In prime time with the entire nation watching, Christmas came early on Sunday night for the Seattle Seahawks as they not only managed to beat their division rival San Francisco 49ers 42-13, but also clinched a playoff berth by improving to 10-5 on the season.
A team that for the majority of the season, for better or worse, played to the level of their competition, now suddenly has shifted gears and appears to be peaking just in time for the postseason as the elite team in the NFL right now.
How did we get here?
Credit for the 'Hawks ascent can be given to quite a few people, but if given a choice, I'd start with Russell Wilson.
Prior to this season, the 'Hawks had a solid run game led by Marshawn Lynch, supported by a young and tenacious defense, but they lacked a franchise quarterback. Over the course of the offseason, head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider signed free agent Matt Flynn away from Green Bay with the cautiously optimistic hope he could help take the 'Hawks to the next level.
Later that spring, they drafted an undersized quarterback from the University of Wisconsin who many, including myself, figured would amount to nothing more than an entertaining backup quarterback the 'Hawks would develop over the course of Pete Carroll's tenure in Seattle.
By now, though, you probably know the rest of the story, as the Seattle Times' Danny O'Neil on Sunday summed up Wilson's quick rise:
It took three days in May and about 400 passes for Russell Wilson to prove to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll he was a legitimate consideration in the team's quarterback competition. It took little more than three weeks in August to earn the job, Wilson becoming the first Seahawks rookie to be named starting quarterback since 1993.
Even after winning the job, I was skeptical.
It's one thing to look great in the preseason, but could he do it for real in games that actually counted?
It wasn't until Wilson found himself trying to rally the 'Hawks from behind in Arizona during the season opener that I fully began to appreciate what he brought to the table.
Perhaps the 'Hawks lost that day, but Wilson won me over, as he seemed to come alive during that final drive with a confidence and poise well beyond his years.
The next two weeks at home against Dallas and Green Bay, Wilson continued to win both on the field and off it with his arms, legs and charisma to the point that I couldn't help but do a complete 180 and consider him the team's best player.
You could argue that it was a bit premature, especially after the 'Hawks laid an egg the next week in St. Louis and barely escaped with a win in Carolina the week after, but all throughout, Wilson kept the 'Hawks moving forward even while the debate over his legitimacy raged on.
The 'Hawks were 3-2 by mid October when New England came to CenturyLink and, with less than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, trailed the Patriots 23-10.
It looked like all was lost, when something strange happened.
Instead of accepting defeat to one of the league's best teams, Wilson threw the 'Hawks on his shoulders and carried them to victory by throwing two touchdown passes, including a gorgeous 46-yard rainbow to Sidney Rice with a little more than a minute to play, to complete the stunning 24-23 come-from-behind win.
That win was the breakthrough that even the staunchest defenders of Matt Flynn couldn't ignore or dismiss.
Of course the 'Hawks followed that win with two straight disappointing losses at San Francisco and Detroit in which opportunities were lost on both sides of the ball, yet, Wilson (especially in the Lions game) looked sharp.
At 4-4, the Seahawks' see-saw season continued, but the tone had shifted. After the Lions game, the once invincible defense looked vulnerable, and even Marshawn Lynch in the weeks prior could be shutdown against teams dedicated to doing so.
It cast serious doubts upon just about everything, even after wins against the Vikings and Jets at home helped the 'Hawks go into their bye week with a record of 6-4. Maybe the 'Hawks would make the playoffs, but would they manage to do anything if they got there?
The issue of how well the 'Hawks played on the road had dogged them all season, and the loss in Miami seriously exposed that issue along with the aforementioned issues on defense and with Lynch.
Yet even in Miami, Wilson looked solid until the team's final offensive series, but then everything went downhill both on and off the field, which left me to believe the 'Hawks were a lost cause once and for all this season.
Could the 'Hawks rebound and save themselves from themselves?
The situation in Chicago looked grim until Wilson decided he was taking matters into his own hands and would save the season not once, but twice.
From there, the 'Hawks as a team have gone on a rampage, averaging 50 points per game the past three weeks. Yes, you read that correctly; the team that earlier this season would struggle to score 50 points across three weeks, did it on average in three games.
What impressed me most, though, aren't the numbers, but the results.
In the weeks that have followed the 'Hawks collapse in Detroit, Wilson worked through whatever issues the team had swirling around them and made the most of his opportunity by winning six of the next seven games and seemingly getting stronger with each passing week.
The higher the stakes, the better he plays, as the dual-threat quarterback can use him arms, legs and mind to make things happen in a way that Seattle fans could only dream of prior to this season.
Yet if you hear Pete Carroll explain it to Sports Illustrated's Peter King, it's almost funny how nonchalant he seems about Wilson's rise:
"Russell hasn't changed,'' Carroll said afterward. "All he has done is just won us over. We've changed, he's the same. He's more experienced now with what we're asking him to do, and he's had more reps and turns and all of that, so he's more efficient at everything. He's rock solid after this win. He's ready to go to the next game already, and that's just who he is and how he is. We're just thrilled that he's playing on our team.'' Want an example of Wilson the leader? He went to all the rookies after the game Sunday night. "We got work to do tomorrow,'' Wilson told his fellow first-year players. "Come in and get your lift in.'' Christmas Eve wouldn't influence the work schedule for Wilson. Tape analysis, 8 a.m. Lift, 10 a.m. That's what leaders do.
It appears you finally have your franchise quarterback, Seattle fans, and the future is now.
Wilson, much like the city of Seattle, shows that you can't judge a book by it's cover. Wilson is far more than just a 5'11" player in the same way that Seattle is far more than just rain and coffee.
In only a matter of months, Wilson has electrified the 'Hawks fan base and has people believing in more than simply going to the playoffs.
The question today is how far can he take the Seahawks this season?
Beyond that, can he do it again next season?
Will Russell Wilson be the Seattle Seahawks' starting quarterback in 2020?
Will fans from coast to coast be buying his jersey for the next decade?
Will we see him endorsing everything from shoes to soft drinks?
Maybe we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves, and let's not forget that nearly 20 years earlier another rookie quarterback gave Seattle fans a reason to believe in a bright future for the Seahawks.
Then again, equating Rick Mirer to Russell Wilson seems ridiculous for anyone old enough to make the comparison.
Is Wilson for Real?
So far, Wilson has yet to disappoint, by not only leading the 'Hawks to the playoffs, but by doing it with a style of his own. He has a charisma and charm that makes him marketable. You can put him on billboards, you want his jersey and you believe in him, even on the rare occasions he comes up short.
I was impressed that Levi's jumped on his story so soon back at the beginning of the season, but it's looked like a brilliant move on their part. Wilson can be the face of the franchise, and not just some figment of Jon Gruden's imagination or a Jedi mind-trick by Pete Carroll. Eventually, America can acknowledge the fact that someone other than Steve Largent has ever played for the Seahawks.
It's only a small matter of winning, which if Wilson can deliver could very well change the face of the franchise from being one of the NFL's best-kept secrets to a legitimate contender for years to come.
Time will tell, but Wilson certainly has Seattle believing this holiday season, and that is perhaps the best gift of all.