SEATTLE — Russell Wilson stood and watched as his legend grew, raising his arms as the best pass of a bad day landed in wide receiver Jermaine Kearse’s hands.
He had predicted it moments earlier in the huddle, Wilson to Kearse for the win, a select kind of nerve by a quarterback who had thrown four interceptions for the first time in his life.
“If we’re going to go down,” the Seattle Seahawks quarterback said, “I’m going to go down swinging.”
For three quarters, Wilson and his offense looked overmatched. The Green Bay Packers maintained a double-digit lead. Receivers dropped passes. The team racked up penalties. Tipped passes landed in defensive backs’ hands. Then, for about five magical, inexplicable minutes, Wilson and the Seahawks could do no wrong, stunning the Packers, 28-22, in an overtime thriller to win the NFC championship and return to the Super Bowl after winning last year’s Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“If the ball is in 3’s hands,” Seahawks guard J.R. Sweezy said, “there’s a chance.”
Wilson is 5 feet 11, a former third-round draft pick who revived his football career only after a professional baseball career fizzled. He’s also the NFL’s most impressive winner, a young and poised player who is one victory away from winning two Super Bowls in three NFL seasons.
On Sunday, Wilson somehow had his best and worst game as a pro. He already has a reputation for avoiding crippling mistakes, only throwing three interceptions in a game once: his fourth game in the NFL. He had three in the first half against the Packers, whose lingering error was settling for three field goals. Wilson kept passing, kept flinging trying to turn his luck, throwing his fourth pick with 5 minutes 13 seconds to play and Green Bay leading by 12. “Kind of ugly, huh?” Wilson said later.
It was worse than that: Wilson wasn’t even his team’s best quarterback through three quarters after punter Jon Ryan executed a brilliant and gutsy fake field goal for a touchdown.
Then Wilson found running back Marshawn Lynch for a 26-yard gain that led to Wilson’s one-yard touchdown, and an onside kick landed in Seattle wide receiver Chris Matthews’s hands. “I didn’t have to do nothing,” Matthews said. “It just opened up like the Red Sea.”
Wilson naturally led a flawless, seven-play touchdown drive, punctuating it with a two-point conversion on a backpedaling, floating, doomed pass that, yes, found tight end Luke Willson for a 22-19 lead. “I don’t even know how to explain it,” Willson said, shaking his head.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, hobbled throughout the season’s twilight with a strained left calf, limped to and from the huddle during Green Bay’s final drive, fighting the pain and his counterpart’s magic. This was supposed to be Rodgers’s time, joining Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as the game’s best — and most decorated — passers.
The Packers had made in-season adjustments, with Coach Mike McCarthy moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker and discovering Eddie Lacy is one of the game’s best rushers. But it was always Rodgers as Green Bay’s heartbeat, and through 45 minutes of football, it seemed destined that he was somehow going to come into Seattle and beat the NFL’s best defense.
“You think it’s in the bag,” Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb said. “Just let the clock run out, find a way to hold on to that lead.”
Instead, the Packers needed a late field goal to send a classic game into overtime, and it was before the coin toss that Wilson told a teammate he was about to hit Kearse on a deep touchdown pass to win this thing. Sure enough.
“Incredible,” Sweezy said after the confetti fell. “Almost like a dream, man.”
“Russell Wilson being Russell Wilson,” linebacker Bruce Irvin said. “This is what he does.”
“What’s understood doesn’t need to be explained,” wide receiver Doug Baldwin said, paraphrasing that wise philosopher Lil Wayne.
Wilson’s success cannot be explained, though for these next two weeks explanations will be attempted. Several of Wilson’s teammates said they have learned to rely on their quarterback, no matter how bad things look. Wilson and the Seahawks, whose season was in doubt after they fell to 3-3 in October, simply make no sense. Wilson defies the traditional NFL road map, and he will arrive again in the Super Bowl while Rodgers and the Packers head home.
As Kearse celebrated Sunday afternoon in the end zone, teammates flooding the field, Wilson just stood there and celebrated. Then he joined the scrum, pulling on a white T-shirt and jogging around CenturyLink Field, carrying the NFC championship trophy and slapping hands in the rain with fans who, minutes after watching something incredible, still couldn’t believe their eyes.
Summary: Seahawks 28, Packers 22 (OT)
AFC championship game: New England routs Indianapolis
Summary: Patriots 45, Colts 7