ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Seattle Seahawks will tell you this is all part of their magic. One minute they can seem divided and dysfunctional, incapable of making the outside world comprehend what seems like madness inside their franchise. Then suddenly they can rally and rebuild, letting go of petty arguments and selling each other on the benefits of tough love. No team is better at living with chaos, which is exactly why the Seahawks' playoff hopes remain very much alive.
Seattle's 21-12 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday was a story that seemed destined for a different ending. The Cowboys had their star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, back from a six-week suspension and they had just ripped off three straight wins to improve their postseason chances. Seattle arrived with a different set of circumstances, ones that were far more foreboding. A team that normally thrives in December had lost two in a row, with one defeat ending with two ejections (a 30-24 loss to Jacksonville) and the other in complete dejection (a 42-7 rout by the Rams).
This had the feel of a game that would continue the storyline of Seattle's need to make drastic changes to an aging, flawed contender. Instead, it reminded us of why the Seahawks have been so successful in the first place.
"The perception of what goes on in our locker room is wrong," Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. "Nobody is in the locker room other than the players, and we have a great core group of leaders who've really bought in to what our philosophy and environment is. We pull the young guys along. Sometimes it's a struggle because we have so much diversity in our locker room and it takes time. But we accomplished something tonight and I hope we continue to do that in the long run."
The struggle that Baldwin mentioned was real in Seattle. The Jacksonville game ended with a series of skirmishes, one that led to the ejection of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and defensive end Quinton Jefferson, who nearly climbed into the stands to confront a fan who had thrown something at his head. The Rams defeat included another ejection -- this one after safety Delano Hill was involved in a scuffle -- and even more drama afterward. When safety Earl Thomas told reporters that middle linebacker Bobby Wagner had been slowed by a hamstring injury during the game, Wagner went on Twitter and told Thomas to "stop being jealous of other [people's] success."
This clearly wasn't the same team that won a Super Bowl during the 2013 season and nearly repeated the following year. It was more like a rapidly growing dumpster fire, one that was made all the worse by season-ending injuries to star defenders Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman. The crazy thing is Seattle has a comfort level with the unconventional that is unlike anything else you'll find around the NFL. The same issues that could unravel another team only feeds whatever energy they rely on to succeed.
The Seahawks didn't win this game because they had intricate schemes or better talent. They won it because they had a stronger will.
"I don't think there's any question about that," said coach Pete Carroll when asked how much pride factored into his team's play. "We're all in the same boat together on that one. They responded beautifully [after last week's 35-point loss to the Rams]. I think that was obvious."
Seattle's win actually couldn't have been any uglier. They won on the road despite generating just 76 yards on the ground and 60 through the air. They had fewer first downs than Dallas (15 to 21), less time with the ball (27:10 to 32:50) and more significant injuries. What the Seahawks did have was the same opportunistic nature that has been their trademark throughout the Carroll era.
Seattle cornerback Justin Coleman broke the game open in the third quarter, intercepting an errant pass by Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and returning it 30 yards for a touchdown that gave the Seahawks a 14-12 lead. Seattle also benefited from two other turnovers -- an interception by linebacker K.J. Wright off a tipped pass and a fumble recovery by Wright forced by cornerback Byron Maxwell. As poorly as the Seahawks played on offense, the Cowboys only managed 283 total yards while allowing four sacks.
The Cowboys obviously didn't help their own cause, especially when kicker Dan Bailey missed two makeable field goals in the fourth quarter. However, the Seahawks controlled most of the game, largely by avoiding painful mistakes and displaying an ability to make the key play when an opportunity presented itself.
"It felt really good," Wagner said. "Last week left a bad taste in my mouth and we really wanted to get out there and dominate. We had a lot of people doubting us but we're still in it and we're still fighting."
The Seahawks are still alive, but they are far from being a sure thing in this playoff picture. At 9-6, they now have to beat the Cardinals next week and have the Falcons lose to the Panthers in order to make their sixth-straight playoff appearance under Carroll. Even if it seems like a lot to hope for, the Seahawks are in much better shape than they were when Sunday began. At that point, they needed losses from the Lions and the Falcons to remain alive in the race for that final NFC wild-card spot.
The Cowboys are officially out of playoff contention at 8-7. There will be plenty of debate about what kind of season they could've enjoyed if Elliott hadn't been lost to a six-week suspension and there might even be speculation about the future of Jason Garrett, who has two postseason appearances in his eight years as head coach. Garrett could've given Cowboys fans a nice early Christmas gift with a miraculous run to the playoffs. Instead, he wound up watching his team fall apart at the worst possible time.
Dallas actually did an awfully good impression of the team Carroll had been coaching for the past two weeks. The only difference is that the Seahawks woke up and rediscovered themselves at just the right time. That sudden turnaround was good enough to keep them in the hunt for something more rewarding come January. All the Seahawks have to do now is keep tapping into that mysterious chemistry that only seems to work for them.