The Seahawks are right where they want to be: headed to Super Bowl XL as underdogs against a storied franchise with a reputation for being more physical and battle tested. There will be plenty of time for the Seahawks to ponder their matchup with the Steelers in Detroit. For now, Seattle can revel in its 34-14 victory over a Carolina team with a hot quarterback and highly ranked defense.
"It seems like every time an obstacle came up this year and they said, 'The Seahawks can do that, they can't beat St. Louis, they can't win on the road, they can't win a big game, they can't come back,' this team said, 'Well, OK, let's just see,'" first-year team president Tim Ruskell said. "This was a continuation of that." The Seahawks thrived on the perception that their 16th-ranked defense might be exposed against a Carolina team featuring the highest-rated playoff passer in league history.
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme had posted a 108.4 rating while compiling a 5-1 playoff record as a starter. Wide receiver Steve Smith had caught 22 passes over his last two games, leading many to label him as unstoppable.
Seattle's defense met the challenge, and then some, by pressuring Delhomme into three interceptions while limiting Smith to five catches for 33 yards. Backup Seattle quarterback Seneca Wallace had a 28-yard reception that nearly matched Smith's production.
"This is the most serious team I've ever been around for getting the job done, working at it, coming in early, doing extra film, doing extra things," Ruskell said. "I've never been around a group (where) their concentration was (this) on every week.
"It's been an amazing thing to watch and I think it's because they like each other and they are looking after the other guy and watching out for their back and the coaches do the same thing and they picked up on it and it just kind of build upon itself, got some momentum and I think that propelled us to the 11-game win streak and then to these tough games."
The Seahawks dominated on both sides of the ball during a 34-14 victory over the Panthers in the NFC title game. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck posted a triple-digit passer rating for the sixth consecutive game, softening up the Carolina defense for running back Shaun Alexander, who rushed for 132 yards and two 1-yard touchdowns. Seattle's defense got pressure without blitzing, forcing Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme into three interceptions. The defense also shut down wide receiver Steve Smith, holding him to five catches for 33 yards. Defensive tackle Rocky Bernard (two sacks) and middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu (one interception) had big games.
Hasselbeck picked apart Carolina's third-ranked defense, spreading the ball around to eight receivers. Seattle's coaching staff put together a brilliant game plan, showing off a bit by finding backup quarterback Seneca Wallace for a 28-yard catch against former Seahawks cornerback Ken Lucas, who now plays for Carolina.
--QB Matt Hasselbeck tossed two touchdown passes and did not commit a turnover during his second consecutive strong showing in the playoffs. Hasselbeck spread the ball around to eight receivers.
--RB Shaun Alexander rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns in by far his best postseason performances. Alexander had struggled in three previous playoff games but he found openings in Carolina's defense as the Panthers had to respect the pass.
--DT Rocky Bernard collected two sacks as Seattle got a pass rush without blitzing. Bernard had 8.5 sacks during the regular season. He is a free agent after the season.
--MLB Lofa Tatupu picked off a pass and knocked Panthers RB Nick Goings from the game with a hit that seemed to hurt both players. Tatupu suffered a mild concussion during the game and was off-limits to reporters afterwards.
--FS Marquand Manuel collected one of three Seattle interceptions on Panthers QB Jake Delhomme. Manuel has stepped up big this season after the team lost FS Ken Hamlin to injury.
The Carolina Panthers have several issues this offseason, but atop the list is deciding what direction to move at running back. DeShaun Foster, who broke his ankle in a divisional playoff loss to Chicago, will become an unrestricted free agent in March and the team is likely to at least make an attempt to re-sign him. But Foster may want to go play in an offense that is more conducive to his cutback style of running.
Carolina's offense is better suited for a power running back. Stephen Davis, who ran for a franchise record 1,444 yards in 2003, said he wants to return, but he has a big cap figure and clearly he doesn't have the same pop he once did. Davis scored 12 touchdowns this season, but he averaged just 3.1 yards per carry.
Nick Goings will be back, but the team clearly doesn't view him as their franchise running back because of a lack of breakaway speed.
A lot could be determined by how much faith the team has in Eric Shelton, who was placed on injured reserve during the preseason despite having what amounted to a one-month injury. The reality there is the Panthers weren't happy with how Shelton was picking up defensive schemes and thought he ran way too upright.
So, the Panthers may be forced to either draft a back or pursue a big-name free agent to give them some balance.
Sunday's NFC Championship Game loss to Seattle showed just how important it is for the Panthers to have a ground weapon to help free up superstar receiver Steve Smith, who was held to 33 yards on five receptions.
"We couldn't run the football and that's a recipe for disaster for this football team," said guard Mike Wahle. "We need to run the football effectively and that helps to get Steve Smith in the game. It's like if we can't do one, we can't really do the other, unfortunately."
Among the other key free agents the Panthers will have include outside linebacker Will Witherspoon, guard Tutan Reyes and center Jeff Mitchell. Of those, Witherspoon is considered the top priority.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Steve Smith emerged as arguably the best wide receiver in the game in 2005, winning the league's triple crown by finishing either first or tied for first in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. He's an incredible talent and a force to be stopped. The Panthers also seem to have a budding star in fellow receiver Drew Carter, a real speedster who should improve with more playing time. Carter wasn't activated until the second half of the season. Defensive end Julius Peppers remains a dominant pass rusher and Carolina has found a diamond-in-the-rough in strong safety in Marlon McCree.
WHAT NEEDS ATTENTION: The Panthers couldn't run the ball all season and it came back to haunt them in the NFC Championship Game. Granted, DeShaun Foster was hurt, but there was no push from the offensive line in Sunday's 34-14 loss. The Panthers really need a power running back who can carry the ball 25 times a game and stay healthy, something Foster has not been able to do during his career with the Panthers.
Carolina needs a No. 2 receiver and is hoping that Drew Carter can be that guy because Keary Colbert had a horrendous sophomore season.
The Panthers likely will shake up their offensive line. Don't be surprised if Jeff Mitchell and Tutan Reyes don't return because the Panthers have two rookie draft picks Geoff Hangartner and Evan Mathis they are waiting to plug in those holes.
Carolina coach John Fox boasted last week that his team enjoyed playing on the road and seemed to have a defiant "sick little grin on its face" when the Panthers would get booed by opposing fans. But on Sunday it was the Panthers offense that looked sick, and it was the Seattle Seahawks who were doing the grinning.
The Seahawks put the clamps on quarterback Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith and the rest of the Carolina offense, hammering the punchless Panthers 34-14 in the NFC Championship Game Sunday at Qwest Field to earn the right to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL.
Delhomme entered Sunday's NFC Championship Game as the leading passer in NFL playoff history, but he left Seattle bruised, battered and beaten by a Seahawks defense that intercepted him three times and limited him to 196 yards passing. Carolina had just 109 total yards through the first three quarters and Delhomme finished with a quarterback rating of 34.9, by far his worst game of the postseason.
"We just never got anything going," said Delhomme, who is now 5-2 as a starter in the playoffs. "It was just one of those games. It's frustrating when it happens in a championship game."
It was hardly all Delhomme's fault.
The Panthers couldn't run the football at all and the Seahawks knocked out starting running back Nick Goings with a concussion in the first quarter after rushing for just 2 yards on five carries. Steve Smith, who came into the game as the hottest player in the playoffs, was limited to 33 yards on five receptions.
The Seahawks got 132 yards rushing and two touchdowns from league MVP Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck threw for a pair of touchdown passes exposing a Carolina defense that appeared to tire in its fourth straight road game.
Cornerback Ken Lucas said bluntly, "We got embarrassed today."
"Seattle did what they had to do," said safety Mike Minter. "They were really operating. That offense was dictating what we were doing the flow of the game, the speed of the game. Their defense was flying around and making plays. That is what a winning team is going to do." Said Delhomme: "When you come this far and you lose it's hard to look at the positives. There were a lot but it's hard to talk about right now. You are so close and you don't get these opportunities a lot."
Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher finally broke down the door to get back to the Super Bowl, but he and the Steelers aren't satisfied because they snapped their personal jinx in the AFC title game. "We need to go and win one more game," Cowher said. "No one ever remembers who lost the Super Bowl."
The Steelers became the first real Super Bowl dynasty when they won four in six seasons in the 1970s, but they've been back only once since then and have not won a Vince Lombardi Trophy in 26 years.
"Getting there is good," owner Dan Rooney proclaimed, "but we're going there to win. This is just another stop."
A good one at that. It was ironic that the Steelers became the first sixth playoff seed to reach a Super Bowl and only the second team to win three playoff road games to get there. This after they lost four out of five AFC Championship Games the previous 11 seasons, all at home, including one last January in Heinz Field to New England after they became the first AFC team to go 15-1 in the regular season. "The toughest route they said to take was the scenic route and that ended up being the best route for us," said linebacker Joey Porter, who had a monster game. "We went to three different cities and shocked the world three different times. We weren't supposed to be in this situation but we pulled it off. We pulled it off everywhere we went."
Only one player on Pittsburgh's 53-man roster has ever been to a Super Bowl, veteran cornerback Willie Williams, a starter when the Steelers made their fifth appearance in the 1995 season and lost to the Dallas Cowboys.
Cowher has been dogged by his lack of success in the postseason. He won 141 games in the regular season but was 8-9 in the postseason. He is now 11-9 and can put the personal demons to rest for good Feb. 5 in Detroit.
"It hasn't gnawed at me," Cowher said. "I can't do anything about it. I don't want other people to be stuck to me. You can say anything you want about me and the failures I have had. That's fine. I understand it's part of this business.
"I try to seize each year and take each game and this group of guys and make them be as good as they can be."
Pittsburgh, a three-point underdog, became only the second team to reach the Super Bowl with three straight playoff victories on the road when the Steelers beat the Broncos in Denver, 34-17.
Ben Roethlisberger had his third outstanding playoff performance, completing 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards, no interceptions and two touchdowns to Cedrick Wilson and Hines Ward. Roethlisberger also ran 4 yards for another touchdown.
Jerome Bettis ran for a 3-yard touchdown on a day in which the Steelers rushed for only 90 yards, their first win when they were under 100 this season. Pittsburgh led 24-3 at halftime after scoring on each of its first four series.
-- RB Jerome Bettis will likely end his distinguished 13-season NFL career at home in Detroit in the Super Bowl, a dream that drove him to come back for one more season.
-- CB Ike Taylor intercepted his first pass of the season in Denver after he dropped what he said were 10 interceptions. He picked off Jake Plummer just before halftime and WR Hines Ward caught a 17-yard touchdown pass with 7 seconds left.
-- QB Ben Roethlisberger, in three playoff games, threw seven touchdown passes and one interception. He was sacked five times.
-- WR Cedrick Wilson, who did not have a 100-yard game or a touchdown in the regular season, caught his second scoring pass in the playoffs and almost had his second 100-yard game. He led the Steelers with five receptions for 92 yards in Denver.
-- K Jeff Reed made both field goal attempts in Denver and has converted 10 straight without a miss.