By Mike Kahn
Coming out of the roller coaster ride of the 4-4 first half of the 2007 season, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren challenged the team to win out the final eight games of the season … taking them one game at a time, of course.
None of the teams on the schedule were above .500, with the biggest challenge coming from four of the final six games being on the road. They had to get an arm's length ahead of the Arizona Cardinals and stay there to win their fourth consecutive NFC West title, and along with that would be the fifth trip to the postseason in a row.
They didn't run the table as hoped, but they did win the first five impressively before falling flat at Carolina, beat Baltimore at home, and then losing a wild 44-41 finale at Atlanta with starters running in and out of the lineup.
All in all, it ended up being one of the most successful regular seasons in franchise history, allowing for records set by Matt Hasselbeck and Bobby Engram, Shaun Alexander reaching his milestone 100th career rushing touchdown and Holmgren passing Chuck Knox for most wins in Seahawks franchise history.
All of that and more set the table for another trip to the playoffs – this one beginning at home against the Washington Redskins.
"We've seen enough of our football team to know we're capable of being a real good football team," Seahawks president Tim Ruskell said. "We've hit that more of late than we did early in the season, so if you have your druthers as to if that happened late or early, you'd take the former. So that gives us a lot of optimism going into the game with the Redskins."
Along the way we saw so much growth from the team, the huge impact made by free agents Patrick Kerney, Brian Russell and Deon Grant on the defense. Ditto for second-year corner Kelly Jennings and new secondary coach/assistant head coach Jim Mora, as the team's weakness in the defensive backfield became a strength – with cornerback Marcus Trufant being named to the Pro Bowl.
The linebacker trio of Lofa Tatupu, Julian Peterson and Leroy Hill continued its ascension to one of the best in the NFL, with Tatupu being named All-Pro, after being named to the Pro Bowl again with Peterson and Kerney (also All-Pro).
Most of the questions surrounded the running game, as Hasselbeck was superb, but injuries to Alexander and the erratic run-blocking of the offensive line blew hot and cold the final eight games and figured to be the big questions going into the playoffs.
Game 9: Seahawks 24, 49ers 0 at Qwest Field, Nov. 12
This was the kind of game the Seahawks were looking for to jump start the second half of the season. It was a Monday night game in front of the world and they felt good about it afterward in a clear confidence boost. The Seahawks controlled the football with Hasselbeck completing 27 of 40 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns, with D.J. Hackett grabbing eight passes, including a touchdown. Mo Morris carried the ball 28 times for 87 yards in place of Alexander who was inactive for the game due to his strained knee.
And perhaps more importantly, the defense recorded a shutout as they raised their record to 5-4. They proved to be dominant again against the Niners, holding them to just six first downs and 173 total yards – again holding Frank Gore in check with just 72 yards rushing.
Patrick Kerney, Jordan Babineaux and Julian Peterson each had sacks with the former two also forcing fumbles, while Kevin Bentley came off the bench in place of the injured Leroy Hill to start at outside linebacker and lead the team with 10 tackles. Essentially, what this game did was eliminate the Niners from the race and complete a sweep of a team that swept the Seahawks a year ago.
It was just one game, but Holmgren laid down the gauntlet heading into the second half of the season and this was a good start.
"This was the kind of game we needed," Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. "The offense controlled the football, we got them off the field on third down and everybody made plays when they had to."
Game 10: Seahawks 30, Bears 23 at Qwest Field, Nov. 18
This was more than a battle of wills and physicality against the team that eliminated the Seahawks from the 2006 playoffs in overtime, it was a battle of wits between Hasselbeck and Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher … and Hasselbeck won. The war of checks ended up with Hasselbeck gaining checkmate by completing 30-of-44 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns.
Sure, Hasselbeck took a beating physically, but the win meant everything for the Seahawks, hanging tough with a team as physically demanding as the Bears and proving they could make big plays. Hackett, again, was superb with nine receptions, while Engram continued his amazingly consistent play with eight more. For the second week in a row, in place of Alexander, Morris had 87 yards rushing – including a sweet 19-yard bolt for a touchdown, and Josh Brown was his consistent self with three field goals, as everything the team needed to get done for the victory, it accomplished.
Defensively, Kerney, again was dominant with three sacks, while Hill came back from his hamstring strain to play a fabulous game with a team-high 10 tackles and a sack. After so easily handling the 49ers the week before, this game meant more as the last two NFC champions were hooking up to see who had more left for this season, and this game pushed the Bears back into the pack.
It was now official, the Seahawks had transformed predominantly into a passing team, and even more apparent was how up to the task Hasselbeck was, especially the way he handled the omnipresence of Urlacher. The offensive line, while struggling to run block, was doing just fine with pass protection. And now they had two wins a row before the reality of four of the final six games being on the road
"They would check whenever we would check and we got a good sense of whatever they would check to," Engram said. "I thought Matt did a good job of countering today to some plays where we had the advantage."
Game 11: Seahawks 24, Rams 19 at St. Louis, Nov. 25
It's always an unnerving experience playing in St. Louis and this game was no different, all the way to the Rams having the ball fourth-and-1 from the Seahawks 1 yard line with 27 seconds to go in the game and Darryl Tapp burst through the line as quarterback Gus Frerotte fumbled the snap.
The Seahawks took over on their own 5, Hasselbeck ran out the clock, and their third consecutive win was in the bag. But to call it easy would be a gross exaggeration. Hasselbeck was sacked five times against the blitz-happy Rams defense, including getting tackled for a safety in the first quarter. By halftime, the Rams led 19-7, with the Seahawks only points coming on an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Finally, the Seahawks gained some semblance of offense after going to the two-minute offense just to prevent the Rams from setting up on defense. Hasselbeck ultimately completed 21-of-38 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown to Deion Branch. Morris added 78 yards on the ground, and the Seahawks game-winning touchdown in the final six minutes of game came on a tough 5-yard run from young fullback Leonard Weaver.
Kerney had his second consecutive three-sack game and he intercepted a shovel-pass as the Seahawks knocked starting quarterback Marc Bulger out of the game. Hill added another sack and Marcus Trufant an interception. Nonetheless, it still came down to the last play of the game at the Seahawks 1 that could have been a Rams victory. Instead, the Seahawks had their third win in a row, a 7-4 record and were headed to Philadelphia as the war on the road continued.
"It was unbelievable," Holmgren said. "I couldn't believe he fumbled the snap. And the next thing I see is him picking it up and I'm thinking, 'Can he run with it?' And then I saw we tackled him and it was just elation."
Game 12: Seahawks 28, Eagles 24 at Philadelphia, Dec. 2
It was hard to fathom two games in a row would come down to the final 30 seconds and a defensive play … but it did. This time it was Tatupu to the rescue, with his third interception of the game – the final one coming at the Seattle 4-yard line with 23 seconds left in the game. He returned it to the 22 and Hasselbeck again took a knee and a deep breath – it was difficult to decipher which came first – and the Seahawks winning streak expanded to four.
The Seahawks led most of the game because they had such great field position from the trio of Tatupu interceptions, plus Julian Peterson added another. Alexander returned to carry the ball 20 times for 65 yards, but Hasselbeck never could get into a rhythm with the passing game, completing 19-of-34 for 187 yards – but he did have clutch touchdown passes of 12 yards to Engram and 43 to Nate Burleson.
But the big offensive play was in the third quarter when Morris took a pitchout and raced around left end for a 45-yard touchdown that ended up becoming the game-winner. The Seahawks defense stiffened, featuring what had routinely become a goal-line stand every week, and in the final two minutes, the Seahawks took the ball to midfield only to punt the ball away – presumably confident in the defense to keep the Eagles at bay.
But there was still a thrill to be had when Eagles star back Brian Westbrook took the punt at his own 22 and raced 64 yards to the Seahawks 14 with 1:16 left. They moved the ball to the 11 when A.J. Feeley, subbing for the injured Donovan McNabb, threw into the teeth of the Seahawks defense and there was Tatupu again, to put the game away. Now 8-4 with a four-game winning streak, the Seahawks were on their way home with the opportunity to clinch their fourth consecutive NFC West Division title against the Arizona Cardinals.
"As I told the team, if nothing else, we're interesting," Holmgren said. "These games going down to the wire, obviously they don't care about me and my health. But what a great win. This is always a difficult trip."
Game 13: Seahawks 42, Cardinals 21 at Qwest Field, Dec. 9
This was the offensive breakout game the Seahawks were waiting for and it couldn't have come at a better time against the Cardinals. The Seahawks opened up a 27-7 lead in the first half behind a nearly perfect performance from Hasselbeck, and cruised to their fifth consecutive victory to raise their record to 9-4.
The win not only clinched their fourth successive division title, the 9-4 Seahawks would be in the playoffs for the unprecedented fifth time in a row and it was Holmgren's 81st win as coach of the Seahawks, surpassing Chuck Knox for the most victories in franchise history.
Hasselbeck was 14-of-18 for 202 yards and touchdown passes of 7 yards to Burleson, 15 yards to Engram and 17 yards to Branch in the first half alone for a quarterback rating of 153.0. He finished the game 22-of-33 for 272 yards and added a fourth score to tight end Marcus Pollard just to spread things out.
Defensively, the Kerney added his third, three-sack day in four week, while Trufant followed Tatupu's three-interception day with a hat trick of his own – capping it off with an 84-yard touchdown return in the fourth quarter for the Seahawks final score. In so many ways, this would prove to be the marquee game of the season – capped off by Seahawks owner Paul Allen presenting Holmgren with the game ball.
"It gave me the opportunity to point out to the team the same thing I preach to them on almost a daily basis," Holmgren said. "That individual accomplishments are absolutely tied in with other people, coaches, other coaches; players, certainly.
Game 14: Panthers 13, Seahawks 10 at Carolina, Dec. 16
This was the letdown game. Sure, the Seahawks defense was superb, not allowing a touchdown until the final 80 seconds of the game, but it was apparent from the opening kickoff that the Seahawks just weren't as sharp as they had been during the five-game winning streak.
The offense produced just six first downs and 111 yards in the first half, but playing against Panthers rookie quarterback Matt Moore, the defense held Carolina to virtually the same numbers. In fact, there was no score in the game until the fourth quarter. The Panthers got on the board first with a 53-yard field goal from John Kasay, which was matched less than four minutes later by Josh Brown when the Seahawks drove to the Carolina 4 but settled for a 23-yard field goal.
The Panthers then drove again to the Seattle 20 and Kasay's 37-yard boot made it 6-3 with 3:02 left. Hasselbeck led the Seahawks back, driving to the Carolina 43, only to be sacked and he fumbled with 1:38 left. Three players later, rookie running back DeAngelo Williams scampered 35 yards for a touchdown to make it 13-3.
Sure, the Seahawks drove 65 yards for a touchdown – Hasselbeck hitting Branch for a 15-yarder with one second left in the game – but it mattered little on a day when the offense was just 2-of-12 converting third downs. The Seahawks had just 44 net yards rushing, including 11 of them on a Hasselbeck scramble. And it marred the nine-reception day of Engram that him over 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career in front of many family members and friends who had never seen him play.
"It was bittersweet right now as far as getting 1,000 yards - it's 80 percent bitter, 20 percent sweet," Engram said. "So hopefully that balance will just shift on the way home back to Seattle. It was frustrating. We're a lot better team than we played today, so we need to go answer some questions amongst ourselves … find out why."
Game 15: Seahawks 27, Ravens 6 at Qwest Field, Dec. 23
The rain and chill did nothing to dissuade the fans and the Seahawks from rolling to their 10th victory of the season and locking up the third seed of the playoffs – guaranteed to play the sixth seed that would turn out to be the Washington Redskins.
Hasselbeck and Engram continued to set club records. Hasselbeck surpassed his own regular season record of yards passing and topped Dave Krieg for most passes attempted and completed in a season. Engram's reception total reached 90, also a club record, with his five catches. For the game, Hasselbeck was 18-of-27 for 199 yards before giving way to Seneca Wallace in the fourth quarter. He also completed a 21-yard touchdown pass to Nate Burleson and 14 yards to Alexander on a screen pass.
Alexander's run with the screen and his 73 yards rushing were his most encouraging numbers running the ball since the second week of the season in an otherwise meaningless game. Hill also ran 20 yards with a fumble for a touchdown; with Peterson and rookie tackle Mebane also recovering fumbles. Brown added field goals of 42 and 39 yards with new long-snapper Jeff Robinson – the third snapper of the season – clearly settling down both Brown and holder/punter Ryan Plackemeier.
The loss at Carolina upset Holmgren because he really believed the team should run the table and would have a shot at perhaps moving up to the second seed and a first round bye. Instead, he just wanted to see them play better and regain some lost momentum going into the final regular season game at Atlanta.
"It was as complete a game as we've played in a while as far as offense, defense and special teams as far as their contributions," Holmgren said. "I think it was pretty even that way. There was a lot to like. If you can't have home field advantage throughout, or the first round bye, then being slotted No. 3 means you've had a good year. You've positioned yourself, if things happen in the playoffs, to gain a couple of things if it goes your way."
Game 16: Falcons 44, Seahawks 41 at Atlanta, Dec. 30
In a meaningless game during which Holmgren spent much of the week uncertain about how much he wanted to play starters, it turned out to be just as bizarre and awkward as a meaningless game figured to be.
Once again, the Seahawks lost to an unproven quarterback, this time Chris Redman, who threw three touchdown passes. Hasselbeck played only the first half, and Wallace responded by completing 17-of-22 passes for 206 yards and two touchdown passes. But a fumble and an interception virtually eliminated the all the great things he did that normally would have resulted with a victory.
On the bright side, Alexander did pick up his 100th career rushing touchdown, Morris had a season-high 91 yards rushing, Engram finished with 95 receptions and Hasselbeck came up just shy of 4,000 yards passing for the first time in his career with 3,966 – a milestone he would have eclipsed had he played the entire game. Burleson caught two touchdown passes to lead the team with nine, along with a punt return and kickoff return to give him 11 for the season. And Brown topped off another superb season of place-kicking with boots of 54 and 51 yards to close out the scoring against the Falcons.
Nonetheless, it was this strange game that ended the Seahawks regular season at 10-6, and they were relatively healthy going into the Wild Card playoff game they would be hosting next week against the Washington Redskins at Qwest Field.
"That's the plus part about this, we don't end the season with that bad loss," Seahawks safety Deon Grant said. "We do go on to the postseason now and that's a good thing. We can go on and fix the mistakes this week … and go on to prepare for this playoff game to keep this game going one game at a time."
Next: Part IV, the postseason and the future