GLENDALE, Ariz.—Long after the game had ended, music blared from the visitor's locker room at State Farm Stadium, with the sounds of wall-shaking bass and shouts from players and coaches clearly audible in the tunnel outside the locker room.
The Seahawks were celebrating a win over the Arizona Cardinals that, in terms of standings or playoff seeding meant nothing—the Seahawks were eliminated from the playoffs two weeks ago with a loss in Week 16—but based on how the Seahawks played the game, and how they celebrated their 38-30 win after the fact, the win was clearly significant to the team finishing out a disappointing 7-10 season.
"We did everything we could to make this as much of a finish to the season that we could possibly do," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said after eventually making his way from the jubilant scene into his postgame press conference. "Our guys just came through the last couple weeks of the season to go ahead and capture that moment when it doesn't even really exist outside of your imagination. To see our guys play this well to finish the season and do so many cool things, it's really, really rewarding."
For a team that had gone to the playoffs in eight of the nine previous seasons, and that last had a losing record in 2011, which was also the last time the Seahawks went into a weekend eliminated from the playoffs, these past two games represented some very unfamiliar territory. But if there was any thought that the Seahawks might just go through the motions the final two weeks after losing to the Bears to be eliminated from the playoffs, they shut that idea down last week with an emphatic 51-29 win over the Lions last week, then they closed out the season with a win over a playoff-bound and motivated Cardinals team that came into the game with an 11-5 record and that, with a win, would have won the NFC West.
"It's a great way to go out," said receiver Tyler Lockett, who had five catches for 98 yards, including two first-half touchdowns… "It brought us closer together. You hear about teams that are in this situation and they fall apart—it's like, 'Uh, I'm ready to leave.' The biggest thing is, our actions, the way we practiced, it said otherwise. Everyone was in it, everybody was out there giving it their all, and to be able to win these last two games, it's really great."
Said quarterback Russell Wilson, "I thought we ended the season the right way. We kept battling. We were able to get several wins along the way. Obviously, not going to the playoffs always hurts because we have such a great team and we can battle with anyone, but I think the cool part about everything was that, in the midst of the storm, we were able to stay the course. We were able to stay consistent in our approach, and in my opinion, get even better. The way we practiced and the way we went to another level of how we practice, we zoned in that much more. I think that shows the character of the guys that we have in the locker room, because you hear about teams who just give up and give in, and we didn't do that. I think tonight was a testament to our season. It's been a battle. It's been a journey. To be able to leave it all out on the field every play and every moment… I think that we definitely did that. I know that was important for me, just to give everything I had every play. We definitely did that tonight. It was a special game. A good football team on the other side, and we did a great job."
With no playoff berths or seeding at stake in the final two weeks, Carroll decided to get creative to find some extra motivation for his team, telling them ahead of the Week 17 game against the Lions that that game would be their NFC Championship game, and if they won that, their finale against the Cardinals would be there Super Bowl. And sure, even Carroll acknowledged that approach was a little silly, but it also seemed to help the team stay focused and motivated despite the disappointment of missing out on the playoffs for just the second time since Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner arrived in 2012.
"I don't think they're going to schedule a parade in Seattle," Carroll quipped. "I don't think there's going to be a parade. Right now, we kind of don't care about that. It was putting it together, playing like we're capable, so that we could see the future. It was a fun football game. It was a hard game, too. Behind it from the start. We had a terrible play where they get ahead and all that - that didn't matter. We get behind in the third quarter—that didn't matter. These guys just were not going to let it happen today. There's so many things to talk about. It was a big finish for us, I'm really fired up about that."
Carroll then went on to praise some of the players and position groups that helped make the win happen, starting with an offensive line that paved the way for a 190-yard game for Rashaad Penny, his fourth game with 135 or more yards in the past five weeks. Carroll of course also praised Wilson's big game, which included three touchdown passes and one touchdown run, as Penny's career day, a pass-rush that produced five sacks, a season-best 8 for 12 day on third down for the offense, and a 20-tackle game by Jordyn Brooks that gave him a franchise-record 183 this season.
Carroll mentioned all of those things not just because they stood out on Sunday, but because so many of them—the running game and the third-down success in particular—helped make the offense look in the final month or so of the season like what the Seahawks hoped it could all seasons. It was the kind of performance that showed not just that this version of the Seahawks could have won more game in 2021 than it did, but also that a not too different version of the team could be awfully good in 2022 despite their struggles this year. It was a win that was as much about momentum going into the offseason as anything else.
"With the guys that we have in this locker room, the effort that they put in every day is special," Wilson said when asked about the team's future. "It's very unique. It is really one of a kind. I think anything is possible. The reality with our team is that we've had some severe injuries, we've gone through a lot… The thing is that we have to continue to figure out where we can get better because obviously not going to the playoffs isn't good enough. We have to give ourselves the best chance possible to be great, and we have to figure out where that is.
"I think we know what we're capable of. I think that's the biggest thing we've known all year. I think that has also been the disappointing part of the year, too. I think everybody has high standards, and I think this organization, our expectation as players, this team and everything else is to be at the highest level and be playing for the highest game and the biggest game there is in the world, and we've been there before. We have to figure out how to get back to that. That level of standard of excellence I mentioned before, and how we get there. It's always huge though, when you win your last game it's always a great feeling to be able to overcome all the obstacles to be able to play a great football team in Arizona. Our fans here, it's so special always playing down here in Arizona. Their fans are amazing. Their fans were loud. It's such a battle, and to be able to run around the field and high five all the fans and everything else, and just to come up with that huge win, and everybody celebrating in the end zone. Guys ran in the endzone, guys making plays on defense, it felt right in the sense of how we were celebrating together and despite the circumstance of where we are at this year I think that's a huge high note for us."
Said Carroll, "It's really important. It's an important step. We needed to respond and feel right about it. Our guys know how we can play, it just took too long, unfortunately."
While a lot of the focus has been on the offense because that was the unit that struggled the most until getting going late in the season, scoring 30 or more points in four of the final six games, the defense also has plenty to build on, including Brooks' big game and big season, a pass rush that finished the year strong, and a secondary that has some question marks regarding free agency, but that played very well all season after some early shuffling at cornerback.
"Oh my god, we've got so much potential," said defensive end Darrell Taylor, who after missing his rookie year with a leg injury had 6.5 sacks in his first season of on-field action. "Once we get all our pieces together and we do everything that's necessary to win games, there won't be a limit to what our defense can do."
Seattle's first losing season in a decade has lead to speculation this year about the future of Carroll, the winningest coach in franchise history, but Carroll made it clear he isn't worried about his future with the team.
"No," Carroll said when asked if he was concerned about his job security. "I'm in great shape."
And with the way Seattle finished the season strong, winning four of six including Sunday's win over the playoff-bound Cardinals, the Seahawks feel like they're in good shape too heading into 2022 even if this season didn't go as expected.
"It's a good way to finish," Carroll said of winning two straight after being eliminated from the playoffs. "I don't ever want to do that again."