GLENDALE, Ariz. - Whew. That was close.
The Seahawks are back at the Super Bowl.
Things could not have worked out better for the NFL.
The Seahawks are a fun, young team from the crunchy, techie Northwest already validated by last year's Super win.
The Patriots are blue blood, original tea partiers, a dynastic compilation of talents forever sullied by accusations of cheating, again.
It's REI vs. L.L. Bean; new-school owner Paul Allen vs. old-school monolith Robert Kraft; Microsoft vs. Mayonnaise.
It is delicious.
Considering the close margins in the NFC playoffs it could have been different; it could have been blah.
It also could have been a coronation of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the greatest coach/quarterback combination of the modern era, the dynamic duo equipped to squelch the abrasive upstarts from the nerdy Northwest. But by mishandling both their footballs and their public relations, the Patriots managed to dull the Seahawks' intimidating edge.
The Seahawks might be outlaw, dreadlocked, bearded and tastelessly irreverent . . . but the Patriots cheat.
Nobody likes a cheater.
Outlaws, however, have a certain appeal.
Suddenly, Richard Sherman, the taunting, raging madman of postgame interview infamy a year ago, is the well-spoken voice of reason . . . and he is something of a hero. For the past year he has endlessly tweaked clumsy commissioner Roger Goodell on topics ranging from player safety, to fines, to Goodell's role as the owners' puppet.
Those tweaks might be inappropriate, but they sound like righteous indignation in the wake of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, poor officiating and deflate-gate.
Suddenly, Russell Wilson doesn't look like a fashion-challenged kid: He looks like a rock star. His hair mussed just so, he wore ultra-high-top sneakers, jeans, a leather coat and scarf to his press conference yesterday.
It was 80 degrees.
That's the thing about this team: They operate with a complete disregard for everything besides themselves, and they defend each other to hypocrisy's end.
For instance, Michael Bennett - the bike-riding, gyro-dancing defensive end - yesterday said running back Marshawn Lynch's media blackouts and obscene on-field gestures make him laugh. Lynch was fined for grabbing his crotch while entering the end zone last month ($11,050) and last week ($20,000) and an ESPN report said officials, alerted to Lynch's pattern of behavior, will look to penalize him 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct if it happens Sunday - a threat permissive, apologist head coach Pete Carroll will warn Lynch about, Carroll promised.
Bennett and his teammates repeatedly have said that Lynch, fined $100,000 in November for avoiding the press over the past 2 years, should not be fined . . . and, in the next breath, Bennett acknowledged that he, like Lynch, is contractually obligated to address the press.
The innocent illogic is endearing, especially to a public as unsophisticated as the sheltered, pampered athletes themselves. If the Seahwks' feet wind up in their mouths (and their hands on their crotches), their hearts generally are in the right place.
Bennett yesterday wore a 10-gallon straw hat in memory of a generous father of a friend he knew while growing up in Houston. Mark Alexander died of cancer this month at 58. His wife, Jan, gave Bennett the hat because it was Alexander's favorite. Some of the Alexanders will be Bennett's guests at the Super Bowl this week.
To complete the outfit, Bennett wore high-water black jeans, black leather shoes with blue-rimmed soles and no socks, and a tuxedo jacket two sizes too small.
Aaron Rodgers would have been much more conservatively attired . . . and this game would have been much less appealing.
One fewer bobbled catch and the NFL might have had to package Tony Romo, Jerry Jones and ditzy Dez Bryant.
One less botched pass interference call and it might have been Ndamukong Suh, the league's dirtiest player.
One less botched onside kick and those boring Packers would have thawed themselves and flown south.
To be fair, the Packers would have lent historical gravity to Super Bowl XLIX. Also, if Rodgers' stubborn calf got better it would have been billed as the faceoff between the two best quarterbacks in history.
Really, though, the Seahawks have fresher, more gruesome injuries to their best players.
Sherman, one of history's best cornerbacks, sprained his left elbow in the NFC Championship Meltdown by the Packers. He never missed a snap and said yesterday the swelling has receded and much mobility has returned. Asked if he expected to be targeted for a change, he said, "Hopefully."
Earl Thomas, the league's best safety, briefly went to the Seahawks' locker room last Sunday with a separated left shoulder. He popped it back in and played wonderfully afterward. Apparently affected by the team's afternoon flight, Thomas entered the press tent yesterday 90 minutes late, his shoulder heavily wrapped . . . but perhaps that was subterfuge.
While playing third base in grade school, he said, he was hit in the mouth with a ground ball. His braces mashed to the inside of his mouth. His father rushed him to the emergency room, and after the doctors were finished dad asked, "Do you want to go back?"
"Of course I do," young Thomas replied through his bleeding lips.
He felt no pain then, he said, and he felt no pain last week. It hurt yesterday but the dry desert climate alleviated some discomfort, he said. He will not hold back Sunday:
"When I come alive, nothing is limited."
Sherman and Thomas are the key players of the Legion of Boom, the best football nickname since the Steel Curtain, so they have that going for them. They, and Lynch, are the soul of the team.
Wilson is its heart.
Your heart would have to be made of ice to not love this kid.
Wilson wept during his postgame interview at CenturyLink Field last Sunday, overcome by the gravity of the moment; his team's 16-point comeback despite his four interceptions; the memory of his father, a diabetic who died in 2010, at 55, and never saw Wilson play in the NFL; his struggle against the NFL's QB stereotype, which makes it hard for short guys like him to make it; Seattle's six-win rebound from a mediocre start.
Every time this team succeeds, many of them feel vindication.
"It's the slights," said Sherman, a fifth-round pick and the 23rd corner taken in the 2011 draft.
Wilson's height made him a third-round pick. "You never forget that disrespect."
That's why Wilson cried.
The last time a quarterback leaked fluid on the football field that caused as much stir as Wilson, Y.A. Tittle was on his knees and bleeding.
So genuine is this group that they offer biting criticism by accident. Wilson was asked if - in light of the shrunken-ball debacle, the Patriots' infamous filming violations and other, graver issues - he believed the NFL lost credibility over the past year:
"I know in this organization we try to do the right thing."
Well, to a degree.
They are flawed. They are disrespectful. So, you can dislike them.
Or, in a league of cheaters and frauds, you can embrace them.
On Twitter: @inkstainedretch