SEATTLE — It may have been only a mid-August exhibition game.
But CenturyLink Field appeared in midseason form at kickoff, with nary an empty seat in the house, the stands filled by fans eager to get their first in-person look at a Seahawks team generating as much enthusiasm as any in franchise history.
“It felt just like a regular big-time football game to our players,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
The fans got what they came for as the Seahawks used a dizzying array of big plays to blow out the Broncos in the first half and coast to a 40-10 win in front of 67,635.
Topping the list of highlights was a 107-yard kickoff return by Jermaine Kearse and a 106-yard return of a fumble by Brandon Browner (each longer than Seattle’s regular-season records).
“I don’t remember a game like that,” Carroll said.
Browner also forced a fumble as the Seahawks forced three turnovers in the first half, helping overcome 209 yards by Denver’s Peyton Manning-led offense.
Offensively, the Seahawks rebounded from a sluggish outing in the exhibition opener at San Diego, setting the tone for the game with a 65-yard, 10-play the first time it had the ball, culminating in a 12-yard pass from Russell Wilson to Kearse.
“Our big thing was having a great tempo today and getting back in the right rhythm,” Wilson said.
The Seahawks never punted in the first half, and Wilson finished with a quarterback rating of 141.3 in the kind of performance that rekindled memories of the second half of last season when Seattle began to establish itself as a legitimate Super Bowl contender for 2013.
Denver has similar aspirations, and the Broncos’ frustration at piling up a lot of yards but only a few points boiled over at times, with the first half marked by lots of after-play jawing, and a few personal foul penalties on each side.
“When you’re minus-four (in turnovers) you’re going to win 10 percent of your games,” said Denver coach John Fox. “When you play a good team, you’re going to win 0 percent.”
Denver, in fact, had 149 yards in the first quarter, using its no-huddle offense to mount an 80-yard drive to cut Seattle’s lead to 10-7 with 1:52 to play on an 11-yard pass from Manning to marquee offseason free agent pickup Wes Welker.
But Kearse returned the ensuing kickoff 107 yards on the first time he touched the ball in that role this season to make it 17-7.
Seattle had planned on having Percy Harvin handle kickoff return duties, but his hip surgery has him sidelined.The Seahawks have used several players in that role during training camp and coach Pete Carroll announced Friday that Kearse would get his shot this week.
“He took advantage of it I guess,” Carroll said. “He did about as well as you could do.”
The return gave Kearse — a former star at UW and Lakes High who made the Seattle roster last season as a free agent — three TDs in the first two ames.
Denver appeared ready to score another touchdown when running back Ronnie Hillman leapt into the end zone from the 1-yard-line on its next drive.
But Seattle linebacker Heath Farwell hit Hillman in the air and he fumbled the ball into the end zone, where Browner picked it up and scooted down the home sideline for the touchdown to make it 24-7.
Manning played one more series, but Denver went three-and-out and Golden Tate returned the punt 33 yards to set up a Seattle field goal to make it 27-7.
Wilson played the entire first half and led a 38-yard drive for another score, which followed yet another Denver turnover (a fumble by quarterback Brock Osweiler that was forced and recovered by O’Brien Schofield). Wilson capped the drive with a 3-yard pass to tght end Sean McGrath, who appears set to make the roster.
As was the case in San Diego, Seattle’s reserves largely dominated — the Broncos were held to minus-three yards in the third quarter — and the Seahawks got a big-play touchdown late in the third quarter on a 39-yard pass from backup QB Tarvaris Jackson to Stephen Williams. It was the third long Jackson-to-Williams hookup of the exhibition season.
While there were some nits to pick with Seattle’s play — maybe most notably the lack of a pass rush from a defensive line that remains without some of its key performers — the outcome will only further inflame the excitement greeting the 2013 season.