Seahawks pad playoff chances with blowout win

SEATTLE -- In a lighter moment with reporters this week, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner promised that he would keep Richard Sherman from getting an interception in his return to CenturyLink Field, even though the two friends and former teammates wouldn’t be on the field at the same time together.

Wagner didn’t have to sneak in from the sideline and swipe the ball from Sherman’s hands like he joked he would do if it came to that.

Instead, Wagner upstaged Sherman in his first game back in Seattle by jumping in front of a Nick Mullens pass near the goal line for his own interception. For good measure, he returned it 98 yards for the longest pick-six in Seahawks history. It put a final stamp on Wagner’s monster day and on the Seahawks' 43-16 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

“I was just trying to make sure the quarterback didn’t catch me because if he did, everyone was going to give me a little crap,” Wagner said. “It was extra nice to be running along the 49ers’ sideline. I tried to look at Sherm, but I didn’t see him.”

The rout had been on long before Wagner’s interception in the fourth quarter. By the time the Seahawks headed into the locker room with a 20-3 halftime lead, the only remaining drama was reduced to this:

Would Russell Wilson throw towards Sherman after none of his first six attempts went in the cornerback’s direction?

What else -- if anything -- did Seattle's receivers have in the works after three first-half touchdown celebrations, including one that paid tribute to Sherman's famous tip?

It was that kind of afternoon for the now 7-5 Seahawks.

Their third win in a row keeps them on the path to a wild-card spot that is looking more and more attainable -- perhaps even likely at this point. Projections from ESPN's Football Power Index gave the Seahawks a 78.3 percent chance to make the playoffs heading into this game, good for the fifth-best mark in the NFC, right behind the 7-5 Dallas Cowboys at 80.4 percent. The updated projections had Seattle at 90 percent following Sunday’s games, which included losses by three other wild-card hopefuls -- the Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers.

Afterward, Pete Carroll was asked what it means to the Seahawks to have moved into wild card position -- they currently hold the first wild-card spot as the NFC’s fifth seed -- on the same day the Rams clinched the NFC West.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “We haven’t done anything. It’s good for the Rams.”

This was not a game in which anyone was going to learn much about the Seahawks. Not against a two-win team playing on the road with a third-string quarterback. It was a take-care-of-business game, and the Seahawks took care of business with Wagner’s All-Pro day and another one of Wilson's more efficient performances.

In addition to his pick six, Wagner had a sack, another pass defended, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a game-high 12 tackles.

“You can’t talk about this game unless you talk about Bobby Wagner,” Carroll said, stopping himself midway through his opening statement. “He had just a phenomenal game. There’s not many more things the guy could do.”

Wilson’s stat line at the end of the first half -- 4 of 6 for 102 yards and three touchdowns -- showed how much the Seahawks were in control of this game from early on. He added another touchdown in the second half to give him 11 over the last four games compared to no interceptions. Wilson finished 11 of 17 -- that tied his fewest attempts of the season -- for 185 yards.

Chris Carson (13 carries, 69 yards) and Rashaad Penny (seven carries, 65 yards, touchdown) helped the Seahawks run for 168 yards -- making it eight times in their last nine games that they’ve topped 150 yards on the ground. Neither Carroll nor Carson sounded overly concerned afterward about Carson’s dislocated index finger, which required stiches.

One of Wilson’s two TDs to Jaron Brown came on a scramble play in which Sherman was in the area. Doug Baldwin got the best of his close friend on one play when he shed a Sherman tackle for a 21-yard gain.

The game itself was less eventful for Sherman than his press conference on Thursday, when he took a dig at Wilson, called the Seahawks a “middle-of-the-road team” and stood by his comment about them “losing their way” in terms of player evaluation, a sentiment he shared after his release over the offseason.

“He played well,” Sherman said of Wilson postgame. “I think he threw for like 160 or 170 … Their running game is really effective and they let him get to his spots and kept the game plan simple.”

Sherman called it “just a regular game” when asked about his emotions heading into his Seattle return.

“It’s kind of like playing your brother,” Wagner said. “It’s one of those things where you hope he does good, but you hope you do better and win. That’s just how it was … It was cool. We’ll see him in a couple weeks.”

It was finally a stress-free win for the Seahawks after they white-knuckled their way through November, going 2-2 with all four games decided by eight points or fewer. And it started what they hope will be another late-season run like so many others they’ve gone on under Carroll. They’re now 22-8 in regular-season games played in December or January since 2012.

“Absolutely,” Baldwin said when asked if he thinks Sunday’s win could be the beginning of another strong finish. “Absolutely. Especially if you look at our schedule, there’s some challenges in there for us that I think will play to our strengths.”

The Seahawks will play three of their final four games at CenturyLink Field, starting next Monday night against Minnesota. They’ll be favored in all but one of those games – a Week 16 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs.

“We’re putting together the right formula for us to make a push here,” Carroll said. “I said to our guys last night that I don’t know if there’s any time in the last nine years when we’ve been here when we knew what was going on [in terms of their postseason fate] after Week 12. We didn’t know. We had to keep finishing, keep working. And we’ve had a lot of good finishes and played well in December and I’m hoping that this can be one of those years that we can classically look back at and say, ‘We did it.’”