For the first time in three years, the Seattle Seahawks are not playing in the Super Bowl. But here are three thoughts on Pete Carroll's squad that relate to Sunday's games.
1. During the course of the year, Carroll often pointed out that Russell Wilson was only in his fourth NFL season. He has said on multiple occasions that it takes quarterbacks seven or eight years in the league to really understand fronts and coverages and how to set up protections. Wilson's response? Experience is for the unqualified. But the coach may be on to something. The average age of the four quarterbacks who played this weekend was 34.75. Wilson, meanwhile, is 27.
That's why the Seahawks' window remains open. Wilson just led the NFL in passer rating, and it's unlikely that we've seen the best he has to offer. Carroll mentioned last week that now is the time to load even more on to Wilson's plate and help him gain a better understanding of defenses. The Seahawks' philosophy won't change. Carroll has been clear about how he wants his teams to play. On the other hand, they may never be able to build a defense that was as good as the one we saw in 2013. The identity may be different in future years, but Wilson's development will tell the story of where this franchise goes for years to come.
2. It feels like "Russell vs. Cam" is going to become a thing relatively soon, if it's not already. At 26, Cam Newton is younger than Wilson, and he's going to the Super Bowl for the first time. Take a look at the Carolina Panthers' pending free agents. Like the Seahawks, they have their franchise quarterback and their core in place. Both teams have built top-five defenses and are in position to compete for years to come.
As long as Aaron Rodgers is around, the Green Bay Packers will be in the mix. And there are surprises every season. But everything is set up for Wilson and Newton -- and the Panthers and Seahawks -- to have some classic battles down the road.
3. Sunday was yet another reminder that consistent pressure can affect even the best quarterbacks in the NFL. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Denver Broncos hit Tom Brady 23 times. For the first time in his postseason career (31 games), Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes and averaged worse than 6.0 yards per attempt. Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had a brilliant game plan. On 14 occasions, he rushed just three, and on those plays, Brady went 4-for-13. In 17 previous games this season, the Broncos rushed three a total of 14 times. It was a changeup that worked brilliantly and forced Brady to hold on to the ball.
In the second half of the season, the Seahawks managed sacks on just 5.1 percent of their opponents' dropbacks. That ranked 26th in the NFL. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are both productive pass-rushers, but the team could lose Bruce Irvin in free agency. The organization has high expectations for Frank Clark, but beyond him, there's not a lot of young pass-rushing talent in the pipeline.
Pressure is achieved by either forcing the quarterback to hold on to the ball, winning one-on-one matchups up front or blitzing. The Seahawks aren't going to blitz a lot, and given how good their secondary has been, I'm not sure it's realistic to expect them to force QBs to hold on to the ball even longer. That's why it would not be surprising at all to see them focus on the pass rush this offseason -- either in free agency or the draft -- when analyzing how to get better defensively.