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Monday, December 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Hawks hold off Cards, earn berth in playoffs

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seahawks

Enlarge this photoROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Seahawks cornerback Ken Lucas drops in from above to break up a pass intended for Arizona's Bryant Johnson in the second quarter yesterday.

Playoff spot: Check.

A 24-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals, in what has become typical heart-pounding fashion: Check.

The NFC West title and the right to host a wild-card game next month: Check, if the St. Louis Rams help with a loss tonight or next week, or the Seahawks defeat Atlanta next week.

Heroes in the starting lineup and off the bench: Check.

Were all of the above on a Christmas wish list, the Seahawks could consider the holidays a success. Simply put, they got the win, and they're in the playoffs.

Now it remains to be seen where and who they'll play when the postseason begins. But it just wouldn't have been the 2004 Seahawks without some sort of drama involved. And yesterday was a microcosm of the ups and downs the team has faced all season — that ended in an up thanks to a 7-yard scramble.

Trent Dilfer, backup quarterback/future motivational speaker, made the play, and sent the Seahawks into the playoffs.

"The bottom line is you do whatever it takes to win," Dilfer said, his words tinged with a bit of emotion.

Coach Mike Holmgren said: "If you bought a season ticket to the Seattle Seahawks this year, you got your money's worth, that is for sure."

No one seemed happy about what they paid for in the first quarter, as the Seahawks generated nothing on offense. Dilfer — pressed into service because starter Matt Hasselbeck felt pain in his throwing arm from an irritated nerve in the elbow — never had time to throw.

The Cardinals' pass rush dominated, forcing Dilfer to hurry his throws, and hit the veteran quarterback time after time. And the hits weren't bumps and knocks. Dilfer took clean shots from either side with virtually no protection.

Midway through the opening quarter, Dilfer got blasted by strong safety Adrian Wilson and staggered to his feet. Hasselbeck could have played, but not the entire game. Dilfer didn't force the Seahawks to make the switch, however.

The Seahawks got their first first down on the last play of the quarter, Dilfer to Ryan Hannam for 18 yards. They had not yet established a running game with Shaun Alexander, and the crowd began to boo. Cornerback Ken Lucas bit on a stop-and-go-route by Anquan Boldin for Arizona's first touchdown and only lead, but the defense was the only thing keeping the Seahawks close.

Lucas saved another potential score by intercepting Cardinals quarterback Josh McCown in the end zone, tipping the ball away from receiver Larry Fitzgerald and catching it in mid-fall.

A special-teams play changed everything, at least for the time being. Bobby Engram, moved into his former role as a punt returner, scooted 48 yards for the Seahawks' special-teams highlight of the season. The second-quarter play set up the Seahawks at the Arizona 20, and six plays later, Alexander scored the tying touchdown.

Alexander fumbled before crossing, just as he did last week at New York. But this time he recovered the fumble.

The Seahawks added a 34-yard Josh Brown field goal as time ran out in the first half for a 10-7 halftime lead.

Then the defense asserted itself, in particular the pass rush that had been missing for so long. Back-to-back sacks by defensive ends Antonio Cochran and Chike Okeafor in the third quarter forced an Arizona punt, and Dilfer connected with Darrell Jackson on a slant that went for 53 yards.

Four plays later, Alexander bounced out of a small pile on the right side and beat cornerback Duane Starks to the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown.

The Seahawks had momentum, with Alexander on his way to 154 yards, three touchdowns, two team records (season rushing yardage and TD marks) and the NFL rushing lead. It carried over to the defense.

After safety Ken Hamlin dropped what would have been an interception in the third quarter — one of two he lost and three total by the Seahawks — Marcus Trufant made an interception on the next play.

The Seahawks turned that turnover into another score, Alexander running for glory one more time. His 23-yard run on the second play of the fourth quarter was a masterpiece of open-field cutbacks and standout downfield blocking, topped off with a Sprinkler dance and a 24-7 lead.

"You just wait to see when it is going to happen, and he showed it," Hamlin said.

But these are the 2004 Seahawks, with whom no lead seems safe.

McCown hit Fitzgerald for a 29-yard touchdown pass with 11:32 left, the Seahawks unable to stop the Cardinals' hurry-up offense. An interception gave the Cardinals the ball back, but Okeafor sacked McCown for an 8-yard loss that forced Arizona to try a 52-yard field goal. Neil Rackers missed it, wide left.

Facing elimination from playoff contention, the Cardinals kept coming, helped on their next possession by a penalty against Trufant for illegal use of hands on fourth down. McCown found Fitzgerald again for 29 yards and touchdown with 2:30 left.

The Cardinals still had two timeouts and needed only to force another three-and-out to get the ball back. But Dilfer, facing third-and-six at the Seahawks 24-yard line with 2:18 left, ran out of the pocket and got to the outside, past the first-down marker ahead of would-be tackler David Macklin.

"That's just a lack of athleticism," Dilfer joked. "I was just trying not to fall down."

From there, it was three kneel-downs after the two-minute warning for a big victory, an 8-7 record and one more step toward a division title.

"I know there has been a lot of discussion about who deserves to be in the playoffs and who doesn't," Holmgren said. "We don't have to apologize for anything. Those guys deserve to feel good about where we are right now, and I do, too."

José Miguel Romero: 206-464-2409 or jromero@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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