There was plenty to celebrate for the Seahawks in Atlanta on Sunday as they kicked off the regular season with a 38-25 victory over the Falcons.
There was an almost-perfect day by Russell Wilson, who completed 31 of 35 passes for 322 yards and four touchdowns.
There was the smashing debut of safety Jamal Adams, who led all tacklers with 12 and seemed to come up with one big play after another.
And there was the hit by Marquise Blair that forced a fumble on a fake punt and a short field that led to an easy Seattle TD, indicative of how the Seattle defense always seemed to make the big play at the most pivotal time. Blair’s forced fumble was one of four times the Seahawks stopped Atlanta on fourth down, all plays that proved pivotal in the outcome and it was a play that coach Pete Carroll later tabbed “the play of the game.’
But it was the one time when Wilson noticed the Falcons celebrating that might have been the key to it all.
On Seattle’s first drive of the second half, the Seahawks clinging to a suddenly precarious 14-12 lead, the Falcons stopped Seattle running back Travis Homer for a 2-yard loss on a third-and-three play, pinning Seattle back at the Falcons’ 38 and facing a decision.
As the Seahawks debated whether to go for it, Wilson took note of how exuberantly the Falcons seemed to be delighting in their apparent stop of Seattle’s offense — Atlanta also had forced Seattle punts on the previous three drives.
In fact, Wilson said the Seahawks were briefly debating sending “the kicking team out” once again (though he didn’t say whether that was for a field goal or a punt).
Seeing the Falcons whooping and hollering, Wilson indicated, made Seattle’s decision easy.
“They made a good stop on third down and they’re all celebrating,” Wilson said. “And so we kind of just looked at the sidelines like, ‘OK, well, let’s go after ‘em.’ “
Seattle came out with a one-back formation with three receivers and a tight end and plenty of options for Wilson to get the necessary 5 yards.
But, as Wilson said, “We wanted to be aggressive in our approach right there.”
When Wilson saw the Falcons had man coverage on DK Metcalf on the left side, matched up with Isaiah Oliver, whom Pro Football Focus last year ranked 80th among all cornerbacks, he decided to go for it all.
Metcalf got open easily, Wilson laid in a perfect pass, and just like that, Seattle had a 21-12 lead and never was really threatened again.
The play was the longest of the day in a game in which the Seahawks put the ball in Wilson’s hands as much as they ever have — Wilson handed the ball off on only three of the first 14 plays as Seattle built an early 14-3 lead.
And while Seattle always has put a lot on Wilson’s plate, the play seemed to indicate that in Wilson’s ninth year and at the top of his game, the Seahawks will lean on Wilson both physically and mentally more than they ever have.
“Really believing in our guys,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said of the play. “I mean, look how much belief and how comfortable Russ was in that situation. He didn’t just think to dink it to try to get the conversion. He took what was there and took a great shot to DK. Beautiful execution by both those guys.
“But that’s Russ. That’s Russ just making the most of the opportunity, and I think it was a really good illustration of that. And to execute like that under that circumstance is what we really hoped to see. And first game out, gave him a shot, went for it and up it goes. That was a huge play in the game.”
Carroll was pleased the Seahawks were ready to take advantage of such situations. He admitted there were a lot of unknowns about a season opener following an unprecedented training camp in which the Seahawks had to do much of their learning of the playbook via Zoom meetings.
“To get out in the first ballgame and everybody, you know, all the questions — ‘How you going to play, what’s it going to look like?’” Carroll said. ” … And I thought it was a really pretty clean game.
“What I was really excited about is what we’ve been doing in practice showed up, and Russ has been extraordinary all camp. He had a great summer, as I told you guys, in throwing the ball to everybody.”
Wilson’s 143.1 passer rating was the sixth best of his career as he completed passes to nine different receivers.
“He was in great command of the game,” Carroll said.
And so were the Seahawks, for the most part.
There was a brief moment of angst when Atlanta cut the lead to 14-12 at the half, and again when the Falcons cut the lead to 31-18 early in the fourth quarter.
It’s also true that Seattle gave up a fair share of passing yards — 450 to Matt Ryan, with three different Atlanta receivers getting 100 or more (though Carroll noted Seattle was willing to give up some yards late in the game to run the clock).
But as the Blair play showed, the Seattle defense usually got the better of the Falcons when it mattered most, notably Benson Mayowa batting down a pass on a fourth down and getting a sack on another to stop two long Atlanta drives (another ended when Ryan misfired on a pass).
In the end, the Seahawks had rare time to celebrate during the final few minutes. Last year, in going 11-5, Seattle tied an NFL record by winning 10 games that were decided by a possession, the only “breather” a 27-10 victory at Arizona.
Sunday, they could breathe easily as the final seconds ticked off while looking forward to what they feel are many similar days to come.
“We’re going to be a tough football team to beat,” Wilson said. “And I’m excited about it.”
Editor’s note: The Times declined to send reporter Bob Condotta to Atlanta for this game because of COVID-19 safety concerns.