End of the Hawks Pox

Pinch yourself and get on the next plane to Detroit.

To witness the fireworks, confetti storm, and flashes from a thousand-odd cameras after the greatest sporting event in Northwest history was to recall that there was a time not long ago when the only way to see football in Seattle on Jan. 22 was to rent The Longest Yard. From now on, the date may be commemorated as an annual regional holiday, the day 30 years coming when the Seattle Seahawks advanced to the Super Bowl.

Some of us typing this still expect to look up from our keyboards and see something different in the headlines, such as, say, "Hawks Face Another Rebuilding Year." But the 34-14 victory constructed on the fallen bodies of the Carolina Panthers in the National Football Conference final on Sunday is as undeniable as the season is improbable. When this team opened with a 26-14 loss in Jacksonville last September, there wasn't a sane being anywhere who would have predicted this. But the Hawks went on to win 15 of their next 17 games. One more against Pittsburgh in the Feb. 5 National Football League championship game would give them the long-elusive respect deserving of an elite team.

Right now, just earning the trip to The Big One, to be played this year in Detroit, is about all many can stand to contemplate. Sweating the Steelers will come later. Even an hour after the game, the outdoor-crowd roar, accompanied by the brash band of auto horns, was of VJ-Day proportion. One fan, carrying a hand-made "now I can die" sign along Royal Brougham Way, looked as though he just might.

Death of the sporting variety, the fate of the Panthers, is being savored by the 67,837 who were at Qwest Field and the thousands more who someday might say they were. They'll remember a wire-to-wire mastery of a worthy foe, a Carolina team many expected to be more competitive. But Panthers coach John Fox couldn't have looked more frustrated if he'd spent the day tutoring Paris Hilton for the SAT. By the end of the first quarter, his about-to-be-down 17-0 Panthers had gained 6 yards to Seattle's 127. His best runner, third-stringer Nick Goings, was dazed on the sidelines due to a collision. The Seahawks had picked off a pair of passes leading to 10 points. By game's end, Seattle's offense would post a 2-1 advantage in possession time, lead 27-11 in first downs, and double Carolina's yards gained.

Hawk mentor Mike Holmgren essayed a Matt Hasselbeck–led offensive effort that included, among other crowd-pleasers, a 28-yard pass to—get this—backup quarterback Seneca Wallace, brought in as a receiver for one play because, the coach later explained, "it would be fun." Later, fun guy Holmgren (a Super Bowl winner with Green Bay) called a fake field goal that turned into a well-placed short punt, the second time in consecutive possessions that the Panthers were pinned inside their 10. The defense, meanwhile, was astonishing in its efficiency, limiting Carolina to 212 yards, pressuring QB Jake Delhomme, picking off three passes, and recovering a fumble. The Panthers' only tallies came on a punt return, which should have been called back for an obvious Carolina penalty, and a garbage-time fourth-quarter TD.

Ergo, bring on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Maybe the deserving Hawks will wait a few days before contemplating the Steelers, a team with its own quarterback of destiny in Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh also has a punishing defense along with Jerome Bettis, a short-yardage guy whose nickname, Bus, was given only because Tank and Train were taken.

Seahawks owner Paul Allen raised the 12th-man flag prior to the game and led the throngs in the ceremonial towel wave, possibly his only physical labor since he installed Bill Gates' first PC. One report suggested Allen plans to buy the rights to Super Bowl XL and move it to Seattle, but, y'know, it always rains here.

The only wet stuff Sunday came as joyful tears smearing the makeup of long-suffering but suddenly triumphant Hawks partisans. The mirth that lit up Pioneer Square hadn't been seen since the night in 1995 when the Mariners beat the Yankees in a baseball playoff, the event that led to the civic impetus to erect the sports palaces south of downtown. The NFC championship is the emotional payoff for all the money spent and good will extended.

Numbers, aside from the final score, really mean nothing in this kind of game. Injuries matter, but the Hawks sustained very few. Worth noting is that masterful Matt Hasselbeck was 20 for 28 passing, for 219 yards and two touchdowns. His 118 passer rating was in the "A" range. Shaun Alexander had 132 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

Five minutes after the game ended, owner Allen and other Hawks officials accepted the NFC championship trophy in front of adoring fans chanting "Super Bowl!" Later, Allen said he "couldn't describe it adequately" as to the role fans played in the team's success. "They're all coming to Detroit with us," Holmgren said during the postgame love fest.

Maybe not everybody. The farthest east many will venture will be the appliance store, where the wall-size TV sets are sold. And nobody will ever have to rent The Longest Yard again.


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