Without their starting quarterback and left tackle, with a makeshift offensive line and with a season that has been over for more than a month, the Seattle Seahawks’ game against the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon was not even supposed to be close.
Defying the odds and conventional wisdom, the Seahawks pieced together their best game this season and were in position to snap their five-game losing streak while injecting a jolt of optimism into their collective psyche.
That only made the 24-21 loss at Qwest Field that much more difficult to endure.
The Seahawks relinquished a long touchdown drive to the Patriots late in the fourth quarter, then once again turned over the ball in their two-minute offense, squandering their final opportunity and handing back a victory that was in their grasp.
After they lost to Dallas by 25 points on Thanksgiving Day, the locker room was filled with anger and embarrassment. After this loss, which dropped Seattle’s record to 2-11 and virtually ensures that they will finish with one of the six worst records in the league, the Seahawks seemed helpless and resigned in a season that can’t end soon enough.
“You almost would rather lose by three touchdowns than to lose that way,” said Deion Branch, who had the best game of his Seahawks career (88 yards receiving, two touchdowns) against his former team.
The Seahawks surprised everyone – probably including themselves – when their Seneca Wallace-led offense, which included an offensive line that is 100 percent different from the one that started the season (Walter Jones was out with a leg injury) scored touchdowns on its first two drives, the first time that has happened this season.
Wallace looked healthy and accurate. Tight end John Carlson was a frequent, effective target. Maurice Morris was finding room to run.
And a defense that complained a week ago that it was not being used properly employed the blitz much more liberally from the outset and bothered New England quarterback Matt Cassel enough for the Seahawks to take a 14-10 lead into halftime.
Seattle extended its lead to 21-13 after Branch executed a dizzying, 63-yard play on which he seemed to touch every inch of the field before being brought down inside the 10. He then caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Wallace to complete the drive, handing the ball to his wife, who was cheering in a box behind the end zone.
The Patriots opened the fourth quarter with a field goal to pull to 21-16. They then got back the ball with 8 minutes, 47 seconds left to play. They needed a touchdown. The Seahawks needed a stop.
The Seahawks could not get one. Three times they had the Patriots facing third down, and all three times New England converted, including a third-and-10 on which Wes Welker gained 13 yards.
“That is a big part of our season,” Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said of the defense’s inability to get off the field on third downs.
“It is something that has to be looked at and fixed. Now, we’re not going to fix it in three games, but in the future it is something that has to be fixed.”
Welker had 12 catches for 134 yards, his long of 25 yards coming on a bubble screen the play after converting the third down. That set up Sammy Morris’ 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down. Welker then caught the two-point conversion to give New England a 24-21 lead.
“That is not what you need when the game is in the balance,” Brian Russell said. “There is nobody to point the finger at. We just didn’t execute.”
For the third time in four weeks, the Seahawks had an opportunity to win or tie the game on their final possession. And for the third time, they committed a turnover that ended their chances.
The first two came on Matt Hasselbeck interceptions. This one was fumbled away by Wallace. After Wallace scrambled for 23 yards on the first play of the drive, getting Seattle into New England territory and almost close enough for a field-goal attempt, the Patriots called an all-out blitz.
Earlier, Wallace had twice called timeouts when the Patriots showed the same blitz package. But Seattle didn’t have any left. So Wallace ran the play, which was a slant intended for Branch.
Center Steve Vallos said he failed to appropriately adjust the blocking scheme, and safety Brandon Meriweather – the player the Patriots chose with the first-round draft pick they got for Branch – broke through the line of scrimmage and stripped Wallace from behind. Richard Seymour recovered to keep alive New England’s playoff hopes – and the Seahawks once again left their home stadium feeling empty.
“There are no moral victories,” Russell said. “We don’t sit back and say, ‘Almost.’ That is a bunch of BS. We had a chance to win a football game today that would have made a lot of people feel better in this locker room. Unfortunately, we let it get away from us. We are sitting here saying woulda, coulda, shoulda, and that is no fun.”