Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 9, 2011

Cinderella’s New Zip Code Is 98134

From the moment the Seattle Seahawks beat division rival St. Louis 16-6 last Sunday, pundits began to lament the sorry state of affairs in the NFL. The Seahawks’ victory on the regular season’s final day made them champions of the NFC West, but with a losing record of 7-9. For the first time in NFL history, a team with a losing record was going to the playoffs. To make matters worse, as a division champion Seattle was entitled to host a Wild Card playoff game.

The idea that the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints would have to cart their impressive 11-5 regular season record up to the Pacific Northwest and open the playoffs on the road against a team with a losing record somehow struck many as offensive. There were calls to do away with the guarantee of at least one home playoff game for division winners. There were even suggestions to do away with awarding playoff spots to all divisions in favor of having the teams with the six best records in each conference advance to the post-season.

To be fair to the pundits, some of the alarm was occasioned by the fact that Seattle was not just a 7-9 team. By most measures they were a really bad 7-9 team. Only two of their seven victories came against teams who finished the season with winning records, and only one of those was a team also bound for the playoffs. Their losses, meanwhile, were epic. In eight of the nine defeats their opponent scored more than 30 points. Only twice had the Seahawks scored more than 20 points in defeat, and that was matched by an equal number of games in which they tallied only a field goal. On average the nine losses were by a score of 35-14, a nice three-touchdown shellacking.

Coming off their Super Bowl upset of Indianapolis last February, New Orleans had started the year slowly. As the season approached its midpoint they were an unimpressive 4-3. But head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees righted the ship and the Saints rolled to a 7-2 finish over the final nine weeks. In the middle of that run was a 34-19 pounding of Seattle at the Superdome in Week 11.

So it was perhaps not surprising that even in Seattle sentiment was mixed. Just prior to the decisive game against St. Louis a local poll showed a majority hoping that the Seahawks would lose the game and the division, and thus improve their draft position. Nor was it unexpected that when that didn’t happen and Seattle advanced, odds makers wasted no time in writing the team off, installing New Orleans as 11 point favorites despite the fact that Seattle was the home team.

While the experts and most fans were laughing at the Seahawks, as the week went on local fans rallied around their squad. On Saturday more than 66,000 filled the seats at Qwest Field, responding to calls to come out and serve as the team’s “12th man” by raising the decibel level whenever the Saints’ offense was on the field. They fill this role quite capably in Seattle, where visiting offenses had the highest number of illegal procedure penalties in the league this season, as offensive linemen strained to hear the snap count in the raucous din. The crowd did their part again yesterday, with Saints’ players flagged three times for false starts.

But in the early going it looked like no amount of crowd noise was going to make a difference, and that the two teams would play exactly the roles that their records suggested. Seattle’s opening kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Saints possession at the 40 yard line. Brees connected on four of six passes as New Orleans moved briskly down the field, and the Saints took a 3-0 lead on a 26-yard field goal by Garret Hartley. Then on just the third offensive play for Seattle, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck’s pass went off the hands of Ben Obomanu and into the waiting arms of defender Jabari Greer. Aided by two sloppy Seattle penalties, New Orleans again moved briskly down to the field, the drive capped by a short touchdown pass from Brees to Heath Evans. It was barely midway through the first quarter, and New Orleans was up 10-0 while Seattle had run just three plays from scrimmage and turned the ball over once. Surely the expected rout was on.

Even when the 12-year veteran Hasselbeck moved his offense down the field and got Seattle on the scoreboard there was little sense that the game’s script was about to be tossed out the window. In ten plays over the next five minutes, as the first quarter ended and the second began, New Orleans again appeared unstoppable. When Julius Jones rumbled five yards off left tackle and into the end zone, the Saints again led by ten points, 17-7.

Then of course, what couldn’t possibly happen, happened. It was as if the ghost of Pete Rozelle had appeared before Matt Hasselbeck and intoned, “On any give game day…” Over the final 42 minutes the Seahawks demonstrated once again why the NFL is so popular. In the process the team morphed from national laughingstock to national darling.

Hasselbeck completed 14 of his next 20 passes and threw for three more touchdowns as Seattle outscored New Orleans 27-3 over the middle third of the game. His quarterback rating in the second quarter was a phenomenal 141.3. Time and again the Seattle passer lofted towering lobs down the field that nestled into his receivers’ waiting arms, hitting them in full stride. Meanwhile the Seattle defense stiffened; so that by the time the Saints got another good offensive drive going, they trailed by two touchdowns and the game was in the fourth quarter.

As the defending Super Bowl champions and heavy favorites, the Saints weren’t going to go down without a fight. Five times during the regular season Brees had engineered comebacks in the final period. When the Saints rallied for ten points in the fourth quarter, even the most devoted Seattle fans had to be wondering if midnight might be at hand for their would-be Cinderella.

Then came Marshawn Lynch. On second and ten from the 33, the fourth year running back took the handoff from Hasselbeck, ran through a hole on the left side of the line, cut back to the right and broke tackle after tackle after tackle, eight in all, on a 67 yard highlight-reel run to playoff glory. As spectacular as Lynch’s effort was, equally amazing was the sight of 300 pound offensive linemen and even quarterback Hasselbeck running down the field to provide him with a convoy of blockers over the final twenty yards. The touchdown put Seattle ahead by 11 points with 3:22 to play, and the Seahawks were moving on to face the Bears next Sunday.

The odds that a by-then 10-9 Seattle team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in four weeks time are still prohibitively long. But for at least one chilly afternoon at a noisy stadium in the upper left hand corner of the map, a team with a losing record and its devoted “12th Man” fans didn’t have to apologize for a thing. And somewhere, the ghost of Pete Rozelle is smiling.

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Responses

  1. Qwest field advantage ftw!


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