks a 23-8 lead.

“I just think we played a good team game,” Lynch said. “The defense did a good job. Getting this win just means we get another opportunity to play another game.”

On the play before Lynch scored – a third-and-3 play – Doug Baldwin made a reaching grab along the sideline of a pass from Russell Wilson against tight coverage from cornerback Corey White for a 24-yard gain.

“We had practiced it all week,” Baldwin said. “When we got in third-and-short situations, we knew they were going to press at the line of scrimmage and challenge us that way because they were going to try and stop the run. It was a beautiful setup.”

With a twist, because Baldwin beat White off the line and had to wait for wide receiver Golden Tate to set up the move where he got open.

“After that, Russ threw a beautiful ball and allowed me to make a play,” Baldwin said.

And what a play it was, as Baldwin got one foot and the other knee down before falling out of bounds.

“That was just unbelievable,” Wilson said after completing 9 of 18 passes for 103 yards. “They brought cover-zero, we knew they’d bring cover-zero in a big situation. We got max-protected, checked to it and Doug Baldwin had an unbelievable route and made a great catch on the sideline.”

But in their biggest game of the season, so many Seahawks made big plays. The All-Pro and Pro Bowl safety tandem of Kam Chancellor (14) and Earl Thomas (11) combined for 25 tackles and four passes defensed (two each). Linebackers Bobby Wagner and Malcolm Smith each had nine tackles, while Wagner also rejected a Brees pass on one of the fourth downs the Saints failed to convert.

“I thought we had a lot of cool things happen in this game and I like that we took care of the football on a day like this,” Carroll said.  

So here they are, after all the practices, and meetings, and games, and weeks, and months, heading to the NFC Championship game.

“It still feels like a dream,” Chancellor said after registering a career-high 14 tackles. “This whole journey, man, it feels like a dream. But it’s something I envisioned a long time ago. It’s something Earl and I talked about a long time ago. It’s what we want to do, and we’re not going to let anybody come in our way and take this from us.”

Not if the Seahawks’ defense that has taken so much from so many opponents this season has anything to say about it.