They faced second-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 26 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX and the NFL's most powerful running back ready to do what he does, except Carroll forgot why Marshawn Lynch was here at University of Phoenix Stadium. They were one handoff from history and instead they handed the Patriots an improbable, exhilarating 28-24 victory.
Instead of handing off to Lynch and letting him barrel through for a touchdown that would have made the Seahawks repeat Super Bowl champions, quarterback Russell Wilson threw an interception to Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, who jumped a slant pass intended for wide receiver Ricardo Lockette.
"I just had a vision that I was going to make a big play and it came true,'' said Butler, an undrafted rookie from West Alabama.
Butler's unlikely pick allowed the Patriots to win a Super Bowl that, more accurately, the Seahawks lost with one of the worst decisions a coach could make given the stakes. Even Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman admitted he was surprised by a decision Carroll owned.
"I told those guys that's my fault totally,'' Carroll said.
He's right. No matter how much more Carroll accomplishes, he will regret that call for the rest of his career. This was a P.C. malfunction Seahawks owner Paul Allen never imagined experiencing. Lynch gained 102 yards on 24 carries but, inexplicably, Carroll deprived him of a 25th.
The Patriots defense was reeling after one of the most dramatic catches in Super Bowl history put the Seahawks in position to deflate all the joy out of New England. With 1 minute, 14 seconds left, Jermaine Kearse did a convincing imitation of David Tyree — the Giants wide receiver whose circus catch ruined the Patriots' last Super Bowl in Arizona seven years ago — with a 33-yard reception that dropped jaws all over America.
As legacies hung in the balance, the ball floated in the air after bouncing off Kearse's left leg and right hand until he clutched it at the 5-yard line. Ironically, Butler defended the play, which hardly affected his confidence two snaps later as he clinched the Patriots' fourth championship in 15 years of the Bill Belichick era.
All four titles have something in common: Tom Brady exhibited the kind of poise that allowed him to join Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw in the rarefied air of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. Brady deserved the most valuable player award after completing a Super Bowl-record 37 of 50 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns. With 6 minutes, 52 seconds left in the biggest game of his career and the Patriots down 24-21, NFL history tapped Brady on the shoulder: It's time.
No pass on the game-winning 10-play, 64-yard scoring drive underscored Brady's brilliance better than a 20-yard crossing route to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski that put the ball in a spot only the great ones can. For the best defense of the NFL's modern era to blow a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl, something dramatic had to happen. Well, Tom Brady happened.
"Mental toughness,'' Brady said when asked the key. "We left it all on the field. It's been a long journey.''
It nearly was for naught thanks to the unlikeliest of heroes for the Seahawks: wide receiver Chris Matthews. Of all the Super Bowl commercials Sunday night, the best one was for Foot Locker. That's where Matthews was working last winter when the Seahawks called him for a tryout. Matthews had tried out for the Browns, played in the Arena Football League and earned the 2012 CFL Rookie of the Year Award with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Yet nobody around Seattle knew who Matthews was until he recovered the onside kick in the NFC championship game that made the comeback over the Packers possible. He didn't play in a game until Week 14.
But when the Seahawks needed a spark, they turned to the player who probably won't have to worry about being the 53rd guy on the roster next training camp. When the Seahawks offense had yet to score a point or scare a soul, they targeted the guy without a reception until Sunday and Matthews came down with a clutch 44-yard catch. When Carroll gambled by passing up a field goal with six seconds left in the first half, Matthews bailed him out with an 11-yard touchdown reception.
He looked like the Chris Matthews whom talking heads would be discussing on cable television Monday until Brady intervened. Until the Patriots Way prevailed.
As an emotional Belichick expressed his pride in Brady, he invoked the memory of his late father, Steve, and even acknowledged his 94-year-old mother, Jeannette, watching at home in Annapolis, Md.
"Hi, mom,'' Belichick said.
This was Belichick's moment. Even if it was his coaching counterpart whose decision made it all possible.