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The Seahawks ruled the NFC last year. Now they're scrapping and scraping to keep their title

THE SEATTLESEAHAWKS rejoiced on the sideline, bouncing like teens on quad vente lattes,some pointing gratefully to the misty Northwest sky. Having just received themost monumental gift from the football gods since the Tuck Rule helped TomBrady launch a dynasty in the Foxborough snow five years earlier, the Seahawkswere as hyperkinetic as the 68,058 fans at cacophonous Qwest Field.

Tony Romo's gaffewith 1:19 left in last Saturday's NFC wild-card playoff game--a mishandled snapthat foiled the Dallas Cowboys' 19-yard go-ahead field goal attempt--was almostas devastating to America's Team as Joe Montana to Dwight Clark had been 25years earlier. But even after the Drop, there was a catch: The game wasn'tover. With a 21--20 lead, the ball on their own two and Dallas holding threetimeouts, the Seahawks still needed a first down to chew up the clock and keeptheir conference title defense alive.

"What play doyou want to run?" coach Mike Holmgren asked running back Shaun Alexander."Tailback Lead," Alexander quickly answered. After a night of hugecontributions from the likes of moonlighting cornerback Jordan Babineaux andmaligned tight end Jerramy Stevens, it was time for Seattle's lone superstar tocarry his team to the next round. One brilliant burst up the middle and 20yards later, Alexander had issued a timely warning that he, like hismaddeningly inconsistent team, remains charmed and dangerous.

"We're just ateam that perseveres," Alexander said after the Seattle locker room hademptied. "We don't make excuses, but the truth is, we're beat up, and wehave been all season. So we play with what we've got, and we fight tooth andnail all the way. It's not pretty, but this is who we are now."

Call themAlexander's Ragtag Band. Fittingly, Seattle escaped only after Romo's Hail Marypass was deflected in the end zone by Pete Hunter, a corner who last month hadbeen working as a mortgage-loan officer and studying to become a border-patrolagent. Now he and two other DBs plucked from the civilian ranks will cram forSunday's divisional-round game against the top-seeded Bears in Chicago. Havinglost there 37--6 on Oct. 1, Seattle comes in with none of the swagger of a yearago, when the NFL's dominant O-line cleared a path to Detroit for thefranchise's first Super Bowl appearance.

"Last year wassmooth, except for that last game," says second-year Pro Bowl middlelinebacker Lofa Tatupu. "What I've learned this year is that it ain'talways gonna be pretty, but I'm so proud of this team."

To the Seahawks'credit they became the first team in six years to finish .500 or better theseason after losing a Super Bowl, but they're relying on grit rather thangreatness. "Our biggest worry last year was, How do we play with alead?" said quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who threw two interceptions onSaturday but also fired a pair of sweet second-half touchdown passes toStevens, last year's Super Bowl scourge. "This year we've had much biggerproblems. Last year we had chemistry, accountability, cohesiveness,familiarity, and we took for granted how healthy we were. You don't know whatyou've got till it's gone."

Having looked atlife from both sides now, the Seahawks' veterans regret even more deeply theteam's underwhelming performance in Super Bowl XL, a 21--10 loss to thePittsburgh Steelers. "We had so much talent, and we were going to shockeverybody with our intensity," recalls Alexander, the 2005 NFL MVP."When you lose a game you feel like you should have controlled, it addssalt to the wound."

The painintensified last winter when All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson bolted to theMinnesota Vikings through free agency in what several players believe was afront-office miscalculation. The line was further disrupted by injuries, mostnotably to Pro Bowl center Robbie Tobeck, who has been out since early Novemberwith the flu and then a hip abscess. The team also endured stretches withoutAlexander (six games, broken left foot) and Hasselbeck (four games, sprainedright knee) and lost its three top cornerbacks in the final two weeks of theregular season.

Against theCowboys, replacement corners Babineaux (who started eight games at strongsafety) and rookie Kelly Jennings hung tough, limiting Terrell Owens and TerryGlenn to a combined six catches for 67 yards. Each made an enormous play downthe stretch, beginning with Jennings, who batted the ball loose from Glennafter a short reception at the Dallas two with 6:32 left. The safety thatfollowed a mad scramble cut the Cowboys' lead to 20--15. Seattle went ahead onHasselbeck's 37-yard scoring strike to Stevens at 4:24. But Dallas drove to theSeahawks' two to set up Martin Gramatica's field goal attempt--at which pointBabineaux earned himself free microbrews for life in the Emerald City. AfterRomo failed to handle L.P. Ladouceur's flawless snap, the mobile quarterbackscooped up the ball and rolled hard to his left. He appeared headed for aredemptive touchdown until Babineaux swooped in from behind and brought himdown just short of the first down.

Now it wasAlexander's time to shine. So transcendent in 2005, the seven-year veteran hasbeen largely ignored this season as LaDainian Tomlinson obliterated bothAlexander's single-season touchdown record and his claim to being the NFL'sbest runner--a turnaround the two often joke about by text message. Althoughhe'd gained only 41 yards in 21 carries, Alexander knew exactly where he wantedto go, later saying, "My high school coach [Owen Hauck] used to tell mesomething: No matter what level of football--whether it's peewee or thepros--the best play is always to run it smack in the middle, right behind thefullback."

So Holmgren calledTailback Lead, a play designed to attack a short-yardage defense. When theCowboys instead lined up in a basic 3--4, with strong safety Roy Williamscheating into the box, Hasselbeck and his linemen altered their blocking schemebefore the snap. The adjustment wasn't perfect, but it was good enough.Alexander slipped through the small opening created by fullback Mack Strong andinto the secondary, the Windy City in his sights, a battered but stubborn teamfollowing him. --Michael Silver


Great defensive teams usually have a run-the-balloutlook, but could Chicago be tempted by the prospect of easy pickings againstthe Hawks' crippled secondary? I doubt it. The Bears don't have the wideouts,and there's always the chance Rex Grossman will blow sky high. It's almost agiven that Chicago's D will overmatch a Seattle offense that has MattHasselbeck and Shaun Alexander at less than full efficiency. I'll give Seattlemore of a chance against Chicago than other people will. Still.... BEARS 26,SEAHAWKS 17



MVP FORM Like his team, Alexander has been up and down this season, but he got the critical yards when it mattered against Dallas.