SEATTLE — Every single Thursday, every single week, the Seahawks run the drill. The ball is bouncing crazily on the turf and bodies hurdle over each other in pursuit.
The fumble drill embodies the chaos of an elementary school at recess and the physics of bodies and objects in motion. Games can be won and seasons saved with the capture of an unpredictably caroming football.
And so it was in the fourth quarter of a tied game Sunday, when Marshawn Lynch fumbled the ball deep in Seahawks’ territory and it first appeared as if the St. Louis Rams would recover.
“I saw it leave Marshawn’s hands and I just did whatever I could to get that ball,” Golden Tate said after the Seahawks won their fifth straight game, 20-13. “That could have been a crucial turnover and it was just me competing. It was just like a day at practice.”
Tate dived after the ball, got his hands on it, but underneath the thousands of pounds of bodies in the dog pile, the ball slipped under his legs.
Somehow he was able to pull it back into his body. His bodyguard on the play, 305-pound center Max Unger, jumped on top of him just to make sure no Rams defender could yank the football away.
“I had my hands and my arms around it the whole time, but with those big ol’ dudes, the linemen, pulling it away from me, it was tough,” Tate said. “They’re scratching, clawing, biting. I was doing my best to hold on like it was my life.”
After three straight blowout wins, the Seahawks found a different path to victory against the Rams. This was a grinder game. Nothing came easily. It was the kind of game the Hawks can expect when they travel to Washington for the first playoff game Sunday.
It was the perfect preparatory test heading into the playoffs, a game that felt as gritty as January.
Quarterback Russell Wilson was under fire. Rams defensive end Chris Long made himself part of the Seahawks’ backfield, sacking Wilson three times.
And, after playing nearly perfectly for most of December, the Seahawks committed penalties that cost them touchdowns and long gains. For the first three quarters, the Seahawks of December were looking a lot like the Seahawks of September.
It was a sobering reminder of just how elusive momentum can be.
“Without those silly penalties, I think that game would have been over a lot earlier,” said Tate, who had three catches for 105 yards. “That’s the stuff we can look at in the film and fix. That’s the good part. Thankfully we got through it and we figured it out.”
In the fourth quarter, tied 13-13, the Seahawks got the ball back at their 10-yard line. First down, 90 yards to go. Winning time. The setup for another Wilson-defining drive.
Was there ever a doubt?
“No,” Tate said.
And just like the victory in Chicago at the beginning of this month, Wilson improvised the game-winning march. He has a way of shrinking the field in the fourth quarter. Has a knack for playmaking under pressure.
From Chicago to Seattle, “Bookend Drives” in a coming of age season. The fourth quarter is beginning to belong to Wilson the way the final nine holes of a major once belonged to Tiger Woods.
On the third play after Tate’s fumble recovery, Wilson danced out of trouble on a third-and-five.
And, with the play broken down, the artful dodger threw a strike to Tate, a 44-yard completion that almost had a feeling of inevitability about it.
“We know in our quarterback that, at any moment, he can break a tackle and he can run and he can also throw on the run,” Tate said. “He broke a tackle and I turned up field and he made a perfect throw where no one could get it but me. He made a play.
“We practice these plays. We have rules, specific rules that we’re told to do. But 16 games into the season, you kind of get a feel for what your quarterback’s going to do.”
This month, when the Seahawks have announced themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, they’ve converted these make-or-break plays.
Wilson made another play, a 15-yard run on a read option to the Rams’ 4-yard line. And he made one final play, racing from inside the 1-yard line to the left corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown.
Ten plays. 90 yards. Three minutes, 32 seconds.
“If we just do what we do, I think we are a very, very dangerous team,” Tate said. “Just stay away from the turnovers and the silly penalties. We can go a long way.”
All the way to Washington and beyond.