Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was his usual jovial self, bounding into the cubbyhole that serves as the visiting press conference room at Reliant Stadium while jokingly instructing a silent group of reporters to "pipe down" as he strode confidently to the awaiting podium. On the heels of a gut-check, 23-20 overtime victory against the Houston Texans, Carroll was gleefully enthusiastic, seemingly impervious to any line of questioning that could possibly alter his mood.
As far as regular season triumphs are concerned, this particular one qualified as landmark.
Carroll's demeanor changed a bit following his jubilant opening statement. His Seahawks have developed a hard-earned reputation for toughness and tenacity, but the narrative that his squad performs like lions at CenturyLink Field in Seattle and lambs on the road began to fester on Twitter as the Houston Texans dominated en route to a 20-3 halftime lead.
"I think that says he's an outstanding young man and I think he's exactly what we thought he was. There's no sophomore slump for him."
When asked how vital this win was in helping shift that narrative, in changing lingering perceptions about the Seahawks away from their adored 12th Man, Carroll bristled. Given his earlier exuberance, his reply was curt.
"It ain't critical to anybody to show on the outside," Carroll snapped. "We just wanted to be what we're capable of being, and we weren't that for a while there. And it just looked like we were in, you know, running in sand, and it just wasn't like that.
"They got stronger (and) they played better. We made more plays. We did everything we needed to do to give ourselves a chance.
"I don't care what your opinion is of what we need to look like. We need to play like we're capable of, and whatever that is we'll take that to the bank."
The fact remains that perceptions are the greater part of reality, and the Seahawks were perceived to be wholly different at home than on the road. That changed Sunday, for after taking a series of haymakers to the chin from the Texans, the Seahawks used the intermission to reclaim their focus and rebuild their resolve. Their attitude adjustment wasn't immediately available for view when they emerged from the visiting locker room, particularly on offense where they continued to scuffle.
But series by series the Seahawks started to impose their will defensively, and in line with their general personality, the tone set by the defense paved the way for the offense to find its bearings and initiate a comeback that was equal parts improbable and exhilarating.
Richard Sherman's Defensive Resolve
After surrendering 324 yards in the first half, including touchdown drives of 90 and 80 yards in succession, the Seahawks began buckling down in the third quarter. The Texans managed just four first downs over their opening four possessions of the second half, and while their fifth possession ended with the Richard Sherman 58-yard interception return for a touchdown that turned the game on its ear, the Seahawks initiated the process of siphoning momentum from the home sideline well before Sherman knotted the game at 20-all with his individual daring.
"I told our guys on the sideline, our offense, that they're giving us a shot," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said of his defense. "It just seemed like momentum was changing. It felt like they (the Texans) weren't getting first downs like they were in the first half. They were doing well in the first half. They were throwing the ball really well against our defense, which is hard to do.
"It was an unbelievable battle. We just found a way."
"So they were throwing the ball well, but it seemed like in the second half the momentum changed our way and we just had to find a way to keep it going, keep believing, and keep finding a way to get first downs and get closer and closer to the end zone. We did that and we found a way to make some big-time plays in some big situations."
Despite his earnest efforts to deflect the praise, Wilson was central to that revival on offense. For all the lingering chatter about his hesitance to utilize his legs and run the football, Wilson wrestled control of the fourth quarter when he surrendered to scrambling. The Texans' defensive front manhandled the Seahawks' makeshift offensive line, sacking Wilson five times while battering him with 10 additional hits. But after he delivered a pinpoint third-down pass to Doug Baldwin for a 24-yard gain from the Seattle 5-yard line, Wilson started shredding the Texans' defense.
Immediately after his first-down strike to Baldwin, Wilson dashed 25 yards for a first down. He added a 13-yard run on 2nd-and-20 that made for a manageable third down that he subsequently converted with an eight-yard pass to Baldwin. He responded to being sacked by Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus with an 11-yard run, and when Seattle opted to go for it on fourth down at the Houston seven, Wilson eluded backfield pressure and beat a defender to the first down marker and sideline. He was at his most magnificent when the moment was dire.
"I think that says he's an outstanding young man and I think he's exactly what we thought he was," Sherman said of Wilson. "There's no sophomore slump for him.
"Teams are going to figure out that he's not going to be able to run it every time. He's not a one-dimensional quarterback. He tries to stay back there and throw it. And as soon as they forget about his running ability, he took risks. He put his body on the line for the team.
"He knew we needed him to run. We needed him to get down the field and make some exciting plays."
Wilson merely set the stage for Sherman, who teamed with safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas to bait Texans quarterback Matt Schaub into making a throw the Seahawks diagnosed pre-snap. Seattle was acutely aware of the Texans' tendencies on third-and-short, and when Schaub walked into the trap set by the Seattle secondary, Sherman pounced at the opportunity.
Carroll offered an itemized list of everything the Seahawks did down the stretch to showcase their mettle: The Sherman Pick-6; the daring punt return from the goal line by Golden Tate in overtime; the Baldwin catch on the Seattle sideline initially ruled incomplete before Carroll tossed the red challenge flag; the punishing ground attack of Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch.
Step by step the Seahawks cobbled together the type of road victory that had proven elusive more often that not. Yes, Seattle won on the road at Washington in the wild card round of the 2012 playoffs, but their failure to subdue the Atlanta Falcons the following weekend seemingly negated their victory at FedEx Field. When the standard is the Super Bowl, the terms of success play out like a shell game. Each ensuing road challenge is the biggest in franchise history, at least until there are no road challenges remaining. The Seahawks understand this, and they perform accordingly.
So, while Carroll dismissed any discussion cleaving intestinal fortitude to this particular road triumph, his players expressed otherwise. Even if they weren't attempting to win to quiet the whispers about the Seahawks' viability on the road, they did so to squelch any doubts about their ability to play with the same tenacity away from CenturyLink Field, where they are 10-0 with Wilson as their starter, as they do inside it.
"It was an unbelievable battle. We just found a way," Wilson said. "To be able to do that on the road again, it's a great effort and that's what we needed. We needed to find a way to come up with a huge win on the road, and so we're going to have to keep doing that."
Added Sherman: "I think it was important for our ball club just to win on the road, just to continue our win streak. I don't think our franchise has ever started 4-0, and I think that was important for us to be that stepping stone, to continue to advance, to continue to grow as a team."