SEATTLE — The Seahawks pulled off another come-from-behind home victory on Sunday, though this time there was no dispute about the game-winning touchdown.
The Patriots were left searching for answers during a long flight home that must have seemed interminable after they blew a 13-point fourth-quarter lead and suffered a 24-23 defeat.
Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson had the best day of his young career, and got the neon-green-dotted stands at CenturyLink Field shaking with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice with 1:18 to play.
Three weeks earlier it was a highly controversial Hail Mary that gave the Seahawks a win over the Packers on “Monday Night Football”, the play effectively ending the labor dispute between the NFL and its referees.
Rice was lined up opposite Devin McCourty, but McCourty released Rice, to be picked up by safety Tavon Wilson. But Tavon Wilson lost his footing for just a second as he flipped his hips when Rice cut toward the middle of the field, giving the speedy Rice the separation he needed. Russell Wilson put the pass right on the money.
The long touchdown was one of six passes of 20-plus yards the Patriots gave up on the rainy afternoon, all of them during the Seahawks’ four scoring drives.
Wilson took full responsibility for the touchdown, saying the fact that he’s only six games into his NFL career doesn’t matter.
“I’m held accountable just like everybody else on this team,” he said. “I don’t expect them to give slack to me because I’m a rookie. I’ve got to make the play. That’s why my team puts me out there; they expect me to make a play, and I should have.”
It was a head-shaking ending for the Patriots, who scored just 6 second-half points and again struggled to close out an opponent, as happened against the Cardinals and Ravens and nearly happened against the Broncos.
Seattle closed a 23-10 gap to 23-17 with 7:21 to go on a 10-yard Wilson touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards, a drive kick-started by a 51-yard pass to Golden Tate. Tack on the 15-yard unnecessary roughness call on Brandon Spikes, and the Seahawks were at the Patriots’ 17 in one play.
The Patriots failed to get out of their own territory when they got the ball back, a possession that included Tom Brady’s second intentional grounding call of the game. The New England defense forced a three-and-out, the offense got the ball again, this time with just over three minutes to play, and failed to get a first down.
Zoltan Mesko’s punt was short, returner “Neon” Leon Washington had a 25-yard return, and Seattle began its final possession just 7 yards from midfield.
“The game is never really over — we never really took ’em out,” Patriots receiver Deion Branch lamented in a nearly silent postgame locker room. “The opportunity was there to finish them and we didn’t.”
“We should have been in the 30 [-point range],” offensive lineman Logan Mankins said. “We didn’t get it done. We faltered . . . when it was time to make plays we didn’t make them.”
Coach Bill Belichick largely echoed the thoughts of those veterans.
“Nothing we did today was good enough,” Belichick said. “On offense, defense, special teams, coaches, players, everybody involved in the game. It just wasn’t good enough. We all made mistakes. We had our chances, we just didn’t do a good-enough job.”
New England is now 3-3 and welcomes a fired-up Jets team, which walloped the Colts at home, to Gillette Stadium in Week 7 with first place in the AFC East on the line.
After Buffalo won in overtime in Arizona and Miami beat St. Louis by a field goal, all of the teams in the division have the same record.
The Patriots had trumpeted the Seahawks defense all week, saying the unit does what it does very well. After back-to-back games rushing for over 200 yards as a team, Sunday the Patriots were limited to just 87 yards on 26 carries (the run defense was the bright spot of the New England defense: the Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch were equally stymied, with 85 yards on 26 opportunities).
Asked about the ground game, Mankins said bluntly, “We said all week they’re good. We didn’t run the ball as well as we should have.”
In each of the Patriots’ three losses this year, they have thrown more passes than they rushed the ball. In Seattle, Brady attempted a career-high 58 passes. They rushed 26 times.
There were questions to go around, certainly, but the biggest one for the offense may be the way the end of the first half was handled.
Seahawks punter Jon Ryan bobbled a snap and looked utterly perplexed as to what to do with the ball and was tackled well inside Seattle territory, giving New England possession at the 24 with 40 seconds until the half.
Brady found Wes Welker for a 15-yard gain to start, and then quickly found Danny Woodhead for 6 more, so the Patriots had second-and-goal from the 3. Brady fired for Rob Gronkowski in the end zone, a ball that safety Earl Thomas got his hands on.
On third down, with 6 seconds left, pressure came quickly, Brady threw the ball out of the back of the end zone, and was flagged late for intentional grounding. By rule, 10 seconds had to be run off the clock, which ended the half and wiped out a chance for Stephen Gostkowski to try a short field goal that would have given the Patriots a 20-10 halftime lead.
“That is my responsibility to take care of the football and do something good with it,” Brady said.
“When the play comes in from the sidelines they are not thinking that we are going to have intentional grounding. They trust me to be smart with the ball and to get 3 [points] at the worst and I just made a bad play.”
“We could have put a lot more pressure on them before halftime,” Mankins said. “When you get down there, you have to score points. It didn’t affect our psyche — we still moved the ball in the second half, but we didn’t score. When you get in the red zone, you have to score points, sometimes even 3.”
New England was just 1 for 6 in the red zone.
Brady’s interceptions came on consecutive possessions in the third and fourth quarter, both in Seattle territory. The second came on third and 1 from the Seattle 6, when Brady looked to Welker and it was Thomas who made the catch.
Branch insisted that this team does have the killer instinct, it simply has to execute and make the plays necessary in key moments.
On Sunday, that certainly didn’t happen.