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December 18, 2005: The Statement

Down by 10 on the road, can the Seahawks come back to win?

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

At 11-2, commentators and other talking heads were still not trusting the Seahawks. In the midst of a nine-game winning streak, and the past two games blowouts against the Eagles (42-0) and the 49ers (41-3), there were still those who were saying the Seahawks were too soft, too finesse. When compared with the Peyton Manning-led Colts, or the 13-3 Broncos, the Seahawks, coming off of many, many losing seasons, just didn't have the same luster.

The argument had some merit: Seattle has played only three playoff-bound teams: the Jaguars, Washington, and the Giants. In all three, the team struggled, with a loss to Jacksonville, an overtime loss to Washington, and a squeaker overtime victory against the Giants. The NFC West was weak; the Rams would finish in second place 6-10, far and away from the Seahawks’ eventual 13-3 record.

In other words, Seattle was coasting on an easy schedule and was enjoying pounding on weaker teams while being tested—and often losing—against playoff-caliber teams. It was only one year prior, after all, that ‘Hawks coach Mike Holmgren contemplated retirement after a heartbreaking playoff loss to the Rams.

So, on December 18, the Seahawks went to play against the Tennessee Titans. The Titans were 4-9, and, unbeknownst to them, had already notched their final win of the season a week prior against the Texans. The Titans were not exactly supposed to be a challenge for the Seahawks; they were a team that the Seahawks were supposed to beat; the Jeff Fisher-led Titans were two years removed from their 12-4 record. It was supposed to be an easy victory for a team that consumed easy victories as if they were jellybeans.

Some decades ago, I worked as a bagger for a grocery store; the main shtick of the store was that we would not only bag your groceries, but also walk them out to your car and load them up. On the walk to the car, a lot of people tried to strike up a discussion, mostly because being followed by a red-aproned, acne-faced and sullen 16-year-old pushing an overlarge cart must have been incredibly awkward. I remember one woman in particular started telling me about how most of the groceries were for a football booster fundraiser for her son’s junior varsity team.

"I don’t hold out hope for them tonight," she told me, telling me that her son’s team routinely got blown out, and now the scheduling Gods had decreed they face an undefeated team that routinely destroyed opponents. It was David versus Goliath, if only David was a) unarmed, b) literally had no arms, and c) was three inches tall.

"But hey," she said before she drove off, "any given Sunday, right?" before giving me a thumbs up. Perhaps it was her cheery attitude, or perhaps it was the fact she had said so much that it appeared to be her way of avoiding the process of giving me a tip, but my memory of that moment remains clear. Every time I hear the phrase "underdog," I can see this woman in her car, giving me a thumbs up any saying "any given Sunday, right?"

(I later read in the paper that her son’s team lost by fifty points).

Perhaps it was that combination of sadness at the soon-to-be loss coupled with the delirium of a potential, unforeseeable victory that the Titans felt.

The Seahawks had plenty of talent, but did they have the ability to succeed when their backs were against the wall? This was a 10 a.m. game in Nashville, late in the season. For much of the 2005 season, the Seahawks offense was essentially predicated on taking a lead and holding it for much of the game. Even in close games, such as their 27-25 victory against the 49ers earlier in the season, the Seahawks had maintained a 15-point lead well into the fourth quarter.

So, when the Seahawks opened up a 14 point lead in the first quarter, featuring touchdowns by Jerramy Stevens and Shaun Alexander (who would later become NFL MVP), it seemed like business as usual. The ‘Hawks offense had transformed into a well-oiled machine, moving the ball at will. Shaun Alexander enjoyed the open space and sunny climes provides by Steve Hutchinson and Walter Jones; Matt Hasselbeck has an uncanny knack for throwing a ball into a place where no receiver seemed to be, only to have a receiver contort or twist his body and grab it out of the air. Near-perfect timing; near perfect offense, save for Hasselbeck’s occasional Mike-Holmgren-termed "whirlybirds."

But the Titans, led by Steve McNair, and coached by the Seahawks modern-day irritant, Jeff Fisher, blanked the Seahawks in the second quarter while scoring two touchdowns. The Titans, as if to further annoy, blocked a Seahawks field goal attempt early in the second quarter.

So, by halftime, the score was tied at 14-14.

And then, in the third quarter, the machine ground to a halt. After a few big gains, 20 yards to Mack Strong, and 12 yards to Darrell Jackson, the Seahawks drives ground to a halt. Somehow, the Titans defense, led by Albert Haynesworth and Adam Jones, had come to life, and was slowly throttling the Seahawks offense. The pocket routinely collapsed, forcing Hasselbeck to rush his throws; Shaun Alexander was reduced to grabbing yardage in bits and chunks.

The Titans scored a touchdown on another pass to Drew Bennett and later kicked a field goal, and suddenly, with four minutes left in the third quarter, the Titans were leading the game, 24-14.

This is where the game against a Super Bowl-bound team and a team dwelling in the NFL’s cellar takes on added significance. Although the Seahawks had trailed teams before, they had not done so in an early morning game, against a dangerous defense, and against a team determined to play spoiler.

By the end of the third quarter, Seattle showed signs of life.

Scratch that cliché. It wasn’t signs of life. It was a spiritual re-awakening couple with a sudden hatred of their situation. Down 24-14, that Rob Bironas field goal seemed to wake a slumbering beast.

Seattle took over on their own 17, and this would normally be where the West Coast offense would slowly march down the field, exhausting the Titans defense so much that even Haynesworth would be unable to lift his leg, much less stomp on an opponent’s head.

Here’s what happened; the drive chart is simple.

56 yard pass to Bobby Engram.

23 yard pass to Darrell Jackson.

4 yard pass to Joe Jurevicius. Touchdown.

With the score 24-21, the Titans spend the rest of the third quarter chewing up time. Steve McNair was mostly efficient, and Chris Brown routinely ripped of three- or four-yard runs, just enough to keep the drive going. The Titans marched from their own 29 to the Seahawk six-yard line.

The Titans were going to put the game almost out of reach, taking a ten-point lead going into the fourth quarter. The 4-9 Titans would upset the 11-2 Seahawks, or at least make the Seahawks go into the fourth quarter down by two scores, a situation they had rarely faced before. The finesse team who enjoyed getting in front of opponents and staying there was suddenly in trouble.

Then something happened.

Then Jeff Fisher happened.

Instead of kicking a field goal, Jeff Fisher decided to go for it on fourth and one on the Seahawks six. Fisher had already gambled once on the drive, with a Craig Hentrich fake punt deep in Titans territory converting a fourth down to keep the drive going. Fisher decided to roll the dice again.

It was the first play of the fourth quarter, and coming out of the break, the Seahawk defense, thus far doing a manageable job but prone to lapses, had enough to be ready for whatever came next.

What came next was a handoff to Chris Brown, who would post a 56-yard day, with his longest run of the game a nine-yard run.

The tackling credit went to Michael Boulware and Grant Wistrom, but, really, it seemed as if everyone in the deep blue helmets tackled Brown for a one-yard loss.

Now, with plenty of time to take the lead and grind down the clock, the Seahawks started marching in their usual manner, taking what the defense gave them and repeatedly converting, not third downs, but converting on second downs. During the drive, over five minutes would elapse before the Seahawks faced their first third down, converting on five second downs in a row.

In the next millennia, aliens or whatever evolves from the morass of humanity will certainly wonder what a "West Coast offense" was, and they would be suited to examine the drive chart of this game, of this particular drive. It was Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander at their finest, and dominating the defense through short, efficient gains over and over again. 12 yards, 5 yards, 12 yards, 2 yards, 8 yards, 6 yards, 33 yards (way to break up the pattern, Shaun, with the run), 7 yards, 4 yards, 2 yards, and then a 2-yard touchdown pass. The Seahawks would take the lead on a 93-yard, nearly six-minute long drive.


Starting at their own 35, Steve McNair slowly guided the Titans down the field, flipping the field position to the Seahawks’ 34.

With five minutes left in the game, Jeff Fisher opted to go for it on fourth down.

The pass fell incomplete, and Seattle took over and led another masterful drive. Although it didn’t end in a score, the offense fell into its usual pattern of converting on second downs. 2 yards, 15 yards, 4 yards, 9 yards, 9 yards, and Seattle was on the Titans’ 35, having ground out three minutes of game clock.

With two minutes left, the game was essentially over.

There are certainly more important games in 2005, but the Titans game was an example of what made the 2005 Seahawks offense so impressive. In a near-loss playing at 10 a.m., Shaun Alexander rolled up the quietest 172-yard game you will ever see, and Hasselbeck put together a 285-yard, 3 touchdown effort, with only six incompletions.

This moment, against a team that everyone thought had no chance of winning, was the opportunity for the Seahawks to truly test themselves, to go down by two scores in an away game against a dangerous team (and a truly nettlesome coach), and come out with a statement victory.

Yes, I know a "statement" win is usually the one where one playoff team beats another, but in this case, the statement here was this: the Seahawks were no fluke. They were coolly efficient on offense and defense, and, when pressured, they didn’t fold. They came back stronger for it, and the momentum would carry them through a convincing home win against the playoff-bound 13-1 Colts and a test against Washington in the playoffs followed by a blowout championship game against the Panthers.

While that path didn’t start in Tennessee, the trial against the Titans would be the thing the Seahawks needed to truly gel, at least in the eyes of commentators, into a Super Bowl team.