GLENDALE, Ariz.—The Seahawks came into Sunday knowing they needed a win if they were going to make the playoffs, but also knowing that a win might not be enough.
And as it turned out, that scenario is what played out, with the Seahawks beating the Cardinals 21-20 to improve to 9-8, but also missing the playoffs because the Packers beat the Bears to secure the wild-card berth that pushed the Seahawks out of the postseason mix.
"We really had one thing we could get done today, and that was come out here and win this football game regardless of what happened anyplace else," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I'm so proud of the way this happened, you know me, I like when they finish like this, it's hard as it can possibly get all the way down to the nub."
As Carroll noted, this game, like so many other the Seahawks have played this season, went down to the wire. In Arizona, as has been the case so often this season, it was Geno Smith providing the late game heroics, leading a go-ahead drive that he capped with a 34-yard strike to Tyler Lockett for a touchdown that put the Seahawks down by a point. Knowing the Packers had already knocked them out of the playoffs, the Seahawks went for two rather than kick the game-tying extra point, and Smith once again found Locket to put Seattle on top.
From there, it took the defense stopping the Cardinals just far enough to make a field-goal attempt interesting, and Matt Prater missed a 51-yard attempt as time expired. And yes, there was celebrating on the field after the win, and in the locker room afterwards as well. Winning NFL games is difficult, especially on the road when you're down a touchdown in the final minutes, and finishing with a winning record, something the Seahawks have now done 11 times in 14 seasons under Carroll and general manager John Schneider, is also an accomplishment. Players also recognize that, given the turnover that come with every NFL offseason, it was the last time that specific collection of players would all be together, so yes, they still were able to find joy in victory even if it didn't come with a playoff berth.
But mixed in with the joy of winning the game was the disappointment over the fact that it wasn't enough. Had the Seahawks won last week when they hosted the Steelers, they'd have been in a win-and-in situation on Sunday. Or for that matter, if they had won any of their other tight losses to Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Dallas, they would have been celebrating a postseason berth with Sunday's win. Instead, they had to cope with the fact that they left themselves in the position of needing help that the Bears, unlike the Lions last year, were not able to provide.
"It's a freakin' crusher, it's a total crusher, because there are so many games in this season that we take with us," Carroll said. "These games don't go away, whether it's Rams, whether it's Dallas, whether it's Pittsburgh, whether it's the Rams again, there's so many game like this that just tear at you that that's what you have to live with. Because we've done the things we need to do to when those games and other games, and we just needed one more. We should have had three more to have the season that we could have had. We were capable of doing that, and I'm really disappointed about that, really disappointed, because we should have been better. It's unfortunate."
For Smith, Sunday's game-winning drive was his fifth this season in the fourth quarter or overtime, and Seattle's sixth as a team, with Drew Lock also leading one in a win over the Eagles, but the Seahawks quarterback could only enjoy his late-game heroics so much.
"The best way to describe it is just bittersweet," said Smith, who closed out his season throwing five touchdowns without an interception in his final three games, posting a passer rating over 100 in each of them. "Obviously, it's always good to get a win, a road win in the fashion that we did today. Shoot, man, it took everybody, it came down to the wire. But also for us not to be able to continue the season, for it to be ending the way that it is, for us to let our own destiny slip out of our own hands, that's something that frustrated me a little bit, because we had a chance. We had a chance to get into the playoffs and see what we could do. But we won today, that's all we could have done is to get the win today, and the rest is up to what we did last week. We had control of it, we let it slip away, but that didn't stop us from finishing the season the way we wanted to, which was to come out here and get a win."
And the fact that the Seahawks did finish strong, even in the final minutes when word spread that the Packers had already taken care of business over the Bears, was meaningful for the team even if it didn't lead to the desired goal.
"It sucks not being able to make it to the playoffs," said Lockett. "We were in the same situation last year and the team we needed to win ended up doing it. This year, I know we put ourselves in some tough situations, games we should've won, but we let slip away. But the thing I love about this team is that people didn't check out, people didn't give up, people wouldn't throw in the towel. Even when you're looking at the scoreboard and you see that the Bears lost, and it's like, people could've easily said, 'Well I'm not going to throw my body in here anymore I'm going to make sure I don't get hurt.' But you still see guys fighting and putting their bodies on the line for a chance to be able to win the game. I think that's all you can really ask, because sometimes in life things don't go the way you wanted it to go, but you've still got to be able to fight and you can't let the circumstances dictate whether you go hard or not. So how many people do you know in real life that are still trying when you know they've lost? For us, I mean that's the biggest appreciation that I have for the players and the coaching staff is regardless of whatever happens is that we stuck together, fought and it's always better to end the season with a win rather than a loss."
Added Carroll, "I just thought it was a really impressive finish for us under the circumstances that we had. I thought it was a stellar effort across the board to get that done.
"I love this team. I love the way that these guys play. I've told you that for such a long time, they continue to keep coming back, they continue to keep believing. They stick to the essence of what we're trying to get done."
Adding to Carroll's love for the team and optimism about its future is the amount of young players who made big contributions throughout the year. The Seahawks opened the season with 20 first or second-year players on the initial 53-man roster, and plenty more contributed throughout the season, some of them in starting roles. Sure, that youth may have contributed to a few issues at times this season, but it's also a reason why the Seahawks, despite not getting what they wanted in terms of another trip to the playoffs, can head into the offseason feeling good about what's to come.
"It's been an interesting year, I feel like we should have won a lot of those games that we didn't, and that's why we're going to be watching here in January," said tight end Will Dissly, who scored Seattle's first touchdown Sunday. "We've got a lot of young guys, a lot of Year 2 guys who learned a grew a ton, so I'm not sad at all, I'm excited for the future. I'm happy to end on a win, but sucks that we're not playing still."
The 12s traveled to Glendale, AZ to watch the Seahawks take on the Cardinals in Week 18.