By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 23, 2006
SEATTLE, Jan. 22 -- The Seattle Seahawks played not like playoff upstarts, but like the team that had been the NFC's best all season. They raced to an early lead and never let up, leaving little doubt about which team deserved to be the conference's representative in the Super Bowl by overwhelming the Carolina Panthers, 34-14, Sunday at raucous Qwest Field.
The Seahawks secured the first Super Bowl berth in franchise history. They have spent most of their existence alternating between being truly bad and simply disappointing, but they won for the 15th time in 18 games this season and finished unbeaten at home. They'll face the Pittsburgh Steelers in two weeks in Detroit.
"To beat Carolina the way we did -- I don't know if it's surprising, but it's quite an accomplishment because they're a good team," Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.
Hasselbeck threw for 219 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-for-28 passing performance, and tailback Shaun Alexander ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns after being knocked out of Seattle's triumph over the Washington Redskins eight days before because of a concussion. The Seahawks led, 17-0, two plays into the second quarter, and never looked back. Hasselbeck threw a first-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Jerramy Stevens and a third-quarter strike to wide receiver Darrell Jackson.
The defense took it from there, limiting the Panthers (13-6) to 212 yards. Quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had been nearly flawless in postseason play in his career before Sunday, threw three interceptions and connected on 15 of 35 passes for 196 yards and a cosmetic fourth-quarter touchdown. His two first-half interceptions handed 10 points to the Seahawks, and he couldn't get the ball to wide receiver Steve Smith, who had five catches for 33 yards. The only time Smith wasn't surrounded by Seahawks defenders was when he scored on a 59-yard punt return in the second quarter, a play on which the officials waved off an illegal-block call.
"I don't know if we ran out of gas or what," Panthers Coach John Fox said. "I don't know what the problem was. We just didn't play well enough. We knew we were going to have our hands full with their offense."
Before beating the Redskins here last weekend in an NFC semifinal, the Seahawks hadn't won a postseason game since Dec. 22, 1984.
"Our goal all year was to be playing in the big game on the last Sunday, and now we're there," left tackle Walter Jones said. "We knew we had the talent to do it, but we had to have things fall into place for us. Every year we've put in a piece here and a piece there, and now we've got all the pieces together."
The Seahawks gave their boisterous fans plenty to cheer about from the outset. Their first drive was halted when Alexander was stuffed on second-and-one and third-and-one carries in Carolina territory. But they got the ball back and marched 57 yards for a touchdown on their second possession. Backup quarterback Seneca Wallace lined up at wide receiver and caught a 28-yard pass from Hasselbeck, and Stevens was left uncovered in the middle of the end zone by the Panthers for his 17-yard touchdown grab.
Delhomme, trying to find Smith, forced a throw into heavy coverage and had it intercepted by rookie middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu. That gave the Seahawks possession at the Carolina 20, but they had to settle for kicker Josh Brown's 24-yard field goal and a 10-0 advantage. The Panthers wouldn't be quite as fortunate on Delhomme's next interception.
He had a throw wobble out of his hand directly to safety Marquand Manuel, whose 32-yard return put the Seahawks back in business at the Panthers 17. Alexander followed the powerful left side of his offensive line for a 15-yard run to the 1 on a second-down carry and then, following a Hasselbeck incompletion, bulled his way into the end zone for the touchdown.
The Panthers, to that point, had done nothing on offense. They were down to their fourth tailback, Jamal Robertson, after Nick Goings was left woozy and knocked from the game on a first-quarter hit by Tatupu.
The Panthers' top two runners already were on the shelf. Stephen Davis was placed on the injured reserve list during the regular season because of an ailing knee, and DeShaun Foster suffered a broken ankle during last weekend's victory at Chicago. Goings managed two yards on five carries before his departure, and the Seahawks were blanketing Smith with two, three or even four defenders to try to keep the ball from the standout receiver.
Smith's frustrations boiled over with a sideline screaming tantrum after the Panthers moved to the Seattle 26 early in the second quarter but had to punt after being pushed back by a holding penalty and a sack.
"When it rains, it pours," Smith said. "That about sums it up. . . . I get upset when we're not moving the ball."
Said Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant: "He's the guy who makes their offense go. We knew if we could keep him from making big plays, it was going to frustrate their offense."
After Fox got Smith settled down, Smith got the Panthers on the scoreboard. The Carolina defense forced a punt, which Smith caught at the Carolina 41. He weaved his way through traffic as he cut across the field from left to right, then kept finding openings and sprinted to the end zone. The problem was, an official had thrown a flag for an illegal block in the back by Carolina's Vinny Ciurciu for a nudge of Seattle's Joe Tafoya just as Smith was getting going. But the officials huddled and decided there hadn't been a penalty.
That gave the Panthers a flicker of hope, but the Seahawks quickly reestablished control of the game by driving for a 39-yard field goal by Brown to extend their lead to 20-7. Alexander went over 100 yards on Seattle's opening drive of the second half, and the Seahawks just kept rolling.