Risk, reward

How did Seattle rally from impossible odds to reach the Super Bowl? Because control is an illusion

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SEATTLE — The story was about control. If you like to think mathematically, you can look at Sunday’s inexplicable Green Bay-Seattle game this way: When Green Bay safety Morgan Burnett intercepted the ball with five minutes, 13 seconds left, the Packers had a 98.2 percent chance of beating Seattle and going to the Super Bowl. Green Bay had control.

Think about that percentage for a second: 98.2. That’s just about as close to a sure thing as you can get in sports. Steve Nash didn’t make 98 percent of his free throws. The only full-time placekicker in the NFL Hall of Fame, Jan Stenerud, did not make 98 percent of his extra points. Mariano Rivera did not convert even close to 98 percent of his save chances.

How do you lose a game that is 98.2 percent won?

How do you win a game with a 1.8 percent sliver of a chance?

“We just kept believing,” Seattle receiver Jermaine Kearse said.

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“We gave it away,” Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.

“Well,” Seattle’s Russell Wilson said. “I guess there are two ways to look at it.”

* * *

There’s a philosophy, prominent in all sports but particularly football, that the way to win is not to lose. Don’t turn the ball over. Make the fewest mistakes. Play the field-position game. That conservative strategy appeals to many football coaches – and many analysts who were once football coaches — because it has won a lot of games through the years, but also because it offers the feeling of control. Or is it the illusion of control?

Green Bay controlled Sunday’s game more or less from the start. The Packers controlled the game by battering the Seahawks with their offensive line, by swarming Wilson with their defensive pressure and by taking the ball away. In the first half, Green Bay had FIVE different drives that moved inside the Seahawks’ 30-yard line. Five. The Seahawks, meanwhile, had a total of eight passing yards, and quarterback Russell Wilson had completed more passes to Packers defensive backs (three) than he had to his own receivers (two).

Control. Green Bay could not have more completely controlled the first half. And yet, the Packers’ lead was only 16 points, when it might have been 28 or more. Some of this was Seattle’s own steadfastness. But also, Packers coach Mike McCarthy called the game tentatively, twice having his team kick field goals from the Seahawks’ 1 yard line and generally running a buttoned-down offense that did not put too much pressure on Rodgers, who was nursing a bad calf. The Packers played to win by not losing.

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And you had to say it was working. The Packers had a heavily favored Seattle team down in its own raucous stadium. A 16-point lead is not to be dismissed; only two teams in conference championship game history had come back from such a big deficit.

And even when the Seahawks pulled within nine on a perfectly executed fake field goal (“Drastic momentum change!” Seattle’s Kam Chancellor said), the Packers still seemed in control. They had a 19-7 lead with a little more than five minutes remaining as the Seahawks began what appeared to be their make-or-break drive. Wilson dropped back, had time, threw hard over the middle … and the pass bounced through the hands of Jermaine Kearse and popped into the hands of the Packers’ Morgan Burnett.

That’s when the Packers were 98.2 percent of the way to Glendale, Ariz. “Over,” said the person next to me, and the person next to you wherever you were watching the game, and just about every other person who was watching the game with clear eyes.

* * *

So, first thing, Morgan Burnett grabbed the ball … and he inexplicably slid. Even more inexplicable, his teammate Ha-Ha Clinton Dix fell on top of him, the way someone from the Secret Service might shield the President. It was an odd sight, something you might see with 10 seconds left on the clock, not with five full minutes. Burnett had quite a bit of running room and a couple of blockers in front of him. On replay, it looked like without too much trouble, he might have run for an extra 20 or 30 yards, deep into Seattle territory.

Then, you could see his thinking. The Packers had the ball, five minutes left, up 12 and the Seattle had not scored a single offensive touchdown all day. So, yes, you could see the reasoning. Burnett didn’t want to fumble. He didn’t want to lose the game. Take no chances. No risk. Control.

Then the Packers handed the ball off to Eddie Lacy three straight times before punting the ball back. The three runs lost a total of four yards. The Packers have one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and even though he was nursing a bad hamstring, the Packers had to know that a first down would all but ice the game. The Packers did not go for a first down. You could see the thinking. The three running plays forced Seattle to burn two timeouts. A little bit more than a minute drained off the clock. Take no chances. No risk. Control.

“It takes 60 minutes,” Packers tight end Andrew Quarless said sadly after it all ended. “We probably played 57.”

* * *

When the Seahawks got the ball back, there was an unmistakable energy buzzing in the crowd, a sort of unchained elation. They were still in it! The Packers should have put the game away again and again, but for some reason, the game was still there to be won. Russell Wilson had thrown four interceptions for the first time in his football life – college, high school, pee-wee football,  you name it — and he had looked lost at times. Still, when the Seahawks got the ball back, he had this strange confidence, this feeling like, “OK, things are about to go our way.”

“All game long, he kept saying to us, ‘We’re going to win this game! We’re going to win this game!’” Kearse said.

“Yeah, we all just kept believing, that’s what’s special about this team,” Wilson said.

The touchdown drive happened fast. Seven plays. The highlights: Marshawn Lynch ran for 14; Wilson connected with Lynch for 26. Wilson scored from one yard out. There was still more than two minutes left, and the stadium was literally shaking because now people could see the clear path to victory. The Packers were no longer in control. Then the onside kick happened – one of those plays that shows how little control anyone really has.

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The Seahawks’ Steven Hauschka hit a good onside kick in that the ball bounced high in the air. This forced Green Bay tight end Brandon Bostick to make a decision. On the one hand, his job was to block Seahawks players and clear the way for one of the real hands guys – like receiver Jordy Nelson – to secure the ball and end this threat.

On the other hand, though, the ball was kicked right to him. He’s a tight end, so he’s not useless with his hands – he has caught nine NFL passes in two seasons – and the ball was right there for him. There was no question that he was in position to catch the ball and, more or less, end Seattle’s chances. He leaped up to catch it, and the ball slipped between his hands and hit him the facemask. Seattle’s Chris Matthews plucked the ball out of the air.

“No, that’s not my job at all,” Bostick said afterward. He was devastated. “I was supposed to block. I just reacted to the ball. I thought I could get it. Obviously, I couldn’t.”

Control. The Seahawks scored in a blur of a drive. Wilson ran right for 15. Lynch picked up three. Wilson hit an eight-yard pass. And Lynch blasted for 24 yards and a touchdown; he turned to face the defense the instant he crossed the goal line, and he refused to celebrate, refused even to accept hugs. He merely shook hands with his teammates. “The best running back in the NFL,” Wilson would call him.

Then came perhaps the goofiest play of this incredibly goofy series – a two-point conversion play where Wilson rolled right, found no one open, spun, threw a high pass to no one, the sort of pass kids used on the playground when trying to simulate a punt. His teammate Luke Willson played it the way a soccer player handles a high goal kick: First, he feigned the defender into believing the ball would land in one spot, and then, with a couple of quick steps, he put himself into position to catch the ball. He did for two points.

“If you run that two-point play 100 times, how many times do you make it?” a reporter asked Russell Wilson.

“Never,” Wilson responded.

There is no control in football. It’s all an illusion. The Packers trailed by three with 1:19 left, and Rogers hit three consecutive passes to move Green Bay into field goal range. But even here, the Packers played somewhat conservatively, leaving two of their three timeouts unused. They were going for the game-tying field goal, not a game-winning touchdown. They got the field goal. And the game went into overtime.

And in overtime, Russell Wilson rediscovered the mojo that has made him one of pro football’s most compelling figures. After Seattle won the toss – “How about Tarvaris Jackson winning the coin flip?” Wilson gushed – a moment of Zen happened for Wilson. He said to offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, “I’m going to hit Kearse for a touchdown on a check.”

Six plays into the drive, Green Bay was in the right defense (or wrong defense, depending on your viewpoint), and Wilson did exactly what he said. He checked to the play and threw a long pass to Kearse down the middle. Kearse was an undrafted free agent, released by Seattle in his first year and brought back. He’s a local –high school in Lakewood, Wash., college at the University of Washington. He also took personal responsibility for two of Wilson’s interceptions because they went through his hands. This time, he concentrated every ounce of his energy that ball come into his hands.

“I was so tunnel vision on that ball,” he said.

He caught it. Seattle players rushed on the field. The Seahawks head to their second straight Super Bowl. The Seahawks had come back from a 1.8 percent chance. They were, like Miracle Max says in “The Princess Bride”: “Mostly dead.” Yet they won.

“It can’t be explained – it’s got to be God,” cornerback Byron Maxwell said.

“It makes you just sit back and, like, whoa – it’s bigger than you,” safety Earl Thomas said.

And the Packers were at the other pole, shell-shocked and empty and quite uncertain how they had lost control. They had been dealt one of the most heartbreaking losses in NFL history. There were no explanations.“We were the better team today,” Rodgers said, and true or not, there isn’t much comfort in that. Maybe the Packers didn’t deserve to lose. Trouble is, they didn’t do enough to win.