For two quarters, Sunday's showdown between the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense looked like it was going to be a mismatch. The Seattle Seahawks defense stifled the high-octane Atlanta attack to the tune of one field goal and 86 yards, and it looked like Seattle was on its way to a comfortable victory after leading 17-3 at halftime.
But then the Falcons turned things around in the third quarter, and they did so in dramatic fashion, stringing together three long touchdown drives, including a 97-yarder, and totaled 252 yards of offense to take a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter. The Seahawks were frustrated, to be sure, especially because two of Matt Ryan's touchdown passes came on coverage busts that left players wide open. Richard Sherman was particularly heated after a 36-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones, and had to be calmed down by teammates and coaches.
But while the Seahawks were upset with how they played in that quarter, they wouldn't let it be their undoing. Following Atlanta's prolific third quarter, the Seahawks pitched a fourth-quarter shutout, which included an Earl Thomas interception to set up the go-ahead field goal, as well as a final stop to protect that lead and secure a 26-24 victory.
"We're emotional, it's an emotional team, emotional guys, and we ride that emotion," said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. "I'm not surprised when we get that hot—we've got to control it better so we don't get in the way of what's coming up, but that's kind of what these guys are like. I am, too. We'll figure it out. I thought it was an extraordinary job by our team. You saw those guys rally together to make sure to calm everybody down to get back to business, and look how we finished. I think the last four plays exemplified the heart and the hang-in-there and the toughness and all that stuff. As the offense gave us enough to get it done, the defense had to go get it done against a great offense. And four plays of just tremendous intensity and emotional play. It was awesome."
Sherman described his frustration by saying, "It was a blown coverage. We should never give them points. We could've stopped them and held them to nothing. They scored on blown coverages. The one to (Mohamed) Sanu was a great play but the other two were blown coverages… It's frustrating to give up two bogus touchdowns."
But rather than have those touchdowns and those emotions spiral into a loss, the defense rallied when it mattered most. The turnaround wasn't instant—the Falcons scored twice after Sherman's initial frustration—but after the entire defense huddled on the sideline with injured captain Kam Chancellor helping lead the conversation, they eventually got back on track.
"Emotions sometimes get high," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "He's a very passionate dude, but we love him. I love him like a brother. We got him cool, and everything was good. We got everything under control. We calmed everything down. Everybody is going to have emotions, everybody is going to have feelings—I'm pretty sure I've gotten that way sometime too. We've just got to calm down and make plays and understand that this is a big win. That's a good team over there."
Added safety Earl Thomas: "It wasn't disruptive at all. We can handle that. We understand who we got, there's a reason why he's so great at his position. He's very passionate about football. I've been in those situations where I don't take a shower, I just walk out of here with my pool shorts on because I'm (angry)."
Even with the Atlanta's impressive third quarter, the Seahawks still held the Falcons to 362 yards and 22 points, well below their league-leading averages coming into the game (457.4 yards and 35 points). The Seahawks' pass rush was effective, sacking Matt Ryan four times and hitting him 13 times, they forced a pair of turnovers, both of which set up scores, they held a strong rushing attack to 52 yards, and most importantly, they came up with big stops when they needed them most. The win marked the third time dating back to 2012 that the league's No. 1 offense has faced a No. 1 defense in Week 6 or later, and all three times, that No. 1 defense belonged to the Seahawks, who came away with a win, with a 2012 victory over the New England Patriots, and Super Bowl XLVIII against the Denver Broncos being the other two.
"One thing we harp on is finishing," said cornerback DeShawn Shead, who had a key pass breakup on Atlanta's final possession. "Regardless of the situation—it's football, things are going to happen, things are going to come up—but I'm really proud of how the team finished, that's the most important thing."
And in the end, a strong finish and an impressive victory over the league's top offense were more meaningful than some third-quarter frustration.
"We're passionate about this game," Shead said. "We're a tight-knit family, and sometimes families get into it. But you can see we rallied back together as brothers. We're a brotherhood. Things like that happen, and we came back and finished strong… We got back together, we rallied up on the sideline and let each other know we've got each other's backs. We preach L.O.B.—love our brothers—and that's the number one thing we have to do as a defense."
Game action photos from the Seahawks' 26-24 win vs Falcons at CenturyLink Field.