The jumbled scenario demanding a sequence of events turning out favorably for the Seahawks – beginning, of course, with a victory over San Francisco on Saturday – brings to mind a similarly tenuous wild-card run in 1995.
It turned out to be the worst, and yet best, Christmas Eve experience of my life.
Dennis Erickson’s first season in Seattle found his team, which then competed in the AFC West, taking an 8-7 record into its Dec. 24 finale at Kansas City. An upset of the first-place and playoff-bound Chiefs was No. 1 on the agenda, but the Seahawks needed some help.
Because San Diego and Indianapolis had clinched berths on Dec. 23, the Seahawks’ hopes depended on Miami losing a late-afternoon game in St. Louis, to be decided as the Seahawks were on their flight returning home. Confusing? Actually, it was simple: A Christmas Eve victory in Kansas City, combined with the Dolphins losing in St. Louis, would have put Seattle in the playoffs for the first time since 1988.
The 12-3 Chiefs were heavy favorites – their incentive was to clinch home-field advantage through the playoffs – but coach Marty Schottenheimer was a master at maximizing the fear factor.
“The way they are playing,” linebacker Derrick Thomas told reporters, “the Seahawks are a lot like the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas has Emmitt Smith, (the Seahawks) have Chris Warren.”
The comparison sounds ludicrous now – it probably sounded ludicrous in 1995 – although Warren’s ability to run for more 1,000 yards for the fourth straight season was a big reason the Seahawks were winners of six of seven going into Kansas City.
Anyway, the Seahawks were hot, and a playoff bid was tangible, and then Todd Peterson kicked off to rookie return man Tamarick Vanover, who took the ball back for an 89-yard touchdown. Few moments in team sports are more deflating than an opening kickoff returned for a touchdown, 2,000 miles from home, on Christmas Eve.
Pounded with a psychological knockdown punch 15 seconds into their most important game in seven years, the Seahawks spent the rest of the afternoon in a daze. Warren, their version of Emmitt Smith, was held to 11 yards on seven carries. Quarterback John Friesz completed 10 of 26 passes for 80 yards, and the offense finished with eight first downs.
For those of us who traveled to Kansas City to cover the culmination of the Seahawks’ playoff quest, the only advantage to the 26-3 pummeling was that it rendered the Dolphins’ late-game score moot. (Miami won, incidentally, sparing the Seahawks from learning they had been eliminated by a destiny they were unable to control.)
So now the pressure was on to rush back to Tacoma, to be with my family – there were two young boys in the house – on Christmas morning. My 4-year-old was expecting Santa Claus to deliver an electric train, and my wife was expecting a sportswriter to return from Kansas City, after a two-hour layover in Las Vegas, in time to set it up.
The trip home began ominously. I’m not sure if there’s a hell – I hope I’ll never find out – but no concept of hell is as daunting as Kansas City International Airport on Christmas Eve in 1995. Dining options were plentiful, except the options were predicated on the menu from Burger King. Nothing else was open.
At least the 10:30 p.m. plane for Las Vegas departed on time, and I had some wiggle room in an empty row of seats. Some 90 minutes into the flight, half asleep, I heard a pretty instrumental version of “Silent Night.” But from where? Was I dreaming? I looked around the cabin; I was the only passenger whose eyes were open.
I thought of the classic Twilight Zone episode when William Shatner sees a weird creature on the airplane wing, but he can’t convince anybody else of the creature’s existence because it disappears whenever a fellow passenger looks out the window. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the episode was called.
Except this wasn’t a nightmare at 20,000 feet. This was a lovely rendition of a Christmas carol.
As I was getting off the plane in Las Vegas, my friend from the Seattle Times, Craig Smith, asked me if I, too, had heard “Silent Night.”
“I thought I was dreaming,” I said.
“You weren’t dreaming,” Craig told me. “I just talked to the pilot. He played ‘Silent Night’ on his harmonica at midnight.”
The layover in Las Vegas was mercifully uneventful – I only lost $10 on the slot machines – and I got back home to Tacoma in time to put together the choo-choo train track brought by Santa Claus.
I’m not sure what Christmas Eve drama awaits the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on Saturday. The 49ers still haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown in 2011 – think about that: 14 games without surrendering a score on the ground – and while they should have some incentive to secure a first-round bye, Jim Harbaugh’s young team isn’t exactly grizzled on how to prepare for the playoffs.
The good news? Todd Peterson won’t be kicking off to Tamarick Vanover.
The not-so good news? Even if the Seahawks win, a Lions victory over the Chargers in Detroit, essentially quashing any playoff dreams, guarantees a subdued and very silent night around Pioneer Square.
Nothing against the notion of a Silent Night on Christmas Eve, but the only one I want to remember was played on a harmonica, by a pilot, at 20,000 feet.