CINCINNATI -- The Seattle locker room floor was full of scattered debris. Coach Pete Carroll stood in the middle of it, festooned in a swanky blue suit. He was saying he has to muck it up, dig deep, excavate why his team that has strode to the last two Super Bowls suddenly cannot finish and has fallen to 2-3.
This was after the Seahawks lost to the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-24, in overtime on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. It was a game Seattle led 24-7 with a little more than 12 minutes left. In all three of its losses Seattle has blown second-half leads.
This one was so strange that even long after Carroll had said in his postgame news conference that "it's difficult to leave here without a win," and "there were too many things that happened across the board that led to this loss," and "we've had to be terrific in this mode for years to be able to do what we have done" and "I have to make sure I'm doing it right, it starts with me," he still looked startled, shook over his team's failures. They are looking late in games like a team he does not know. They are looking late in games like a team he does not coach.
Baffled, he said.
He can't wait to see the film. Important film, he said, to see what happened differently in the fourth quarter and overtime (Bengals 20-0) compared with the first three quarters (Seahawks 24-7).
I ask Carroll if we didn't just see the game? Wasn't it clear that the Bengals completely outplayed, outhit and were more desperate than your team late in the game? Since your teams in the last two Super Bowl seasons made a habit of imposing their will on others, don't you recognize that when it is evident in others?
Might it be that your team, up 24-7, thought it already had them beat?
Might it just simply be that these Bengals are special, the better team?
"Hey, that's a thought, but we aren't going there and we aren't going to look at it that way," Carroll said with zest. "We have to focus on us. I'm going to do that by dissecting this film."
Here is some of what it will reveal:
Intimidation factor is gone
There have been games in recent seasons where the Seahawks, especially their defense, shook offenses to their core. The Seahawks personnel across the entire defense was so fast and brutal and bad that offenses ducked and dodged. The Seattle offense had its physical edge, too, and Russell Wilson's extraordinary running talent made the Seahawks even more fearsome. That intimidation factor is gone. Opponents are not scared of the Seahawks anymore. The bullies are getting pushback. Teams are no longer falling in order against them. The Seahawks' novelty has worn off. Familiarity has bred comfort in opponents. Seattle must understand this. They are not going to win games on that reputation any longer. They need to play games now for four quarters at their highest level without trepidation. That is an answer.
I think the Seahawks thought they were literally tougher than the Bengals and being up 24-7 confirmed it -- in their own minds. They forgot the Bengals twice a year play AFC North grind-it-out teams Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and some of these Bengals players grew up being pounded by menaces like Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
"That's a good team, even better than people think," Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said of the 5-0 Bengals.
Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner added: "They were resilient under duress."
The Seahawks can continue to think they are the toughest team on the field. They just should not be surprised any longer by how their opponents respond.
Seattle managed only three first downs in its final six drives. Too frequently against the Bengals, the offense on third-and-short was Wilson stepping back, taking a quick look and then seeking to run for first downs up the middle. The Bengals figured this out, aligned for it and were ready for it throughout the fourth quarter and beyond. But Wilson and the Seahawks kept trying it.
If Wilson is going to be a runner in those situations late in the game, it is better to simply call quarterback runs, block for it and let it him go. Another answer is the return of injured running back Marshawn Lynch.
Seattle ran for 200 yards and rookie Thomas Rawls gained 169 of those yards. He scored on a 69-yard run in the third quarter. But Seattle did not routinely go to him in third-and-short situations, and it cost them. This area is a Lynch specialty.
"Every year in this league you redefine yourself," Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin said. "Every game you redefine yourself. We're trying to do a lot of different things while keeping the best of what we do. There just have to be some staples you hold on to. We have to get back to those."
Find Graham; help Williams
You've got a problem, Seattle, when your opponent features a tight end many fans do not know (Tyler Eifert) and he leads the game in targets (12) receptions (eight) and touchdown catches (two). All of this while the All-Pro tight end you traded for, Jimmy Graham, finishes with five targets, three catches and zero touchdowns.
The Seahawks keep talking about fixing the problem instead of actually fixing it. It is getting comical now.
Incorporating that downfield element into the offense is not so complicated or impossible. It will solve plenty of the Seahawks' problems, especially scoring problems, and open even more running lanes.
On defense, please give cornerback Cary Williams more help in his coverage. The Bengals picked on him mercilessly. Others will, too.
These are things the film will show. These are issues clipping the Seahawks.
"Look at the things that happened in that game," Seattle safety Earl Thomas said. "Even down to the last kick, it hit the upright and bounced in. Wow! This is what football does. This is what football is. We're being challenged now."
Yes, they are, with another hit-you-in-the-mouth team coming up next, the Carolina Panthers, who travel to Seattle next Sunday.
Like the Bengals, the Panthers (4-0) are undefeated.
"Ultimately, we have to go back to being the team that finishes games," Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse said. "You can pinpoint a lot of things but that has to be a part of everything."
And it's not just the word "finish," not just the message -- "That's too easy," Carroll said.
It's what the film says to him, he insisted. It's what he brings to his team afterward in scheme, coaching and focus that matters.
The Seahawks started 3-3 last season before reaching the Super Bowl. They believe in what they can be. They believe they have done it before, and they can do it again.
The rest of the NFL, however, is not blinking.
"We'll see," Kearse said.
* * *
SB Nation presents: Clay Matthews gives a big hit, takes a big hit