2006 in Review - Part 2 (2/9/2007)

A game-by-game analysis of the second half of the season and the playoffs.




2/9/2007

By Mike Kahn - Seahawks Insider

**2006 Review - [Part 1](/News/News.aspx?id=46892 "Part 1")**

KIRKLAND - The second half of the 2006 season for the Seattle Seahawks began with what was the biggest game of the year to date. Not only was it against the arch division-rival St. Louis Rams, but they would be playing the Rams without Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and 2005 MVP running back Shaun Alexander.

Alexander had already missed five games with a broken bone in his foot, and Hasselbeck had sprained his knee three games earlier and would be out another couple of weeks. With Seneca Wallace at quarterback and Mo Morris at tailback, along with various and sundry other starters out for a variety of injuries and sicknesses, the Seahawks still managed to make the big plays – utilizing continuous clutch field goals from Josh Brown – to beat the Rams and never lose first place in the division on the way to the post-season.

It was a wonderful validation of the players regarding their heart and soul to the coaching staff, the front office, and each other all the way to the final seconds of the Division Playoff game at Chicago.

"We learned there was this strength and resiliency to this team, that they were not going to let the distraction of injuries and lineup changes prevent them from fighting all the way through the season," Seahawks president Tim Ruskell said. "The whole season they played hard and guys battled through everything, even though we had a short off-season after the Super Bowl. We always felt like we were trying to catch up, but that didn't stop the players from almost getting back to the NFC Championship game."

And yet, they lost twice to the San Francisco 49ers and once to the Arizona Cardinals during a four-week span, with the division lead nearly evaporating. And in the second to last game of the regular season, in came the San Diego Chargers, the hottest team in the NFL – boasting record-breaking running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

It was at that point that both Hasselbeck and Alexander – although not 100 percent – were back in the starting lineup and providing confidence to everyone else. And the Seahawks defense put the clamps on Tomlinson, and appeared to have the game won until a long touchdown pass in the final minute stole the game for the Chargers.

Even though the Seahawks had already clinched their third-straight division title for the first time in franchise history, coach Mike Holmgren and the staff made it incumbent upon the players to close out the regular season with a momentum-swinging win, and they accomplished that at Tampa.

Coupled with the streaking Philadelphia Eagles running the table to win the NFC East, that meant the Seahawks would play host to the Dallas Cowboys. A stunning win over the Cowboys – enhanced by huge defensive and special teams play in the fourth quarter - translated to a return trip to Chicago and a very close but disappointing 27-24 loss in overtime to end the season.




 

 

But through it all the expectations were so high, some people lost sight of what was accomplished despite all the obstacles. Winning another playoff game gave them three post-season wins over the past two years – when, in fact, they had won only three playoff games in the previous 29 years of the franchise.

"We should have won the San Diego game, and then we went to Tampa for the regular season finale and controlled the Bucs from start to finish," Ruskell said. "We knew we could beat the Cowboys and have a chance to beat the Bears – that game was there for us to win, too.

"The point is, we were very close to getting back there, and we're proud of what they accomplished. Now it's up to us to put them back into a position to get there again."

Seahawks 24, Rams 22 (Nov. 12)With Wallace starting his third game at quarterback and Morris in his sixth game starting at tailback, it was time for something special to happen - and it did. Wallace won his second game in three starts and Morris had his second consecutive 100-yard game rushing.

The keys to the victory that ended up being oh-so-close - as all games with the Rams seem to be - were a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown from Nate Burleson and Brown's game-winning 38-yard field goal as time ran out. But the game started better than most, and that was refreshing. Morris had 65 of his 124 yards rushing on his first eight carries, while Wallace began 8-of-9 for 81 yards.

And yet, the Rams took a 16-14 lead in the third quarter, and things looked shaky until Burleson's startling punt return lit up Qwest Field. The Rams did score again, but Wallace, Morris and Brown were clearly up to the task – and the 6-3 Seahawks opened up a two-game lead in the division.

"I was excited to play in this game," Wallace said. "Since I've been here, every game we've played against St. Louis has gone down to the wire. I knew it was going to be an intense game – and something like this was going to happen. We were going to end up winning by a field goal or something."

49ers 20, Seahawks 14(Nov. 19)Following what was one of the more enjoyable wins of the season came the letdown, which drew more than the normal ire from Holmgren in his hometown of San Francisco. The Seahawks were in the game all the way, but never could get untracked.

The defensive vulnerability to the run again reared its ugly head, as Frank Gore rushed for 212 yards to lead the 49ers' offense, while Wallace had three interceptions to go along with second-half touchdown passes to Deion Branch and Darrell Jackson after the Seahawks fell behind 20-0 at halftime.

It was Alexander's first game back from the foot injury and he struggled to gain any rhythm with 37 yards on 17 carries. And with neither starting center Robbie Tobeck nor Sean Locklear playing, it was tough sailing as there was a clear glimpse of the toll the injuries had taken.

"I think that's a little bit a result of having different folks in there," Holmgren said. "I think we have most of the guys back next week. I believe we're capable of better football than we played today."

Seahawks 34, Packers 24(Nov. 27)Monday Night Football showed up again, and it was about as bizarre a game in Seattle as anyone could remember. If anyone had just turned on their televisions, they'd have thought it was live from Green Bay – where Holmgren used to coach.

"It was kind of wild there for a while," Holmgren said. "I had been through a couple of those when I coached for them, but not here in Seattle."

With snow piling up and the wind blowing, Hasselbeck made his return with three interceptions and a fumble in the first half, and the outcome appeared as ominous as the weather. But the defense was up to the challenge, plus Alexander ran wild. Showing little rust from his long layoff, he rushed a club record 40 times for 201 yards.

Hasselbeck responded in the second half with touchdown passes to Jackson, Branch and D.J. Hackett, and the Seahawks won going away – providing some sighs of relief with a 7-4 record and two of the biggest guns back on the field.

Seahawks 23, Broncos 20(Dec. 3)As if the weather wasn't bad enough at home, the Seahawks hit the road for a Sunday night game at Denver that certainly wasn't any better, as the temperature threatened to be in single digits. And once again, it was a drive in the final minutes and a Brown field goal that won it in the closing seconds - this one a 50-yarder with five seconds left – his third boot of the second half.

The win moved the Seahawks to 8-4 and produced a three-game lead in the division with four games left. But it required big defensive plays by the defense on rookie Jay Cutler, making his first start at quarterback to pull this one out. The Seahawks got on the board in the first half when Bryce Fisher and Chuck Darby got their hands on Cutler, who lost control of the ball. Rookie defensive end Darryl Tapp picked it off and rambled 25 yards for the touchdown.

While the Broncos were struggling with Cutler, the Seahawks offense wasn't any more effective. Finally, they strung together a 61-yard drive in the fourth quarter – capped off by Alexander's 1-yard dive – the Seahawks first rushing touchdown after 20 touchdowns through the air dating back months. Ultimately, it was one of those ugly road wins that a team must have to win a division, and they now moved into position to possibly host two playoff games.

"We didn't sustain anything early in the game," Holmgren said. "We didn't convert any third downs and I am really not happy with our execution early in the game. But we beat a good team in a tough place. It's not easy for teams to come into Denver and do that."

Cardinals 27, Seahawks 21(Dec. 10)It hasn't been easy for teams to come into Qwest Field and win either, but the winds were changing, and despite the division lead, what appeared to be a minor obstacle turned into a large bump in the road that would grow exponentially each week.

The irony of Holmgren's Friday talk to the players was almost too much to handle. He stressed to the offense to concentrate on not turning the ball over, and for the defense not to allow big plays. Well, the offense fumbled four times and the Cardinals scored on a 56-yard touchdown pass on their first play from scrimmage.

Hasselbeck bounced back from another rocky start to complete 20-of-28 for 244 yards and a pair of touchdown passes – but it wasn't enough to overcome all the gifts they provided the Cardinals. In many ways, this game was a big letdown game after the win in Denver, much the way they played at San Francisco after beating St. Louis for the second time, although Holmgren disagreed.

"I knew it was going to be a battle and I conveyed that to our football team," Holmgren said. "We were just too careless with the ball offensively. That's pretty much the game, in my opinion. We had better emotion. I wouldn't compare this with our last road loss (at San Francisco) at all. The two games are quite different from the team standpoint. We started the game and we fumbled the ball – you're going to lose. We fumbled the ball and you're going to lose if you do that as many times as we did it today."

 49ers 24, Seahawks 14(Dec. 14)This game hurt way worse than any of the others. It was their second loss to the 'Niners in less than a month, and third-consecutive division loss after not losing a game in the NFC West since 2004.

But the lack of consistency by the offense due to the turnstile of injuries and sickness made this game a total reflection of what prevented the team from taking off all season. The defense bottled up Gore and the 'Niners offense very well until the fourth quarter, when they allowed drives of 90 and 73 yards that put away the game.

Offensively, the Hawks never got it going. Hasselbeck's numbers went up to 20-of-37 for 220 yards and a touchdown pass, only because of the final drive that culminated with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jerramy Stevens. Until then, they had done little – the initial touchdown late in the first quarter came on a 44-yard drive (Alexander scoring from the 1), following a punt and a good return from Burleson. Other than that, everything was pretty listless – and the division lead had shrunk to two games over the 'Niners, who now held the tie-breaker after the sweep.

"Well, it was a very disappointing evening," Holmgren said. "We realized what was at stake, but we didn't play very well. Right now we're not playing very well. That's just the way it is. Defensively, we did some things tonight that were OK. But all in all, we're struggling right now; we're going through a tough spot."

Chargers 20, Seahawks 17(Dec. 24)Now things were getting serious, and there was a different feel around practice. With the red-hot Chargers and Tomlinson coming in and the division lead suffering from shrinkage, it was apparent from Wednesday forward: that the performance would be at a different level on this Christmas Eve at Qwest Field.

The defense held Tomlinson - who had already shattered Alexander's touchdown mark of 2006 - scoreless for the first time in eight weeks. Meanwhile, Alexander ran like an MVP with 131 yards rushing, including a 33-yard touchdown bolt and a spectacular 9-yard scoring run that was reminiscent of Earl Campbell.

And yet, with a 4-point lead and less than a minute to go, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson with 29 seconds left, and it left the Seahawks crestfallen. You couldn't tell by the locker room that the 49ers had lost to the Cardinals to wrap up the division for the Seahawks. This was perhaps the toughest loss of the season.

"You know, I have coached at every level," Holmgren said. "I coached at the high school level and those kids are younger. These guys are old, stodgy, veteran guys and they're crying like babies. I just said, 'Hey, we met our first goal (winning the division). It's disappointing that we didn't win this football game. Sure, you're disappointed when you lose any game.' But I liked how they battled. I liked how they fought against what I thought was a very fine football team. They had things to play for as well. At that point, I said, 'Get your heads up.'"

Seahawks 23, Buccaneers 7(Dec. 31)With the way they played against the Chargers and took care of business on New Year's Eve in the Florida sunshine, the Seahawks appeared as prepared as they could possibly be for the post-season.

The win ended their first three-game losing streak since October of 2004, but they incredibly lost cornerbacks Kelly Herndon (broken ankle) and Jimmy Williams (torn knee ligament) just a week after losing cornerback Marcus Trufant to a high ankle sprain. The hits just kept on coming, but they didn't buckle.

Hasselbeck had complete control of the game as they jumped out to a 10-0 lead. He threw for 228 yards, Alexander ran for 92 yards, and Brown booted three field goals. It was a solid all-around effort as they finished the regular season 9-7 and prepared to face the Cowboys in the Wild Card game.

"I thought our guys played very well given the circumstances surrounding the game," Holmgren said. "We came in and we've all seen that the outcome of the football game has very little to do with anything once the playoffs start. So to motivate the team to play well, I thought it was very important for us to play well, and we did for the most part."

The Playoffs

Seahawks, 21, Cowboys 20(Jan. 6)This was an amazing game any way you looked at it for the Seahawks, considering they had pulled three defensive backs off the streets to suit up for this game before a desperate packed house at Qwest Field.

Even so, they trailed 20-13 midway through the fourth quarter, and the unlikely plays hadn't even begun.

It required a safety to start things off, when Seahawks rookie cornerback Kelly Jennings stripped Terry Glenn at the goal line. Hasselbeck then took the ensuing kick and moved to the 37-yard line and found Stevens for a brilliant touchdown pass and catch up the seam to give the Seahawks a 21-20 lead. That was followed by the even more unlikely circumstance of the Cowboys having a first down on the Seahawks 1-yard line overturned when a replay showed it was a bad mark. And then on what figured to be an automatic field goal, quarterback Tony Romo botched the snap and was tackled for a loss on a brilliant play from Jordan Babineaux with less than 80 seconds left. Alexander then burst up the middle for 20 yards from the 2 on first down, and that allowed the Seahawks to virtually run out the clock.

"I call this team the greatest persevering team I've ever been on," Alexander said. "The injuries we've had, the windstorms, I didn't have power in my house for a week. Over and over, just stuff you wouldn't imagine that one team would go through. Yet, we still win the West, we still play our home playoff game. We win to get in there and now we are officially in the hunt for this thing. I'm just proud of our guys. It's one of those things that a true champion just fights, no matter what's going on."

Bears 27, Seahawks 24 (OT)(Jan. 14)Now the Seahawks were serious underdogs, and they liked it. After struggling early, they seemingly took control of the game late in the third quarter and had the Soldier Field crowd quietly contemplating the end of the season.

Alexander was running hard, Hasselbeck was making big plays to his receiving corps, and the Seahawks overcame a 21-7 deficit to take a 24-21 with five minutes left in the game. To be sure, the Bears came back to tie it, but the Seahawks had three chances in the final minutes and in overtime to move into position for a field goal from midfield, but failed to convert short yardage first downs.

In essence, everyone agreed, this game was a microcosm of the season. Every time it appeared the Seahawks would take on the champion veneer of a champion, something else would get in the way. And that inconsistency is what caused this season to be based on resilience, rather than momentum; and eventually it cost them a trip to the NFC Championship game.

"As good as we felt last week, it's that tough this week," Holmgren said. "The finality of losing a playoff game really hurts. The players on our team gave a great effort. We had chances to win the football game, but we made a couple of errors when we could have executed some plays. We have a good core of players, the organization is healthy, and I hope down the road we get a few more cracks at this thing."

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