SEAHAWKS rejoiced on the sideline, bouncing like teens on quad vente lattes,
some pointing gratefully to the misty Northwest sky. Having just received the
most monumental gift from the football gods since the Tuck Rule helped Tom
Brady launch a dynasty in the Foxborough snow five years earlier, the Seahawks
were as hyperkinetic as the 68,058 fans at cacophonous Qwest Field.
Tony Romo's gaffe
with 1:19 left in last Saturday's NFC wild-card playoff game--a mishandled snap
that foiled the Dallas Cowboys' 19-yard go-ahead field goal attempt--was almost
as devastating to America's Team as Joe Montana to Dwight Clark had been 25
years earlier. But even after the Drop, there was a catch: The game wasn't
over. With a 21--20 lead, the ball on their own two and Dallas holding three
timeouts, the Seahawks still needed a first down to chew up the clock and keep
their conference title defense alive.
"What play do
you want to run?" coach Mike Holmgren asked running back Shaun Alexander.
"Tailback Lead," Alexander quickly answered. After a night of huge
contributions from the likes of moonlighting cornerback Jordan Babineaux and
maligned tight end Jerramy Stevens, it was time for Seattle's lone superstar to
carry his team to the next round. One brilliant burst up the middle and 20
yards later, Alexander had issued a timely warning that he, like his
maddeningly inconsistent team, remains charmed and dangerous.
"We're just a
team that perseveres," Alexander said after the Seattle locker room had
emptied. "We don't make excuses, but the truth is, we're beat up, and we
have been all season. So we play with what we've got, and we fight tooth and
nail all the way. It's not pretty, but this is who we are now."
Alexander's Ragtag Band. Fittingly, Seattle escaped only after Romo's Hail Mary
pass was deflected in the end zone by Pete Hunter, a corner who last month had
been working as a mortgage-loan officer and studying to become a border-patrol
agent. Now he and two other DBs plucked from the civilian ranks will cram for
Sunday's divisional-round game against the top-seeded Bears in Chicago. Having
lost there 37--6 on Oct. 1, Seattle comes in with none of the swagger of a year
ago, when the NFL's dominant O-line cleared a path to Detroit for the
franchise's first Super Bowl appearance.
"Last year was
smooth, except for that last game," says second-year Pro Bowl middle
linebacker Lofa Tatupu. "What I've learned this year is that it ain't
always gonna be pretty, but I'm so proud of this team."
To the Seahawks'
credit they became the first team in six years to finish .500 or better the
season after losing a Super Bowl, but they're relying on grit rather than
greatness. "Our biggest worry last year was, How do we play with a
lead?" said quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who threw two interceptions on
Saturday but also fired a pair of sweet second-half touchdown passes to
Stevens, last year's Super Bowl scourge. "This year we've had much bigger
problems. Last year we had chemistry, accountability, cohesiveness,
familiarity, and we took for granted how healthy we were. You don't know what
you've got till it's gone."
Having looked at
life from both sides now, the Seahawks' veterans regret even more deeply the
team's underwhelming performance in Super Bowl XL, a 21--10 loss to the
Pittsburgh Steelers. "We had so much talent, and we were going to shock
everybody with our intensity," recalls Alexander, the 2005 NFL MVP.
"When you lose a game you feel like you should have controlled, it adds
salt to the wound."
intensified last winter when All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson bolted to the
Minnesota Vikings through free agency in what several players believe was a
front-office miscalculation. The line was further disrupted by injuries, most
notably to Pro Bowl center Robbie Tobeck, who has been out since early November
with the flu and then a hip abscess. The team also endured stretches without
Alexander (six games, broken left foot) and Hasselbeck (four games, sprained
right knee) and lost its three top cornerbacks in the final two weeks of the
Cowboys, replacement corners Babineaux (who started eight games at strong
safety) and rookie Kelly Jennings hung tough, limiting Terrell Owens and Terry
Glenn to a combined six catches for 67 yards. Each made an enormous play down
the stretch, beginning with Jennings, who batted the ball loose from Glenn
after a short reception at the Dallas two with 6:32 left. The safety that
followed a mad scramble cut the Cowboys' lead to 20--15. Seattle went ahead on
Hasselbeck's 37-yard scoring strike to Stevens at 4:24. But Dallas drove to the
Seahawks' two to set up Martin Gramatica's field goal attempt--at which point
Babineaux earned himself free microbrews for life in the Emerald City. After
Romo failed to handle L.P. Ladouceur's flawless snap, the mobile quarterback
scooped up the ball and rolled hard to his left. He appeared headed for a
redemptive touchdown until Babineaux swooped in from behind and brought him
down just short of the first down.