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'Hawks settle down, take over

For 21 minutes, the Seahawks were portraying their usual role of road kill
-- only worse.

Matt Hasselbeck's first two pass attempts were dropped, fitting the team's misfortunes of being among the league leaders in drops. The 49ers aggressive blitzing scheme made Seahawks halfback Shaun Alexander fight through a couple of defenders just to find the line of scrimmage. And then came the second-quarter disaster.

The Seahawks answered a 60-yard 49ers touchdown drive with a 10-yard quarterback sack and an interception that bounced off the hands of wide receiver Bobby Engram and was converted into another 49ers touchdown. To make matters worse, right guard Chris Gray blew out his right medial collateral knee ligament and will be sidelined 4-6 weeks. Down a guard and 14 points, the team known to finish poorly on the road appeared to be finished.

And then all of a sudden, the young Seahawks grew up. Hasselbeck completed eight consecutive passes in two touchdown drives to tie the score. The run-defense stuffed the 49ers. Hasselbeck made a perfect read against the gambling 49ers defense and hit Koren Robinson for a 30-yard touchdown pass. Finally, the Seahawks broke their six-game road losing streak and beat the 49ers, 24-17.

"That shows we're maturing a little bit," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "The younger you are, the bigger the challenge. We are growing. We're not there yet because I think you really need that great maturity on the road, but it shows. I think we are taking steps."

It was the Seahawks 10th victory, a plateau they haven't accomplished since 1986. That 1986 team was coached by Chuck Knox and finished as one of the most feared teams in football. But a slow start ruined that great finish and left the Seahawks out of the playoffs. Ten wins may not buy a playoff berth this weekend either, but it was a step forward for a young team on the rise.

"The 10-win thing is disappointing because we had three losses on the road that we shouldn't have lost," Hasselbeck said. "But we didn't win them and we are in the situation we are in. Still, 10 wins hasn't been done here in a long time."

To make the playoffs, the Seahawks need help. If either the Vikings or Packers lose, Seattle gets the final wild-card spot. If both teams win, Seattle needs the Cowboys to lose and would then hope to benefit from a tiebreaker scenario involving several games from Sunday.

"I told the fellows if they don't normally go to church, I want them in church Sunday," Holmgren said. And if the Seahawks' prayers are answered, they know they won't strike fear of their opponents next weekend because they are on the road.

"The fact that we've got a shot to be in the playoffs, I think we can shock a lot of people," Alexander said. "We ooze talent. It seems if we get on teams early in the game, we can really make it tough for them. Of course against the 49ers, we were behind on the road against a good team and we still came back and won."

That's the breakthrough that could help the team in the future -- next week or next season. The offense is young. Hasselbeck, a Pro Bowl first alternate, is 28. Receivers Robinson (23), Darrell Jackson (25) and Alex Bannister (24) are young. Robinson and Jackson combined for 133 catches and 2,133 yards and 13 touchdowns, and if they can fix their dropped-passes problems, they could be potential Pro Bowlers. Alexander had a career-best 1,435 yards and he's 26. Overall, it's the 13th youngest team in football.

Saturday was a breakthrough game, particularly for Hasselbeck. After the game, 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. bumped into Hasselbeck and praised him for his decision making and talent. He told him the 49ers defense voted him to the Pro Bowl, a reality that will happen if Brett Favre pulls out because of potential thumb surgery.

Even in the playoffs, Hasselbeck won't face the chaos he managed to tackle and defeat against the 49ers. Mora runs one of the league's best blitz packages, and they were getting to Hasselbeck. On first downs, linebacker Julian Peterson either rushed or faked a blitz from the outside linebacker post. It forced Hasselbeck to audible. Pretty soon, the 49ers adjusted off Hasslbeck's audibles and called their own.

Before long, the Seahawks offense was swirling down a toilet of confusion. Hasselbeck completed only seven of his first 16 passes for 69 yards. Alexander had four rushing yards in his first seven attempts. And the ultimate insult came when Engram ran an option route and miscommunication resulted in an interception off the receiver's hands.

"Matt's hard on himself," Holmgren said of Hasselbeck. "My challenge with him is getting him back on track."

So, the coaching staff simplified things. Out went a bunch of the audibles, in went more short completions to gain confidence for the passing offense. Hasselbeck ended up competing 15 of his next 18 passes for 207 yards and one of his two touchdown passes.

For a while this week, his teammates wondered whether Hasselbeck would play. He has a torn left labrum in his shoulder. He has a sprained right ankle. He also had the flu. In other words, he was a mess.

"We just had to stop making stupid mistakes," said Hasselbeck, who finished 24-for-37 for 315 yards and two touchdowns. "But things we were doing wrong were correctable. Early in the game, we had miscommunication or we'd call the wrong call against the right defense. But we stayed pretty calm. The relationship of the players on this offense is real good. We had to just keep it going."

When Hasselbeck hit Robinson on a 30-yard touchdown pass to take the lead, a huge weight was lifted from the Seahawks shoulders. A defense that has struggled all season played with more confidence. The traditionally poor Seahawks run-defense held Kevan Barlow to 40 yards on 14 carries. Except for two slip-ups in coverage by cornerback Ken Lucas, the Seahawks pass-defense contained Jeff Garcia's hot passing offense.

With 7:48 left in the fourth quarter and the Seahawks leading 21-17, Hasselbeck gave his teammates a speech in the offensive huddle.

"Matt said to us, 'You know, guys, we've been together since July 25, just think back to that,'" tight end Itula Mili said. "It's just a little moment we all had together and then we all looked at each other and said, 'You know what, guys, we've been pounding away since July 25 in the hot sun just trying to work it out. So ... let's strap it on, let's go.'"

The Seahawks marched 70 yards on 13 plays and ate up almost six minutes before settling for a Josh Brown field goal to give them the 24-17 advantage.

"Well, our 'on the road streak' starts tonight," Holmgren said. "It gives you hope because on the road it's particularly difficult. We didn't handle the Minnesota experience (a 34-7 loss) that well when we got behind. But in other games, we've hung in there."

It may not mean the playoffs for the Seahawks, but it's a start.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.