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SANDO GAME STORY
The Seattle Seahawks suffered six sacks, four dropped passes and two interceptions Sunday before letting the San Diego Chargers score the winning touchdown with 29 seconds left.
It might have been their best game in weeks.
And despite the disappointment of a third consecutive defeat, the Seahawks emerged with a third consecutive NFC West championship. As coach Mike Holmgren noted, no one can take that away from them. But if the Seahawks could somehow give it away, all bets might be off.
"Our first goal was to win the division, and we won the division," Holmgren said after the 20-17 defeat at Qwest Field. "People can say whatever they want about that, and I frankly don't care.
"Secondly, I thought there were a lot of good things in this game. I would probably be celebrating a bit more had we won the division and won the game, but I'll take it."
Despite falling to 8-7 after a 4-1 start, the Seahawks clinched the division title because second-place San Francisco fell to 6-9 earlier Sunday by losing to Arizona.
Seattle will enter the NFC playoffs as the fourth seed no matter the result of its regular-season finale at Tampa Bay next week. The NFC's fifth-seeded team will visit Qwest Field for a wild-card game Jan. 6 or 7.
San Diego improved to 13-2, one game better than Baltimore in the race for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Chargers entered the game Sunday as 41/2-point favorites.
"There's no silver linings in this one," Seattle defensive end Bryce Fisher said. "What you saw out there was a team giving their absolute best, and still not be good enough to win.
"And if we don't find a way to be better, then, yeah, we'll be playing in January, but for about 10 minutes."
The Seahawks did not spend the last week figuring out ways to finesse the various playoff scenarios. They devised a plan to defeat the best team in the AFC, and the plan nearly worked.
Shaun Alexander rushed for 140 yards as Seattle joined Denver as the only teams to top 150 yards rushing against the Chargers this season. The Seattle defense joined Pittsburgh and Baltimore as the only ones to hold MVP front-runner LaDainian Tomlinson without a touchdown.
Seattle's defensive tackles, notably Rocky Bernard, brought enough pressure to keep Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers off-balance.
But with Seattle leading 17-13 in the final minute, Rivers found receiver Vincent Jackson uncovered in the end zone for the winning, 37-yard touchdown. Rivers completed 10 of 30 attempts, misfiring on his first nine, but the NFL's worst quarterbacks might have connected on this one.
Jackson was uncovered because Seattle strong safety Michael Boulware blew the coverage, apparently drifting toward tight end Antonio Gates while losing sight of the deep ball, his primary responsibility.
"I didn't get deep enough," said Boulware, fighting back tears in a hushed locker room. "I did a poor job playing that play."
Football 101 calls for safeties to remain "deeper than the deepest" offensive player in such situations. Boulware has learned that lesson the hard way repeatedly this season. Coaches benched him after six games, but they wanted the former second-round draft choice back on the field Sunday as part of the plan to slow Tomlinson.
"We need to make sure somebody gets deepest of the deep and stops the big play," linebacker Julian Peterson said. "It has hurt us for three games. Sooner or later, somebody is going to have to figure it out."
Tomlinson rushed for 123 yards, but only 21 on seven carries after halftime. His 62-yard run in the second quarter put San Diego in position for its first touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
A facemask penalty against the Chargers wiped out Tomlinson's 48-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter.
And with Rivers completing only five of 20 passes through three quarters, the Seahawks led 14-13 with less than 12 minutes remaining in the fourth. Alexander's second touchdown run, a 9-yarder on which he drove defenders into the end zone, accounted for Seattle's first lead.
The touchdown might have been enough to seal the outcome for Seattle, but a disputed holding penalty had wiped out Nate Burleson's 96-yard kickoff return to open the second half.
There were other missed opportunities for Seattle. Receiver Deion Branch dropped four passes, including a couple of potential long-gainers. The Seahawks also had trouble keeping pass rushers Shawne Merriman, Jacques Caisare and Shaun Phillips out of Hasselbeck's face.
And yet Seattle was leading the AFC's best team in the final minute.
"We deserved to win that game and we didn't," Peterson said. "Hats off to them, but we should have had that."
SANDO GAME IN REVIEW
CHARGERS 20, SEAHAWKS 17
The Seahawks suffered their third consecutive defeat, losing at home to San Diego after allowing a 37-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds remaining.
Where they stand
Seattle won its third consecutive NFC West title when Arizona defeated San Francisco earlier in the day. The Seahawks will enter the playoffs as the NFC's fourth seed, meaning Seattle will host the fifth-seeded team in the wild-card round. Philadelphia and Dallas are candidates to visit Seattle.
A look ahead
The Seahawks finish the regular season with a Dec. 31 game at Tampa Bay.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers found WR Vincent Jackson for a 37-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds remaining.
Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander, feeling better than he has all season, drove defenders into the end zone during a 9-yard touchdown run that gave Seattle a 14-13 lead.
Seattle SS Michael Boulware, moved into the starting lineup for run support, blew the coverage on Jackson's winning touchdown. The defensive backs' primary responsibility in that situation was to guard against the deep ball. Boulware didn't stay deep enough and his team paid the price.
Star of the game
Chargers LB Shawne Merriman finished with three sacks. He has 151/2 sacks this season despite missing four games while serving a suspension for using steroids.
Reversal of fortune
Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren evened his record at 2-2 in replay challenges this season. Referee Ron Winter agreed with Holmgren's contention that the Chargers, not the Seahawks, were first to touch the ball following a San Diego punt early in the fourth quarter. The reversal gave the ball to Seattle after the Chargers were initially credited with a fumble recovery in Seattle territory.
LG Rob Sims started for the Seahawks after the team named Floyd Womack inactive with a groin injury. TE Itula Mili (concussion) was also inactive. ... WR Bobby Engram's role expanded to include participation in the team's two-back, three-receiver offense. Seattle used that offense and its four-receiver offense about 25 times. ... Backup QB Seneca Wallace played one snap in the four-receiver offense for a second consecutive week. The play produced a 20-yard completion to Engram. ... Seattle used a 4-4-3 defense at times in its effort to slow LaDainian Tomlinson. ... Rookie CB Kelly Jennings played effectively on the right side after an injury knocked out starter Marcus Trufant.
Trufant suffered what was initially diagnosed as a sprained ankle. He was on crutches and wearing a boot in the locker room after the game. The team carted him off the field early in the third quarter. Trufant did not return. Holmgren expected to know more today. The team's next media availability is Wednesday.
Mike Sando, The News Tribune
DAVE BOLING COLUMN
From Mike Holmgren's perspective, the season's half-full.
The smiley face he tried to paint on the Seahawks' 20-17 loss to the Chargers on Sunday was not entirely a matter of contrived holiday cheer.
From day one, the Seahawks coach has listed winning the NFC West as the team's first priority this season. Even with the loss, they accomplished that when Arizona defeated San Francisco to give the Hawks their third straight division title.
But having lost three straight games, the Seahawks' acceptance of a playoff berth felt like somebody earning entrance to an Ivy League school on the strength of being valedictorian of a four-person senior class, with the other three students being D-grade slackers.
But there they were in everybody's lockers ... the T-shirts and ball caps proclaiming them NFC West champs.
It is worth noting that nobody wore the gear, and there were more tears spilled in that locker room than champagne.
And if there is to be a genuine positive to be extracted from Sunday's game, it's that the team put enough emotional equity into the game that it hurt to lose. That hasn't always been the case in this curious 8-7 season.
"There is no question that we're very upset about losing the game," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "There are guys that were crying in (the locker room). People are really upset because we put a lot of energy and effort into this, and we have a lot of pride and I feel we have a lot of character."
The Seahawks this season have not always been able to counter a defeat with the assertion that they'd played well enough to win in most facets of the game.
But playing well enough to win and not being able to close the deal is reflective of the season for these guys.
Running back Shaun Alexander ran hard and well and had his best game of the season. But Hasselbeck threw two interceptions, was sacked six times and had a passer rating of 39.1.
The defense held LaDainian Tomlinson to 61 yards on 21 carries. Which is good, except that he had 22 carries, and on the one he picked up 62 yards.
They held Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to 33 percent in passing, but he found receiver Vincent Jackson wide open behind safety Michael Boulware for the game-winning touchdown.
What allowed Holmgren to say that he's "more on the upbeat side than the downbeat side" was his valid assessment that the team played harder, and with more emotion, than it has.
"I thought today we battled hard," Holmgren said. "I was much more impressed with how we played today than the last couple weeks."
The 13-2 Chargers are a trendy pick to make it to the Super Bowl, so a Seattle loss was not unexpected. But when the Seahawks needed one good defensive stop to preserve the upset, they blew a coverage and gave up an easy score.
There's always something.
"I'm happy in some respects," Hasselbeck said. "Because I feel at times that we were starting to play our brand of football."
The problem this season has been that the Seahawks don't really have a "brand" of football. Not one that's consistent and easily defined. They've played 15 games and the staff and the fans and players themselves probably have no clue what kind of Seahawks team will be on the field from week to week.
A team that can lose three straight and win the division is tough to figure. So is a team that can get shoved around by Arizona and San Francisco in consecutive games and then come back and square off toe-to-toe against one of the best teams in the league.
Hasselbeck acknowledged this curious duality. "We've been trying to find a silver lining for a long time," he said, adding that he likes the Hawks' chances in the playoffs.
"We're just not playing our best football," he said. "It will come ... I hope it will come in time."
DAVE BOLING GRADES
One penalty nullified a Nate Burleson touchdown return. Burleson made several of his punt catches more exciting than he needed. On the upside, punter Ryan Plackemeier booted a 72-yarder and averaged just less than 50 yards per punt.
What's going on with Deion Branch? The former Super Bowl MVP (for New England) dropped four passes Sunday after whiffing on two in the last game against San Francisco. He HAS to be better than that.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was under heavy pressure all game, getting sacked six times, but he also badly overthrew an open Bobby Engram in the red zone on a key possession. The ball was tipped by Engram and intercepted.
Maybe it was being on the field with the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson, the back who broke his season touchdown-scoring record, but Alexander ran harder than he has in some time, picking up 140 yards and two scores.
The Seahawks owe the Arizona Cardinals a thank-you note. By defeating San Francisco for the second time this season Sunday, the Cardinals allowed the Seahawks to clinch the NFC West Division.
Receiver Bobby Engram has been out most of the season fighting a thyroid problem. Getting his first extensive playing time, he pulled in four passes for 65 yards and looked as reliable as ever.
TODD MILLES SIDEBAR ON ALEXANDER
When Shaun Alexander is healthy, he's driving defenders backward and is almost a weekly guest at postgame press conferences, taking the podium to explain the ups and downs of Seattle's every success and failure.
At times, the NFL's reigning Most Valuable Player gives token answers without much thought. Other times, he acts like there is no place in the world he'd rather be than stuck in front of a herd of television cameras and microphones.
But Sunday – a bittersweet day in which the Seahawks clinched their third consecutive NFC West title, but lost to San Diego, 20-17, – Alexander cut through obvious disappointment with a hint of wait-and-see optimism.
"I think that everybody saw the real team for the first time all year," Alexander said.
Uh, did he get his head rung in a collision with Chargers All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman or something? The Seahawks lost.
"This is the healthiest that both Matt (Hasselbeck) and I have been, and this is the first time the (offensive) line understood their roles," Alexander said. "I think you saw our team. We fought tooth and nail."
Alexander, on the heels of his 31-carry, 140-yard, two-touchdown effort, did not go so far to guarantee a return trip to the Super Bowl. He knows the team has a tough road ahead, sitting at 8-7 and the fourth seed in the NFC.
But the signs point in a better direction, he said.
"The weeks before, I don't think we were a good team," Alexander said, bluntly. "I think that we didn't act like a good team. I think that any team could have beat us."
Hear that, Detroit Lions?
Alexander – at least his health, or lack thereof – was a big cause for the team's fall after a 3-0 start.
He broke his left foot in the third game against the Giants and was sidelined six games.
When Alexander returned against San Francisco in mid-November, something was still not right. If his foot felt good, the offensive line played poorly, and vice versa.
Seattle dropped a 24-14 game at home to the 49ers on Dec. 14. It was a Thursday night game, so Alexander figured he had a few extra days until the Chargers game to give the foot a rest.
That same night, a windstorm hit the Puget Sound area, knocking out power in Western Washington. Alexander's house is still without electricity.
"You get three days to get some rest, and what happens?" Alexander said. "I think after all of that, everybody just said, 'You know what, let's play.' I think you got to see that."
Considering who was in front of Alexander – Merriman, defensive tackle Jamal Williams and the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing defense – the run game showed a streak of nastiness.
What got Alexander going was a seemingly harmless third-and-8 play from the Chargers' 33-yard line with 61/2 minutes to go in the third quarter.
Alexander took a handoff on a delay, darted left to an opening and rumbled in for a touchdown.
Early in the fourth quarter, Alexander perhaps had his best run of the season from the San Diego 9. He spun through the arms of defensive lineman Derreck Robinson and bulled over cornerback Drayton Florence for his second touchdown with 12:58 to go.
"To me, he runs hard every week," Seahawks fullback Mack Strong said. "It looks more impressive against a team like the San Diego Chargers."
Alexander extended his streak of games with at least one run of 10 yards to 63, an NFL record.
"This week, I could make the really strong cuts and run into the holes and not feel (a hurt ankle)," he said.
RYAN DIVISH CHARGERS NOTEBOOK
Philip Rivers' definition of "struggle" is different than for some people, particularly anybody using the word to describe his play in recent weeks.
There are other adjectives to sum up the San Diego Chargers quarterback's performances, perhaps "inconsistent" or "subpar."
"You know, I think 'struggle' is a misused word," Rivers said. "I am not denying that I haven't played my best, but I think that's football."
And in football, at least in his mind, wins are the most relevant thing, and he won Sunday. Rivers connected with receiver Vincent Jackson on a post route for a 37-yard touchdown with 29 seconds remaining to give San Diego a 20-17 victory against the Seahawks at Qwest Field.
"It can be a humbling game and it can be a very gratifying game," Rivers said. "I think that we got two stages of it tonight."
While he was talking about his team, Rivers easily could have been speaking of himself.
In his first year as the Chargers' starter, Rivers has been better than expected. But he was coming in on the heels of his worst performance. Last week he completed eight of 23 passes for 97 yards, with two interceptions, against Kansas City. While San Diego won, there was some speculation the No. 4 overall pick in 2004 was starting to hit a wall.
Early on against the Seahawks, it didn't look like Rivers could hit a wall, let alone a receiver.
Rivers misfired on his first nine passes, with most not anywhere near a receiver.
"There were some intentional throwaways in there," he said.
If there was one bright spot in Rivers' otherwise forgettable first half, it was his only completion. After avoiding a pair of defenders, Rivers found Vincent Jackson – his only receiver on the play – open in the back of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown pass.
Things improved for Rivers, but only marginally, in the second half. He completed nine more passes in 20 attempts. But to be fair, Jackson, LaDainian Tomlinson and Lorenzo Neal dropped some catchable balls.
One of those completions was the game-winner to Jackson, which couldn't have been thrown better.
"(Rivers) was good when he had to be," San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "He made the plays he had to make."
His teammates and coach never lost confidence in him.
"Each week you get more impressed by the kid," Tomlinson said. "We still felt like we were going to win the game. Ultimately, it comes down to if your quarterback feels like that. You can feel like that all you want, but your quarterback still has to make the throws."
Rivers finished 10-of-30 for 181 yards.
"If you think you that you are going to go out and throw 70 percent completions, and throw for this and this and everything is going to be lovely – and never throw an interception – then I think that you are kidding yourself," Rivers said.
Lights out, indeed
Seahawks fans saw plenty of the "Lights Out" celebration that Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman likes to do after sacks – four times, to be exact.
The Pro Bowl linebacker was a one-man force early, harassing Matt Hasselbeck, batting down passes and basically causing mayhem, but he credited teammates Jamal Williams, Igor Olshansky, Stephen Cooper, Donnie Edwards and Jacques Cesaire.
"When you have guys like that, you're more enabled to go out and make big plays," Merriman said.
Merriman finished with five tackles, three sacks, three quarterback hurries and two passes deflected.
He also got to see Lofa Tatupu's version of the "Lights Out" dance.
"I've been mocked pretty good this year," Merriman said. "He didn't do it the best. But it's all fun and games."
So who does the best impersonation?
"I really dislike saying it, but I think (Cincinnati receiver) Chad Johnson probably does the closest one," Merriman said. "Hopefully, nobody else will be doing it for the rest of the year. I am tired of seeing other people shatter my dance."
Qwest Field the toughest venue?
Count the Chargers among the teams that believe Qwest Field is the toughest place to play in the NFL.
"It is a really, really tough to play in this stadium," Schottenheimer said. "I always thought that Arrowhead (Kansas City) was the toughest, but this place might be as tough as any I have been in. The sound just cascades down from the second level."
The noise confused the Chargers into four false-start penalties, which adds to Qwest Field's league-leading number of such penalties for opponents.
"It was so loud at times it was hard to even hear in the huddle," Tomlinson said.
It wasn't any easier on the sidelines.
"We were on the sidelines trying to get defensive plays and corrections and we couldn't hear each other talking," Merriman said. "We could only imagine the offense out there trying to make audibles and make things happen, but they couldn't because of the crowd."
DARRIN BEENE SIDEBAR ON SEATTLE SPECIAL TEAMS
What's a polite way to put how the Seattle Seahawks special teams played Sunday? Uneven? Some good plays, some bad?
Any other choices?
"We had all kinds of things going on," safety Oliver Celestin said, to put it nicely. "Sometimes it happens."
Everything seemed to happen to Seattle's special teams in the 20-17 loss to the San Diego Chargers. There were fumbles, near fumbles, penalties and crazy plays in coverage.
The most damaging, though, was a holding penalty called on tight end Ben Joppru in the third quarter that cost the Seahawks a touchdown.
To start the second half, the Chargers drove down the field and kicked a field goal to up their lead to 10-0. On the ensuing kickoff, Seahawks returner Nate Burleson broke from the pack and had just the kicker, Nate Keading, to beat.
Burleson did it, but the celebration of his 96-yard return was short-lived. The referees had called Joppru for holding. No touchdown.
"I blocked the same guy that I had blocked two returns before, and I put him on his back the same way I did the play before," said Joppru. "When I heard my number, yeah, I was surprised.
"That's a touchdown. That's huge, that's huge."
Joppru said he wasn't mad, nor did he blame the officials.
"Holding is a judgment call. In his judgment it was holding, and in mine … I don't know what it was," he said.
Fielding kicks requires good judgment, and that was something Burleson struggled with on a rainy day at Qwest Field.
Burleson, who was named the NFC's special teams player of the month for November, said the weather wasn't a factor, although he did have trouble gauging the kicks of Chargers punter Mike Scifres.
In the first quarter, Burleson muffed a punt but was able to recover it. Then in the fourth quarter, Burleson had two weird plays on punt returns.
On a short kick by Scifres, he tried to run up and catch the ball but didn't field it cleanly. A scramble for the ball ensued and the referees gave possession to San Diego, claiming Burleson had touched it.
The play, though, was reversed when coach Mike Holmgren challenged it and reviews showed the ball hit San Diego's Michael Turner first.
With about four minutes to go and the Seahawks holding a 17-13 lead, the Chargers' were forced to punt near midfield. Scifres boomed one that appeared headed for the end zone, but Burleson fair caught it at the 7. Seattle, trapped deep in its own end, went three-and-out, and on the Chargers' next possession they got good field position (their 41) and went on to score the winning points.
Burleson said he positioned himself at the 15 instead of the 10, as he normally does, because the previous Scifres punts were short.
"I thought I backpedaled about 5 yards, but it wound up being 7 or 8 yards. It's one of those things that in your mind you think you are doing one thing but physically, you're doing another," Burleson said. "Obviously, if I could do it again I would let it go, and hopefully it would have gone into the end zone."
Celestin was also involved in a strange play in the second quarter, which began with two Seahawks – Lance Laury and Jordan Babineaux – being called for an illegal block on a punt return.
Forced to punt at the San Diego 48, Seattle's Ryan Plackemeier attempted to place his kick inside the Chargers' 20. Celestin ran downfield and was in position to catch the ball.
One problem: The Chargers' Keenan McCardell had called for a fair catch and Celestin didn't see him. He bumped him and was flagged with a 15-yard interference penalty. Instead of starting at the 10, the Chargers began from the 25.
"I've got to make a better decision, to be honest with you," Celestin said. "I've got to make a better play on the ball and try not to penalize my team."
JOHN McGRATH COLUMN ON BOULWARE
There was no use trying to pretend the last-minute touchdown pass that beat the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday was anybody's fault other than Michael Boulware's.
An argument could be made the 20-17 loss to San Diego was a group effort: Receiver Deion Branch flubbed one routine catch after another. Before it found its groove midway through the third quarter, the offensive line was out of sync with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, whose first-half passer rating was 40 points below his counterpart's – and his counterpart had gone 1-of-10.
But if the strong safety ends up where he's supposed to end up while defending a second-and-10 pass with 36 seconds left – if he's got his teammates' backs while San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson executes a post route – the Seahawks don't leave Qwest Field with a three-game losing streak.
"I think we probably broke coverage, obviously," Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said. "I'll be able to define it more when I see the film."
Save yourself the grief, Coach. It was Boulware's responsibility, and Boulware wasn't there until it was too late. Afterward, even those who might not have been watching the turning-point play would've been able to identify Boulware as the culprit because the three-year veteran, in a locker room full of long faces, was disconsolate.
A parade of well-wishers stopped by to offer encouragement, from Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke, to defensive secondary coach Larry Marmie, to rookie cornerback Kelly Jennings.
"Michael is a competitor," Jennings said. "He's going to fight. He played a great game up until then. We all make mistakes and things happen.
"This is something he'll bounce back from, no big problem."
Except it was enough of a problem Sunday that Charle Young, the former Seattle tight end, made an effort to stop by and cheer up Boulware. Defensive coordinator John Marshall then called the safety to a quiet corner and could be seen patting him on the back, as if to say: C'mon, shake it off.
Watching the Seahawks attempt to give psychological comfort to their distressed teammate, there was a temptation to think: Get over it, guy. That's life in the NFL. Every game has a loser, and the defeats often can be attributed to one player's failure to perform up to expectations.
The afternoon could've served as a chapter in a book, "Trauma for Beginners." A tough and disappointing defeat, sure, but the Seahawks survived to play another game next week, and because the San Francisco 49ers lost to Arizona, the Seahawks are assured a home playoff game in January.
Boulware was victimized. It happens. But enough with resembling some kid who missed the last-second free throw that might have sent a high school state championship game into overtime.
On the other hand, Boulware's red eyes showed how sincerely he cares. The problem with pro sports, some cynics will tell you, is that the athletes don't invest the same amount of emotion in winning and losing that fans do.
Bunk. When Jackson hauled in the 37-yard touchdown pass that gave the Chargers the lead, Qwest Field went into shock. But nobody felt worse about it than the strong safety who temporarily lost his job to Jordan Babineaux.
"I did a poor job," Boulware said once he composed himself enough to talk to reporters, some 45 minutes after the final gun. "I did a poor job playing that play.
"I'd have to say this is probably … the hardest situation I've ever been through in my life. But it's definitely not going to kill me. I'm going to learn from it. I'm going to bounce back."
While the Seahawks wouldn't point fingers about the split-second breakdown that sabotaged the 59-minute effort that preceded it, the Chargers were not as charitably inclined.
"I kept looking at Boulware and asking myself, 'Is he going to move?' " San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. "He just stayed and stayed there, and then I just said, 'All right.' "
Jackson caught the ball over Boulware, who might have been out of position because, well, he's not playing his natural position. Perhaps Seattle needs to reevaluate Boulware's talents: His instincts remain as a linebacker; he gets into trouble when he forgets he's been reconfigured as a safety.
The decision to replace him with Babineaux was steeped in the fear he'd be burned on the kind of touchdown pass Rivers threw Sunday. It's too late to contemplate the notion of Boulware returning to his original position anytime soon, but it's something to think about in the offseason.
As for Boulware, his emotional investment is admirable, but there's a time to mourn all that's lost, and a time to suck it up and regroup. Sunday was a time to regroup. Virtually nothing about the postseason landscape changed because Seattle was unable to hold onto a 17-14 lead in the last minute.
Merry Christmas, Michael Boulware. If your blown coverage on a touchdown pass is the worst situation you'll ever encounter, you are in store for a wonderful life.
DARRIN BEENE SEAHAWKS NOTEBOOK
A twist of fate, and a gnarly turn of Marcus Trufant's right ankle, gave rookie Kelly Jennings his most extensive action for the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
Jennings, Seattle's 2006 first-round draft choice from the University of Miami, played much of the second half at cornerback in San Diego's 20-17 victory at Qwest Field after Trufant went out with a high ankle sprain.
The injury occurred after Chargers backup tailback Michael Turner broke off a 16-yard run. Trufant got in on the hit but stayed down on the turf, grimacing.
Medical staff helped him off the field at the 13:39 mark of the third quarter, and he never returned.
"Kind of got rolled up a little bit at the tail end (of the play)," said Trufant, the Wilson High product who was limping around Seattle's locker room on crutches afterward, his foot in a protective boot. "No telling how severe it is."
Further tests will be taken today. Trufant has started 62 of the team's 63 regular-season games since the Seahawks drafted him out of Washington State in the first round in 2003.
"I knew my number would be called sooner or later," Jennings said. "I just have to be ready to step in and play."
Jennings has played in all 15 games this season, primarily as a nickel cornerback against opponens' No. 3 receiver on passing downs.
Sunday was a whole new experience. He was up against Vincent Jackson, a 6-foot-5 leaper whose young legs and ability displaced veteran Keenan McCardell as the team's top wide receiver.
Introductions? None necessary as San Diego wasted no time going at the 5-foot-11 Jennings late in the third quarter, sending Jackson on a deep sideline pattern.
Philip Rivers' pass was on the money, but Jennings' reactions were a little quicker to the ball, knocking the pass away.
"I didn't see it until late," Jennings said.
The Chargers had the ball twice in the final 5 minutes and went after Jennings with Jackson five times on those drives. Jackson caught passes of 21 and 14 yards.
"He's a young guy, but he's getting better and better," Trufant said.
With 29 seconds to go, Jackson moved away from Jennings' side on the left, and lined up on the right hashmark. He sailed through Seattle's secondary and caught the game-deciding 37-yard touchdown pass.
"I think (I played OK)," said Jennings, who made three tackles and broke up two passes. "I'm a cornerback. That's my job, regardless of who the receiver is – to fight for the ball and try to make plays and see who comes out the best."
Branch the 'reason we lost'
The final statistics show Deion Branch led the Seahawks in two categories: Receptions with five and drops with four.
The usually sure-handed receiver with the green gloves had only three drops before Sunday, but he struggled to hold onto the ball against the Chargers and accepted blame for the Seahawks' loss.
"I was the whole reason we lost," Branch said. "I dropped three third-down conversions. I stopped three drives. That's bad."
Branch said he's never encountered a game like Sunday and will work to make sure he never has another one like it.
"I have to work extra hard this week. ... I had a bad game," he said. "I didn't do my job as one of the leaders on the team."
Receiver Bobby Engram dressed carefully. The wear-and-tear of having played extensively for the first time was evident in the way he struggled putting on his shirt after the game.
The soreness, though, was a good soreness. Engram, who got in for five plays in the loss to San Francisco in his first game back after missing nine weeks with a thyroid condition, had an expanded role against the Chargers.
Engram made four catches for a season-high 65 yards. Three of the grabs came on third down and resulted in Seattle first downs.
"I feel great in terms of my stamina, muscle soreness or anything lingering from my condition that I had. Right now, in my mind, it is a non-factor," Engram said. "
Lofa Tatupu tied his season-high by making 12 tackles. He also registered his first full sack of the season and added two quarterback hurries. Tatupu was credited with a half-sack against the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 11. ... Crazy stat: In the first half, Rivers completed one pass in 10 attempts, a 9-yard touchdown. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was 12-of-21 for 115 yards but had the lower passer rating (32.9 compared to Rivers' 72.9) because he had two interceptions. … With the two turnovers, the Seahawks fell to minus-9 in turnover differential. ... Fullback Mack Strong won the Steve Largent Award as the Seahawks' man of the year.
RYAN DIVISH SIDEBAR ON TOMLINSON
LaDainian Tomlinson played a football game without scoring a touchdown.
The seemed unlikely, considering what San Diego's do-everything back has done this season.
But what's even more implausible, the Chargers still won without Tomlinson scoring, defeating the Seahawks, 20-17, on Sunday at Qwest Field.
Neither situation has happened with great frequency. Tomlinson failed to find the end zone in only two previous games this season – the Chargers' first two games, and they went 1-1.
"Any time you keep that guy out of the end zone, your chances of winning are pretty good," Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu said.
It's sound logic based on solid numbers. San Diego came in with a 9-19 record in games when Tomlinson didn't score.
Since those first two games this season, he's ripped off an NFL record 31 touchdowns, eclipsing the previous mark of 28 set by Seattle's Shaun Alexander a year ago, while the Chargers lost only once. In his previous eight games – all Chargers victories – Tomlinson not only scored, he scored at least twice, including three games of four touchdowns.
"You can't expect to score every game," Tomlinson said. "It's not realistic."
Maybe for most people. But in a season where it seems as if Tomlinson could trip and fall and still wind up in the end zone, it was out of the ordinary. And had there not been a wayward facemask penalty by teammate Shane Olivea, Tomlinson would have had a 48-yard TD run on the second play of the second half.
"I do think about the run that got called back," Tomlinson said with a chuckle.
But he didn't think about it for long.
"That's being kind of selfish if you expect to score every game," he said.
Besides, he also enjoys seeing his teammates find the end zone.
"I'm just as happy seeing the other guys score as I am when I score," he said. "People expect me to score so much sometimes that it's kind of a relief when other people do it."
Those aren't exactly words that fantasy football owners like to hear, but Tomlinson still did plenty in other areas Sunday to help the Chargers.
His 62-yard scamper up the gut of the Seahawks defense helped set up the Chargers' first touchdown – a 9-yard pass from Philip Rivers to Vincent Jackson.
Tomlinson finished with 123 yards on 22 carries. Those numbers are even more impressive considering the Seahawks used an eight-man front, with safety Michael Boulware moved up close to the line scrimmage, almost 90 percent of the time in an effort to slow Tomlinson.
"I expected an eight-man front," he said. "When a team puts eight men in the box, that shows the kind of respect they have for you."
Even though he expected the eight-man front and has faced the look on countless occasions this season, it didn't make the yards any easier to come by for Tomlinson.
"It was tough though, especially in the second half," he said. "Other than the long run, those were tough yards."
The 123 yards Sunday gives Tomlinson 1,749 rushing yards this season, a personal best. His previous best was 1,683 yards in 2002.
"It's kind of a new mark," he said. "I can say I went 17 (hundred yards), and who knows what it's going to end up at."
The Chargers have one more regular-season game ofor Tomlinson to add his gaudy statistics.
Despite a 13-2 record, San Diego plays host to Arizona on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium – and, yes, Tomlinson will play.
With the win over the Seahawks, the Chargers clinched a first-round bye for the playoffs, but a win next week against the Cardinals would clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
"That's the whole focus now," Tomlinson said.