SEATTLE — It sprouted from a sunflower seed and was harvested with a chop.
The Seattle Seahawks are once again the NFC’s top seed headed into the playoffs. After Sunday’s 20-6 win over St. Louis, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle.
The play that clinched Sunday’s win and the No. 1 seed couldn’t have been more fitting.
Earl Thomas, harnessing every drop of the adrenaline he oozes on the field, karate chopped Benjamin Cunningham’s hand as the Rams receiver reached the ball toward the goal line.
Fumble. Touchback. Fourth-quarter comeback averted.
Need a Seahawks MVP for this season? Thomas is your man.
Five weeks ago, it was Thomas who lit the fire under a Seahawks defense that has torched opponents ever since.
To recap, players chewing sunflower seeds at practice set Thomas off before a Week 12 game against Arizona. He got in their faces, chiding them for a lack of focus and intensity. That blowup led to a hearts-on-sleeve meeting between team leaders and coach Pete Carroll.
Since then, Seattle has won six straight, outscoring opponents 134-39.
“You can look at the X’s and O’s all you want to, this was an emotional change,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “This game is so emotional. It’s so tied to the energy of that the game calls for.”
Thomas isn’t the leader in tackles or interceptions, but the free safety is the emotional heart of the Seahawks.
And Seattle needed every bit of emotional fire and maturity to reach the No. 1 milepost on the road to the playoffs.
It’s the same milepost Seattle reached last year. But the road has been has been rockier and more perilous.
Last year, the Seahawks were front-runners from the beginning. After a 12-1 start, they rolled over a late-season slump like it was a piece of gravel on the freeway.
This season, the first half of the season was pocked with potholes. The Seahawks’ engine — its defense — wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
The alignment was off between quarterback Russell Wilson and receiver Doug Baldwin, who argued on the sideline during a Week 6 loss to Dallas.
There was some bad gasoline named Percy Harvin that needed to be flushed.
And after Thomas took a wrench to a few teammates who needed to ratchet up their intensity, Seattle has been unbeatable.
Last year’s team was fueled by youthful bravado. They were a group of low- or undrafted underdogs motivated by slights, both real and perceived.
This year’s team didn’t have that to draw on. They had been crowned champions. A few had signed long-term contracts for the first time.
This year’s Seahawks needed to, and eventually did, grow up.
“We grew up and also reopened our minds to what it means to play football,” Baldwin said. “We’re playing a child’s game. You have to enjoy it and have fun with the guys that are around you.”
A child’s game, yes. And with the playoffs around the corner, now the fun really begins.