The Playoffs Beckon

Despite a close call with the Pooh Bears, it's not hard to foresee Seahawks football in January.

MAYBE, AS FRANK SINATRA and other praise singers have chorused, Billy Sunday in fact could not shut down Chicago. But on Sundays this NFL season, just about any team with a Billy (or a Tom, Dick, or Chike Okeafor) on the roster can. Add (though not by much) your suddenly beloved Seattle Seahawks. The first-ever 5-1 edition left the surprisingly lively bad-news Bears at 1-5 and fumbling for cab fare to the nearest taxidermist when Sunday's 24-17 sellout expired.

It "ended" with just 58 seconds left after a wobbly Seattle drive punctuated by Shaun Alexander's 25-yard meander into the end zone. (Marcus Trufant struck the actual death knell with a picked pass a few seconds later.) Some would say it should have ended at practice last week, when Seahawk coaches scraped the game plan into the dirt of the Kirkland practice field. The scam meant having quarterback Matt Hasselbeck exploiting a Bear pass rush known to move with all the urgency of Pooh Bear on Quaaludes.

Seldom has Hasselbeck had this much time on his hands, and he used it to find six receivers, though only for 215 yards and one touchdown. His most conspicuous blemish was a tipped-ball pickoff (which shouldn't really be charged against quarterbacks) that kept the spread from widening as the first half wound down.

THE OPPONENT, of course, was not to be confused with the Monsters of the Midway-era Chicago Bears. The club's one win had come two weeks prior against an Oakland Raiders contingent suddenly looking as wizened as owner Al Davis. Chris Chandler, the Everett High School product and Husky stalwart, inherited the Bear quarterback vacancy. At 38, he has almost as many years in the league as he does career injuries, and after the third-down sack Anthony Simmons delivered during the Bears' first possession, it's a wonder the poor guy's still alive. But Chandler stood in like the great gamer he's always been, getting up and having at it even after Seahawk defenders smacked him around and sacked him like a tuna can at QFC. The Bears tried a ground game that got them little more than a few first downs, including one on a gutsy fake punt late in the third quarter.

The impressive speed of the Seahawk defense (especially the rookie Trufant, who figured in more playsgood onesthan Shawn Springs) should have been enough to shut out the Bears. Back from injury, Springs blew the coverage on a critical third-down Chandler pass that led to the Bears tying the score with 4:12 remaining. Then Springs mauled a receiver in the end zone to assure Chicago a mere 1-yard touchdown run. Welcome back, Shawn. Seahawk players (when they forsake a little of their abandon and read plays properly) should contain most offensescertainly Chicago's. The team also ought to be able to run the ball well against most defenses certainly Chicago's.

The Seahawks can play a lot better than they did Sunday, and their easily riled coach, Mike Holmgren, will command them to. You don't let a chump club like Chicago stay in the game late into the fourth quarter, not at home, and certainly not if the postseason is in the plans. The Seahawks, often during the same games, have been alternately soaring and snoring through a weak schedule, losing only the winnable post-bye bid against Bret Favre (aka the Green Bay Packers). Division rival San Francisco slipped them a gift win the following week, and after the latest escape with victory, it looks improbable that the Seahawks would miss the playoffs. Their early-season last-minute save against St. Louis appears more impressive as the 4-2 Rams keep winning. Much of the ongoing optimism in Seahawk Land has to do with the diminished capacity of the San Franchise. The inconsistent 49ers often have played as though they actually had hired Rick Neuheisel last winter. The team could soon become a lesser entity than at any time spanning the California guv reigns of the Gipper and the Groper. Then you throw in the Arizona Cardinals (their few-dozen fans already have), the worst division rival, and it doesn't take much imagination to see how the NFC West can be had.

HOW COULD THE SEAHAWKS not win their division? Well, how can they only beat the Bears at home by seven? On paper it's hard to see the Seahawks taking fewer than 10, not when considering the upcoming scrums with Cincinnati, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Arizona. Games, of course, are played not on paper but on grass and other greenish stuff. The 2003 Seahawks are young and hungry, but they're also impetuous and penalty-proneand not without consequences: Two stupid infractions helped hand the Bears a 3-0 first-quarter lead.

Whether the 2003 team will still be playing after New Year's might get down to a Dec. 14 date with the Rams in St. Louis. I might imagine Seattle would be 10-3 by then, but I could easily be talked into 7-6, a mark that wouldn't prompt arias from modern-day Sinatras, much less get this toddlin' town into the playoffs.

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