There’s no place like home, especially in the playoffs

Posted Dec 9, 2013

Monday metatarsal musings: The Seahawks came oh-so-close to clinching the NFC West and a first-round bye in the playoffs in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers, which showed why home-field advantage will be so vital.

And that’s why home-field advantage in the playoffs is so important.

Not that we needed to be reminded of that, but the events of Sunday afternoon and evening where a not-so-subtle aide-mémoire of that fact.

First, a Seahawks team that had beaten the San Francisco 49ers by a combined score of 71-16 the last two times they played at CenturyLink Field went to Candlestick Park and couldn’t get out of its own way in losing 19-17 – a fifth consecutive loss on the 49ers’ home turf, in which the Seahawks have averaged 14.2 points; a difficult-to-digest loss that snapped the Seahawks’ seventh-game winning streak and prevented them from clinching the NFC West title.

Then, a New Orleans Saints team that was run off the field at CenturyLink Field by the Seahawks last Monday night 34-7 did the same thing to the Carolina Panthers at the Superdome on Sunday night 31-13. That’s the same Panthers team that had won eight in a row to pull into a tie with the Saints for the lead in the NFC South.

So what we’re left with on this 14th Monday morning of the NFL regular season is that snow-shovel-to- the-back-of-the-head reminder of just how important playing at home is going to be in the postseason.

The Seahawks still hold the best record in the NFC at 11-2 and already have clinched a playoff berth, but they’re 6-0 at home and 5-2 on the road. The Saints have the second-best record in the conference at 10-3, but they’re 7-0 at home and 3-3 on the road. The Panthers are a game behind New Orleans in the South and host the Saints next week, but they’re 5-1 at home and 4-3 on the road. The 49ers also are 9-4 and two games behind the Seahawks in the West, but they’re 5-2 at home and 4-2 on the road.

So the teams with the best records in the West and South are 23-3 at home and 16-10 on the road.

Of the eight teams in the NFC with winning records, only the East-leading Philadelphia Eagles have a losing record at home (3-4).

What’s it all mean? No one wants to play either Seattle or New Orleans at home, where they’re a combined 13-0.

For the Seahawks, that means winning out to ensure they not only capture the NFC West but that the road to the Super Bowl runs through CenturyLink Field – where the Seahawks have won 14 in a row. If the Seahawks can get past the 5-8 New York Giants in the Meadowlands this Sunday to claim their franchise-record sixth road victory and then beat the other two NFC West teams at home that they already dispatched on the road – the 8-5 Arizona Cardinals and 5-8 St. Louis Rams – it won’t matter what the 49ers, Saints or Panthers do down the stretch.

Easier said than done, of course, but with all that said, here’s a look at three things that worked against the 49ers and three things that need work as they prepare for the Giants … and then the Cardinals … and then the Rams:

What worked

Golden Tate The fourth-year receiver/returner was there when the Seahawks needed him. Tate’s biggest play was his 38-yard punt return in the fourth quarter to setup a go-ahead field goal by Steven Hauschka. But he also had key receptions on each of the Seahawks’ touchdown drives – a 24-yarder on third-and-6 and a 4-yarder on third-and-2.

“Golden Tate is a 21st century Hines Ward,” Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders said on the NFL Network’s “NFL GameDay Highlights” show.

We’re assuming he meant that as a compliment.

Next-man-up – It has worked for the Seahawks all season, as backups have stepped in for injured starters. Sunday, Byron Maxwell, the third option at right cornerback, had an interception near the goal line among his three passes defensed. And after weak-side linebacker K.J. Wright went out with a broken bone in his right foot, Malcolm Smith came on to make four tackles.

Next-opponent-up – As disappointed as the players were in the locker room at Candlestick Park because they knew they let this one get away, there already was talk about getting back to work and getting better back on track.

“All our goals are still in front of us,” quarterback Russell Wilson said after the Seahawks’ third loss in their past 21 regular-season games. “It was a disappointing loss, but at the same time the best thing about football is you get another opportunity. Our biggest goal is to stay focused on the next opportunity.”

What needs work

Penalties – We haven’t visited this one in a while, but it definitely is worth revisiting after what happened against the 49ers. It wasn’t just that the Seahawks were flagged nine times for 85 yards, it was the additional yardage they lost and the 49er possessions they helped sustain because of the infractions.

Marshawn Lynch ran for a first down on the Seahawks’ second possession, but a holding penalty on Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung put them in a second-and-12 situation. Tate caught a pass for a 21-yard gain on third-and-5, but was called for pushing off and that pushed the Seahawks into a third-and-15 hole. Lynch broke a 20-yard run in the third quarter, but a facemask call on fullback Michael Robinson wiped out the gain and left the Seahawks with a first-and-25.

On the other side, Colin Kaepernick threw just wide to Michael Crabtree on second-and-11, but All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman was called for holding to give the 49ers a first down on their drive to Phil Dawson’s third field goal. Kaepernick missed Crabtree again in the second quarter, but Maxwell was called for holding to give the 49ers another first down on the drive to their only touchdown.

The Seahawks now have 104 penalties for 966 wrong-way yards. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been flagged more (106) for more yards (1,000).

Finishing – The Seahawks took a 17-16 lead with 6 minutes, 20 seconds left in the game on Hauschka’s 31-yard field goal. If the defense forces a three-and-out, the victory is theirs. Instead, they allowed the 49ers to convert twice on third downs and then Frank Gore ripped off a 51-yard run to setup Dawson’s game-winner.

That should not happen against the No. 1-ranked defense in the league. It was reminiscent of the loss to the Colts in Indianapolis this season and the losses at Detroit, Miami and Atlanta last season – when the offense found a way to get the go-ahead score, only to have the defense fail to hold the lead.

Injuries – This is out of the Seahawks control, of course, and just part of such a violent game. But they lost two more players on Sunday. Wright is expected to miss six weeks after breaking a bone in his right foot. Backup safety and special teams standout Jeron Johnson pulled a hamstring.

The Seahawks are 11-2 despite nine starters missing a combined 38 games.

But the losses on Sunday only added injury to insult.