SMQB: Seahawks 20, Redskins 10

The last time the Seattle Seahawks won a playoff game, on December 22, 1984, the rookie middle linebacker who led their defense today was two years old. And the amazing regular season that led this team to the NFC Championship game as a worst-case scenario mirrored the year of Lofa Tatupu and so many other Seahawks who had done serious time among the unheralded, underrated, disregarded and dismissed.

There was Tatupu himself, the target of “too small/too slow” criticisms from alleged “draft experts” who let the Seahawks in for a bit of ridicule after they supposedly “reached” for him in the second round;

There was rookie SLB Leroy Hill, the third-round pick who came up with stats similar to Shawne Merriman’s despite being rated as low as a seventh-round pick on some boards;

There was Joe Jurevicius, who signed a one-year, under the radar deal with the Seahawks in the offseason, who was thought of by some as a potential injury-prone non-factor and went on to lead the team in touchdown catches;

There were DTs Chartric Darby, Rocky Bernard and Craig Terrill, each of whom could walk right by the casual Seahawks fan in broad daylight without a hint of recognition, but who combined with second-year star Marcus Tubbs to man a stellar interior rotation;

There was RT Sean Locklear, who stepped into Floyd Womack’s rather large shoes all season and shored up the right side of Seattle’s league-best offensive line;

There was Mack Strong, the undrafted fullback who has rushed for only 741 yards in his 13-year career, has sprung lanes for some of the NFL’s best backs, made his first Pro Bowl this year but about five years later than he should have, and finally broke his own run to daylight in the biggest game of his life;

And there was the former sixth-round draft choice of the Green Bay Packers, the quarterback who was almost run out of town just a few years ago, who saw beyond himself, humbled himself to the game, and became the kind of man who could carry a team to victory with the NFL MVP sitting on the bench.

This Seahawks team has far more mutts than purebreds, and in the salary cap era, that’s how it must be. These particular mutts just believe, beyond all supposed evidence to the contrary, that when they hit the Eukanuba runway, their greed for success will outweigh their questionable pedigree.

The best thing about football? It’s generally those mutts who run past the stars and grab the spoils. Coming into their third consecutive postseason, these Seahawks knew that this game could validate the character study they’ve been participating in all year. They knew that they’d have to run the gamut from smashmouth to finesse and everything in-between.

They didn’t know they’d be doing it without their most explosive offensive player, but they knew how much they’d overcome to get here, and that they could do it again

They would face the Redskins of Washington, another team that snuck up on most experts this season. Washington’s solid defense, and Joe Gibbs’ “Hit-‘em-in-the-mouth” mien, led to assumptions that a Seahawks team who played it light and fancy would get overwhelmed. Certainly the scoreless first quarter resembled a 1925 matchup between the Dayton Triangles and the Pottsville Maroons – Seattle gained only 70 yards, and the Redskins were held to 23 yards and no first downs.

By the end of the first half, the game may have progressed to the mid-1940s, as Seattle had put up 152 total yards, and Washington 74. The 7-3 halftime score in favor of Seattle told the story – Washington was making Seattle play its type of game, but the Seahawks were playing it better. When your only functional hope is smashmouth, and the other guy keeps hitting you before you can hit him, that’s when it gets frustrating.

Seattle’s defense, seen as the liability that could remove them from contention, was in reality the factor which kept them in this game. Clinton Portis was held to 41 yards on 17 attempts. Mark Brunell passed for 242 yards on 22 completions and 37 attempts, but he was constantly flushed out of the pocket, as Seattle got good pressure with four up front and nice variety of loops and stunts. Brunell didn’t look comfortable in the pocket all day. His only touchdown pass was a fluke – a throw that bounced off the hands of Seattle CB Andre Dyson directly into the hands of Santana Moss.

But this low-rent version of the “Immaculate Reception” would find the Redskins a day late and a dollar short. Even as their only touchdown made the score 17-10 in Seattle’s favor in the fourth quarter, Washington could not capitalize on Seattle’s key errors. Josh Scobey fumbled the subsequent kickoff, and that was the second special teams fumble of the day to go along with Jimmy Williams’ punt return muff in the second quarter. The Redskins got a John Hall field goal on the drive after Williams’ fumble, but caught a huge break when Hall missed a 36-yarder wide left following Scobey’s mistake, keeping the Seahawks a touchdown ahead.

To compare and contrast, the World Champion New England Patriots suffered two special teams fumbles in the game following Seattle’s victory, and the Denver Broncos scored 10 points on the drives that followed. New England lost the game, 27-13. Wasting possessions in the playoffs is usually a death sentence, and it would behoove Seattle to get their return units in order. Then again, one could have said that about this team all season.

Washington was able to move the ball in the third quarter when Seattle started playing back in a two-deep. But in the season’s tradition, the Seahawk D went “bend-but-don’t break” on a Redskin drive that lasted 16 plays and almost eight minutes, and ended at the Seattle 33 with a really weird play call. On 4th and 13, Joe Gibbs decided against the 3 points and went for it. Bryce Fisher fought through, sacked Brunell, caused the fumble, and Grant Wistrom recovered. Center Cory Raymer, subbing at right guard for Ray Brown, appeared to blow a blocking assignment there. Raymer also looked to be holding quite a bit, though he was only called once.

One play in that drive highlighted one of so many Seattle unsung heroes. With 2:58 left in the third quarter at the Seattle 30, Clinton Portis threw a halfback option to Chris Cooley, which was broken up in the end zone by Marquand Manuel. Manuel has done an incredible job in place of the injured Ken Hamlin, and it was great to see him laying it down here.

Several defenders stood out – Chuck Darby and Bryce Fisher picked up sacks, Grant Wistrom showed a non-stop motor, Leroy Hill was a force on the strong side, and the secondary eased the minds of the Seahawk faithful.

But if there is one player who makes this defense what it is, it is unquestionably Tatupu. His abilities were all on display – whether making a crucial stop on third down, running back forty yards neck-and-neck with a receiver in coverage, jacking Ladell Betts UP on a short pass, leading all defenders with ten tackles and especially keeping the defense in line and coordinating on the field in a loud, frenetic environment, Tatupu was just as much the difference-maker in this game as he was in the 2005 Orange Bowl, when he freaked out the Oklahoma Sooners by calling their plays on the field before they happened.

To some, it just comes naturally.

Seattle’s offense took a while to get going, to be sure. And it didn’t look good when Shaun Alexander, having gained only 9 yards and one fumble on 6 carries, left the game with 4:29 left in the first quarter with a concussion and did not return. Super-sub Maurice Morris picked through a Gregg Williams defense more focused on tips at the line, mid-level coverage assignments and clogging up rushing lanes than all-out blitzing, for 49 yards on 18 carries. It wasn’t pretty, but Morris gained first down after first down, helping Seattle at least stay in the time of possession battle (although they still lost it by five minutes).

Matt Hasselbeck spent the first quarter alternating between befuddled and brilliant, as Washington’s retreats into coverage and ability to affect his vision at the line threw off his rhythm. Hasselbeck completed 8 of 16 passes and threw for only 105 yards in the first half, and 37 of those yards came on one play, when Darrell Jackson shimmied Shawn Springs out of his shoes on the third play of Seattle’s first drive.

Jackson had 96 of those 105 yards in the first half, with the complication of obvious back pain from a hit on a Mack Strong run with a minute remaining in the first quarter. Jackson was tough and savvy all day, weaving through Washington’s obstacles for 143 yards on 9 carries and a TD, including another 37-yard catch in the third quarter. That play was just as indicative of Hasselbeck’s maturity, as the quarterback looked the defense to the left up until his throw, pulling safety Sean Taylor away from Jackson on the right.

Hasselbeck took the game on his shoulders in the second half, hitting 16 completions in 26 total attempts for 215 yards, passing for the TD to Jackson and running for another. His adept touch with play action, even without Alexander in the game, was a thing to behold – on more than one occasion, Hasselbeck faked out the top camera.

But if there was one play that not only decided the game, but warmed every heart at Qwest Field, it happened with 5:17 left in the game. Hasselbeck audibled out of a blitz, and called Mack Strong’s number. The venerable fullback rumbled for 32 yards from the Seattle 48 to the Washington 20, the longest run of his career, as his teammates became fans of this unselfish leader who finally found a moment in the spotlight. Josh Brown would kick his second field goal of the fourth quarter two minutes later, marking the final score at 20-10. Washington would have one final drive, but the outcome was decided.

The Seahawks, finally seeing the other side of a 21-year playoff victory drought and a season of extreme change, had come too far to allow this victory to slip away.

Sightlines and Audibles

-- Safety Ken Hamlin raised the 12th Man flag before the game, an event which had the rabid Qwest Field crown cheering at a 103-decibel clip. Hamlin was injured in an altercation outside a Seattle nightclub on Oct. 17, mere hours after the Seahawks beat the Houston Texans at Qwest Field. He spent three days in intensive care, and six days in all, at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center with a fractured skull, blood clot near the brain, bruised brain tissue and a fractured bone in his right hand.

Hamlin's recovery has been impressive and heartening, but his football future is still unknown.

-- reports that Alexander’s concussion will most likely not keep him out of the NFC Championship game. Coach Mike Holmgren said, “I think he’s going to be fine”, adding, "I think if I had showed him a picture of a truck, he would have said it was a truck -- and not a butterfly," Tests will be run this week to insure Alexander’s eligibility, but all signs point to yes at this time.

--In Seattle’s 20-17 overtime loss to the Redskins in October, the Seahawks allowed the Redskins to convert on 13 of 18 third downs, and lost the time of possession battle by thirteen minutes. In this game, the possession discrepancy was cut to five minutes, and Washington converted on only 5 of 19 on third down.

--Also in that October loss, Seattle kicker Josh Brown missed two field goals, including the 47-yarder at the end of regulation, which would have won the game. In this game, he booted the two field goals he attempted cleanly through the uprights.

--In the NFC Championship Game, Seattle will face the winner of the Chicago Bears-Carolina Panthers divisional playoff game, which is played on Sunday, January 15 at 1:30 p.m. PST. The Championship game will be played at Qwest Field on Sunday, January 22, at 3:30 p.m. PST.

Tickets for that game will go on sale at 10:00 a.m. PST on Monday, January 16.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at Top Stories