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NFL playoffs: Seahawks stun Saints in opening round

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 11:34 PM

SEATTLE - In the days leading up to Saturday's game, the Seattle Seahawks were barely an afterthought in these playoffs, undeserving of a home game in the wild-card round, the critics said, and essentially serving as a minor obstacle for the defending Super Bowl champions.

"That's all right," said Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. "The only thing that matters is that we believe in our group. Within us, we believed that we could do it and we did it."

In one of the biggest postseason upsets the NFL has seen, the New Orleans Saints were eliminated in the wild-card round of the playoffs Saturday, losing losing 41-36 to a Seahawks team that struggled to post seven regular season wins and backed into the playoffs by finishing atop its calamitous division.

The Seahawks are no longer a 7-9 team, though. With Saturday's surprising win, they're 1-0 in the season that matters most, the postseason, and suddenly as confident as any team left standing.

"We are not going to be intimidated by whomever we play or wherever we go," said first-year coach Pete Carroll. "I promise you that. It's not going to happen."

The Seahawks became the first NFL team with a losing record to win a playoff game. Oddsmakers had pegged them as 10-point underdogs, though they were playing at home at Qwest Field, one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL.

If Philadelphia defeats Green Bay Sunday evening, the Seahawks will advance to play at Atlanta in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs next Saturday. If the Packers top the Eagles, Seattle would head to Chicago to face the Bears.

To Carroll and his players, next weekend's foe is apparently a small detail. "It doesn't matter who we're playing right now," Carroll said. "It just doesn't."

The Seahawks lost seven of their final 10 games in the regular season but with crucial wins each of the past two weeks - both essential to extending their run - players and coaches say they're coming together at the perfect time.

"When we needed it the very most, it seems like we're as together as we could be," Carroll said. "I don't care how it got there, the fact that it's there - cool. And we're going to go on and take on the next one."

Said quarterback Matt Hasselbeck: "I think our team is starting to come together in some ways that are special."

Hasselbeck, whose status had been in question for much of the week leading up to the game, was 22-of-35 passing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. With an expiring contract, the 12-year veteran knew Saturday's game could be his last at Qwest Field.

"Matt's always focused, always well-prepared, but this week, he had a little extra edge to him in practice," said tight end John Carlson.

Hasselbeck had few problems with the Saints' vaunted defense, designed by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and made big plays when they counted most. New Orleans entered the game giving up only 193.4 yards passing per game, but Hasselbeck eclipsed that mark in the opening minutes of the second half.

He led a rag-tag group that somehow managed to paste 41 points and 415 yards of offense on the league's fourth-ranked defense. His supporting cast is unlike any other in these playoffs.

The Buffalo Bills gave up on Lynch and traded him here in October. He had 131 yards Saturday, his highest total since November 2008. His 67-yard touchdown late in Saturday's game was the longest of his career, sealed the win and with its pinball theatrics, will be a staple on highlight shows. Carroll called it "one of the greatest runs I ever saw."

Wide receiver Mike Williams was a first-round pick who'd long ago earned the "bust" label and sat out the previous two years before Carroll brought him to Seattle. He had a touchdown and 68 receiving yards Saturday and is perhaps the Seahawks' most explosive offensive performer.

The team's other top receivers are Ben Obomanu, a seventh-round pick who'd made zero NFL starts in his previous three seasons, and Brandon Stokley, a 34-year-old veteran who spent the first three weeks of the season at home, waiting for an NFL team to call. Obomanu had 43 yards on five catches Saturday and Stokley had 73 yards and a touchdown.

Carlson had one touchdown in 16 regular season games. He had two against New Orleans, both in the first half when the Saints were trying to pull away.

The Saints held leads of 10-0 and 17-7, but the Seahawks actually fought their way to a 24-20 advantage at the half. They carried the momentum into the third quarter, scoring on their first drive of the second half.

The Saints clawed their way back in it. Running back Julius Jones scored twice and quarterback Drew Brees threw for 404 yards. The outcome remained in doubt until Lynch's long run with only 3:22 remaining.

The Saints added a late score, but it wasn't enough to keep alive their hopes of defending their Super Bowl title.

The Seahawks hadn't looked past New Orleans, but Carroll says the way his team is playing, it might not matter where its plane lands next week.

"I don't know where we're playing next," said Carroll, "but I can't wait to get there."

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