By Danny O'Neil
OK, Seattle, you can exhale now.
Maybe even exalt a little after the Seahawks beat the Saints 23-15 Saturday to advance to the conference championship game for the third time in franchise history.
Just don't think it's going to get any easier. Not for this team. At least not with this offense. And certainly not on your nerves.
This was a game that embodied your 2013 Seattle Seahawks for better (usually) and for worse (occasionally). This team will look utterly dominant behind its defense in one quarter and then incredibly vulnerable when its offense vanishes the next before making you sweat through an unexpectedly suspenseful conclusion.
That was the storyline in the regular season when Seattle lost its first two chances to clinch its division before landing the conference's top seed in the playoffs. It was true again Saturday when the Seahawks survived a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and one onside-kick recovery to hold onto a game they led 16-0 entering the fourth quarter.
"An interesting finish to this game," coach Pete Carroll said. "We're really proud to get the win and be coming back home next week."
They should be proud. The Seahawks not only shut out the Saints through three quarters – something that no team has done to New Orleans since 2002 – but they didn't let them inside Seattle's 25 until the final play of the third quarter
Yet New Orleans had the ball at the end, needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie it when receiver Marques Colston somewhat inexplicably threw a second forward pass from the Seahawks' 38, resulting in a game-ending penalty.
The Seahawks' defense was dominant again, holding New Orleans scoreless through the first three quarters. (AP)
There will be plenty of people saying that this week after Seattle settled for three first-half field goals and then nursed a 16-0 lead through a second half with the offense totaling 114 yards over the final two quarters. Seattle's first five possessions in the second half netted a total of two first downs and ended with five punts.
Maybe it's time to stop wondering when this offense is going to turn the corner. The Seahawks didn't crack open a new explosive chapter of their playbook with the playoffs underway. Russell Wilson didn't start reeling off double-digit rushes, either. Even the return of Percy Harvin failed to open up Seattle's offense all that much in the two quarters he played before leaving the game because of a concussion.
Instead, Seattle focused on the formula that Carroll announced when he first arrived: a run-first offense reinforced by a steel-toed defense that is built for a day just like Saturday with its wind gusts and torrential rains.
"This is that time," Carroll said. "This is exactly why you make a commitment to be a balanced offense and a balanced football team."
And by balanced, he means a copious dose of Marshawn Lynch, who rushed for 140 yards. Not only was that a Seahawks' postseason record but the first time he has hit triple digits since the first half of November.
And yet despite that rushing success, the Seahawks were one play away from punting the ball back to the Saints midway through the fourth quarter. One sensational play, it turns out, Wilson opting to throw a sideline fade to Doug Baldwin for a 24-yard gain on a third-and-3.
|• Recap | Stats | Photos | Postgame interviews||• O'Neil: What We Learned||• Henderson: Harvin roughed up | Carroll's take||• Henderson: Marshawn Lynch sets playoff record||• Huard: Breaking down Lynch's first touchdown||• Stecker: Saints' offense meets its match again||• O'Neil: Irvin, Graham square off during warmups|
It was only the third first-down of the second half for Seattle, and it set up Lynch for a 31-yard touchdown run on the very next play.
That was enough. At least for this game even though the Saints scored one touchdown with 26 seconds left and recovered the onside kick, but never got within 35 yards of the end zone.
And then Seattle could exhale. At least for eight days, but if you've learned anything from these Seahawks over the past month, it's that you should expect to hold your breath during the NFC Championship Game.