This is the unedited version of my game story that will appear in tomorrow's News Tribune:
By Frank Hughes
The News Tribune
As the Seattle Seahawks celebrated their 42-21 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck ran off the frozen turf at Qwest Field with four fingers raised on his left hand.
Following his best performance of the season, it could have signified the number of touchdowns Hasselbeck tossed through the frigid air, thrilling the 68,193 on hand with his potent accuracy.
Instead, Hasselbeck was reminding all those still cheering from the stands that the Seahawks had earned their fourth consecutive NFC Division title and with it a guaranteed spot in the postseason.
Never miss a local story.
It was only five weeks ago that the Seahawks were a .500 team, floundering around amidst frustration and disappointment about why exactly they were unable to discover any semblance of consistency or resemblance to their ultra-successful 2005 campaign from which they were not too far removed.
Now, five straight wins and a 9-4 record has cemented their definition of themselves, as well as a home playoff game in the first week of January.
"Early on I remember saying that we were good at a lot of stuff but we're not real good at anything," Hasselbeck said. "I don't feel that way anymore. I knew this would happen, I was just hoping it would happen in time. It needed to be quick."
Were the season to end today, the Seahawks would host the 7-6 Minnesota Vikings, setting up the natural story line of Minnesota stealing via free agency left guard Steve Hutchinson after the Super Bowl with a crafty poison pill move, a vendetta that Seahawks president Tim Ruskell still holds close to his heart.
But there are three weeks left before that opponent is determined, and the Seahawks have three games remaining to try to catch the 11-2 Green Bay Packers for the conference's second seed.
For that to happen, the Seahawks would have to win out and the Packers would need to lose two of their remaining three games – at St. Louis and Chicago and against Detroit – an unlikely occurrence.
Still, Holmgren said he does not want to lose the fleeting momentum the team has momentarily corralled.
"We have to finish the season strong," Holmgren said. "I think we are building on something that we established halfway through the season, and we now we must continue to keep doing that."
The victory – which included a 24-0 lead – was so complete that reclusive owner Paul Allen felt compelled to congratulate the team in the locker room, presenting Holmgren with a game ball for becoming the most successful coach in franchise history.
Holmgren, who has seen his fair share of sentimental moments in his career, seemed genuinely touched by a gesture that he was not expecting.
Holmgren was far from the only shining beacon on this day, though. Hasselbeck's 22-for-33, 272-yard, four-touchdown performance produced a 131.6 passer rating, the fourth-highest of his career.
"He was like a field general today," said Bobby Engram, the recipient of one of Hasselbeck's scoring strikes. "He was poised and he was throwing with tremendous accuracy. He wanted that game badly and it showed."
Patrick Kerney, who was bestowed with the NFC's defensive player of the month award earlier in the week, compiled another three sacks, zipping around right tackle Levi Brown like he was a monolithic pylon.
It was in stark contrast to the team's first meeting, when the Seahawks were unable to get to the quarterback once. Kerney now leads the NFL with 13.5 sacks, 10 of which have come in the last five weeks. For the season, he has three games with three sacks.
"It's a great tribute to our team," Kerney said, "the situations our offense put us in (with a big early lead) and we did a good job of our coverage."
After being tied by linebacker Lofa Tatupu for the team lead in interceptions, cornerback Marcus Trufant steadfastly regained that distinction.
Trufant had three of Seattle's five interceptions of Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, including one in the second half that he returned 84 yards for a touchdown, an additional shot of whipped cream on what had already become a rather monumental sundae.
Trufant's seven interceptions are second in the NFL, behind only the nine by San Diego's Antonio Cromartie.
"He has put things all together, and he is one of the better corners in football in my opinion," Holmgren said.
The game started auspiciously enough for Seattle, with Deon Grant intercepting Warner's overthrown pass on the Cardinals' fifth play. It set up a 23-yard field goal by Josh Brown.
The defense held on Arizona's second possession, allowing the offense to piece together a nine-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Nate Burleson and a 10-0 lead.
It was that kind of day for Seattle, four scores on its first four possessions. Hasselbeck to Engram from 15 yards out. Hasselbeck to Deion Branch from 17 yards away. A 24-0 advantage midway through the second quarter.
Enough to allow the Seahawks to cruise the rest of the way. Enough to erase the memory of their embarrassing loss to Arizona earlier this year. Enough to allow Hasselbeck to raise those four fingers on his left hand and point to the skies as he passed through the throngs of wild-eyed supporters, all of whom know they will back in their seats for at least one additional game.