Seahawks don't let Smith TD get them down

SEATTLE -- A decade ago, in 1996, moving vans ordered by then-owner Ken Behring pulled out of the Seattle Seahawks headquarters in a futile effort to move the team to Anaheim, Calif.

Seattle and adversity have always been partners. From a 21-year drought of playoff victories to untimely injuries to the ultimate frustration of making the playoffs two years in a row and losing, the Seahawks never had it easy. Visitors often say Seattle constantly has a rain cloud over its sports franchises. On a Sunday in which a few beams of sunlight peeked through some ominous clouds, the Seahawks beat the Carolina Panthers, 34-14, to advance to Super Bowl XL in Detroit.

Fittingly, owner Paul Allen raised the team's "12th-man" flag -- a tribute to the fans -- in the south end zone before the opening kickoff. After that, the Seahawks rewarded his patience with their most efficient performance of the season, dominating the Panthers on defense and overpowering them on offense. Naturally, the Steelers are the Super Bowl favorites against the Seahawks.

An expansion team that entered the league in 1976, the Seahawks were born underdogs. On Sunday at Qwest Field, Seattle finally earned a postgraduate degree in dealing with adversity, the mark of championship football teams.

Past Seahawks teams would have gone in the tank with some of the things that happened Sunday. After Seattle jumped to a 17-0 lead, all-everything Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith broke a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown while 67,837 blue-clad Seahawks fans stared at an official's flag at the start of the play. Replays clearly showed Panthers linebacker Vinny Ciurciu blocking Seahawks defensive end Joe Tafoya in the back.

After a conference of officials, referee Ed Hochuli picked up the flag, having determined that Ciurciu didn't make enough contact to warrant a penalty. Seahawks fans, players and coaches were in disbelief. At 17-7, the Panthers had a chance.

"That's the type of adversity that the Super Bowl-caliber teams have to be able to overcome," Seahawks guard Steve Hutchinson said. "We're playing a team [Carolina] that went into some of the most hostile stadiums in the league and won handily on the road. We know in the playoffs momentum is going to go back and forth. Steve Smith is one of the top players in the league. He made a great return, and we knew we had to put more points on the board."

The biggest mistake the Steelers can make in Super Bowl XL is underestimating the Seahawks. Their coach, Mike Holmgren, bounced back from a 2004 season in which he almost quit coaching because of tensions within the front office. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, benched in favor of Trent Dilfer early in his Seattle tenure, overcame early doubts about being a starting quarterback. League MVP Shaun Alexander has played the past two seasons without the security of a long-term contract.

When it comes to adversity, the Seahawks have an XL (extra large) résumé.

"It's been a ride, it's been a little bit of a roller coaster at times," Hasselbeck said. "But it's been a good ride."

Alexander carried the Halas Trophy from the postgame podium toward the end zone after the game with the same ease he gained 132 rushing yards against the talented Panthers defense. This came a week after some critics questioned his toughness for not returning after a first-quarter concussion against the Redskins.

However, the Seahawks' offense figures to face a much bigger challenge in the Super Bowl. Holmgren runs the purest form of West Coast offense since Bill Walsh. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau runs the zone blitz schemes he created two decades ago to counter Walsh's brilliance.

"I feel like we can match up against anybody," Seattle wide receiver Bobby Engram said. "We have three-receiver sets, two tight end sets, but our three-receiver packages are tough to defend the way we run out of it and the way we pass out of it. I haven't seen them on the field. Obviously, I watched them on TV."

For the playoff victories over the Redskins and Panthers, teams that line up defensively in a 4-3, the Seahawks spent most of the game in three-receiver, two-back sets, but they dusted off a few tricks that might be more noticeable against the Steelers, a 3-4 team. For the Super Bowl, expect more of tight end Jerramy Stevens, who caught six passes for 66 yards and had a wide-open 17-yard touchdown reception.

Stevens wasn't on the field much in the Redskins game. Against the Panthers, he had to make his few plays work -- and he did -- because the Seahawks like to run out of three-receiver sets and they like Pro Bowl fullback Mack Strong blocking for Alexander. Hasselbeck hit Stevens with a 13-yard completion on a third-and-3 on his first play in the game on the opening drive. On the team's second possession, Hasselbeck spotted Stevens uncovered toward the end zone when middle linebacker Dan Morgan got caught inside.

"The Panthers' linebackers are really aggressive and on a play fake, they take their first step forward and an athletic tight end is going to get loose on them," Stevens said. "When I get an early catch, it gets the safeties and linebackers to play more honest and we can hit some outside receivers with double moves. Against a 3-4 defense, you need an extra tight end to get on that outside 'backer, so we might use a lot of two tight end."

The beauty of how this Seahawks team has evolved from a team I predicted would finish second to the Rams in the NFC West is how it responds to doubt and how well it focuses through adversity. After an early-season loss on the road to the Redskins, the defense expanded the role of rookie middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu to play every down and call every defensive snap. Against the Panthers, the Seahawks rebounded from the controversial Smith touchdown with a 57-yard field goal drive.

The Seahawks led, 20-7, and the Panthers weren't a factor the rest of the game.

"It was huge to score because it was seven points that they got," Hasselbeck said. "You feel inside like they didn't deserve it and then we had to answer back because they were right back in the game at that point."

Alexander reminded the national media after the victory of how this team came together in training camp. Gone from the locker room were the malcontents, injury malingerers and partyers who prevented this team from being more than just a first-round playoff loser in 2004.

Defensive end Chike Okeafor, who left the Seahawks for the Arizona Cardinals after last season, said he left because the Seahawks didn't have the right heart or attitude.

"I just think there are a lot of people that were just negative for our team," Alexander said. "People were fighting with each other. For me, I always tell everybody if we're not going to push each other to get better, people don't need to be here. I think that that was one of those things he was crying out to get people going, but he was using it in the wrong way. I'm pretty sure he would want to be here."

Okeafor would like this Seahawks team. The defense held the Panthers to three-and-outs on their first two drives and did a great job of doubling Smith. The wide receiver, coming off big games against the Giants and Bears, finished with five catches and 33 yards against double coverage. Nick Goings, replacing injured DeShaun Foster, left the game in the first quarter with a concussion, and Jamal Robertson couldn't do much.

Jake Delhomme completed 15 of 35 passes for 196 yards and threw three interceptions. Against the Steelers, the undersized Seahawks defense will have to play against a physical offensive line and contain the Pittsburgh running game.

Holmgren did surprise the Panthers with a play that might be followed up for the Super Bowl. In the second quarter, backup quarterback Seneca Wallace ran onto the field as a wide receiver for the first time in his career. Wallace streaked down the left sideline and made an acrobatic 28-yard catch.

Wallace is much like the Steelers' Antwaan Randle El, who was a quarterback in college and one of his team's best athletes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few people outside of Seattle have bothered to notice.

"A lot of the guys on this team got over the hump after winning against the Redskins last week," Hutchinson said. "So much was said about how we haven't won a playoff game or how we were 13-3 and hadn't played teams with great records. Our defense is probably the worst rated of the 12 teams in the playoffs. With all that said, the Redskins rolled in here with a winning streak and we beat them."

Now the Seahawks are underdogs to the AFC's sixth seed. Considering the adversity the Seahawks have been through, they will feel right at home in Super Bowl XL.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.