SEATTLE (AP) -- Fans chanted "Super Bowl, Super Bowl" as Shaun Alexander carried the NFC championship trophy down the field at
Qwest Stadium, a joyous trip that was 30 years in the making.
|It was over when ...|
The Carolina Panthers, down 27-7 and in desperate need of offense, could muster just a single first down on their first possession of the fourth quarter. By the time they got the ball back, the game clock had ticked under six minutes and the Seahawks had extended the lead to 34-7.
|Game ball goes to ...|
Shaun Alexander. A week after carrying the ball just six times for nine yards before being sidelined by a concussion, the league MVP came back with a vengeance. Alexander rushed the ball 34 times for a Seattle playoff-record 132 yards and two touchdowns as the Seahawks advanced to their first Super Bowl in team history.
Alexander, a killer defense and playing on a field where they didn't lose this season, all combined perfectly Sunday to help the Seahawks rout the Carolina Panthers 34-14 in the NFC title game.
"I think we got people excited about football again here in the Pacific Northwest," coach Mike Holmgren said. "They're all coming to Detroit with us, everybody in the stadium's coming. They were great for us all year. Home-field advantage in this place means everything."
In this case, it means the Seahawks (15-3) will meet the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-17 winners over Denver in the AFC, in the Super Bowl. That game will be played in Detroit on Feb. 5 and the Steelers already are favored by 3½ points.
Alexander, the league's MVP, came back from last week's concussion to rush for a team playoff-record 132 yards and two touchdowns, and Seattle pressured Carolina stars Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith into oblivion.
"We have an unbelievable team, an unbelievable group of fans," Alexander said. "Prayer works. I get knocked out and guys step up. One guy goes down and another guy steps up."
The Seahawks intercepted three passes in winning their 12th straight home game and shattering the fifth-seeded Panthers' stunning postseason road run.
"We're not done yet," said quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who was a precise 20-for-28 for 219 yards and two scores. "We've got another game we've got to go win."
A game the Seahawks only approached once before, losing the AFC championship game to Oakland in 1984. A dozen years later, then-owner Ken Behring was planning a move to Los Angeles.
But current owner Paul Allen stepped in, eventually getting Qwest Field built. And Holmgren, now the fifth coach to take two franchises to the Super Bowl, put together the NFC's best team.
"We've come a long way, it's taken five years to put this group together," Alexander said. "Now we are one of the elite teams."
The focus in these playoffs has been on the spectacular success of the road teams, with Pittsburgh becoming the first sixth seed to make a Super Bowl. Carolina (13-6) had beaten the Giants and Bears on the road, and an all wild-card Super Bowl appeared very possible.
Until about 16 minutes into the NFC championship game, when Seattle led 17-0.
"I don't know if we ran out of gas," Panthers coach John Fox said. "I'm not sure what the problem was. Their defense played tremendous. We knew we'd have our hands full with their offense.
"We didn't play well enough in all three phases to win," he said.
While Alexander paced the ball-control offense, it was the defense that really carried the Seahawks. It yielded only 62 yards, three first downs and no real threats in the first half.
Then, with Carolina desperate, Seattle allowed virtually nothing until it had a 20-point lead.
Holmgren, who won the Super Bowl in 1997 and lost in 1998 with Green Bay, praised his defense last week for the enormous pressure it applied to opponents all season. That defense was always in Delhomme's face, helping force two first-half interceptions that were decisive.
"We've always got a chip on our shoulder, they always say the offense has to pull us through, " defensive tackle Chuck Darby said. "But in order to win games in the playoffs, we knew our defense had to step up."
The Panthers weren't helped when starting running back Nick Goings was sidelined in the first quarter after a massive hit by linebacker Lofa Tatupu. They already were minus their top two runners, Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster.
The Seahawks had their horse, though, and by the second half, they could turn to Alexander. As he always has this season, he delivered some big runs as the crowd chanted "M-V-P, M-V-P."
Hasselbeck finished off the Panthers with a gorgeous pump fake that had cornerback Chris Gamble on all fours. Darrell Jackson caught the 20-yard pass for a 27-7 lead, and it was time for Seattle fans to celebrate.
"I was at the Super Bowl last year just hoping that one day we'd be able to get there," Allen said. "I may seem like a mild-mannered guy, but my gut was churning inside: 'Let's win this game. Just win this game. We've got to win this game.'"
Alexander grabbed the George Halas Trophy and hauled it to the end zone as majestically as he totes a football. For all of his record 28 regular-season scores, this carry meant the most.
Allen raised the team's 12th man flag before kickoff, then waved a white towel to whip the crowd of 67,837 into a frenzy. What really got the fans going was when Holmgren sent in backup quarterback Seneca Wallace as a wideout, then Hasselbeck threw to him. Wallace, one of the better athletes in the NFL, made a superb
over-the-shoulder catch for 28 yards.
One play later, Jerramy Stevens slipped uncovered down the middle for a 17-yard TD pass.
Josh Brown made it 10-0 with a 24-yard field goal set up when Delhomme forced an ill-advised pass for Smith into triple coverage and rookie Tatupu speared it. His 21-yard return got Seattle to the Panthers 20.
On the next series, Delhomme's lollipop throw for Keary Colbert instead fell into the waiting hands of Marquand Manuel, who weaved through traffic for 32 yards to the Panthers 17. Alexander swept left for 15 yards before his 1-yard run made it 17-0.
Then the dynamic Smith broke free on a 59-yard punt return down the right side. An official threw a flag for a block in the back, but after a long discussion, referee Ed Hochuli announced there was no foul, and Carolina was within 17-7.
But the Panthers weren't making any miracle comebacks. Led by Tatupu and Manuel, plus the fierce pass rush -- Rocky Bernard had two sacks -- the Seahawks dominated up the middle. Smith, who made 12 catches for 218 yards in last week's win at Chicago, managed just five catches for 33 yards.
Of course, the Panthers almost never had the ball; Seattle held it for nearly 42 minutes. And after Michael Boulware got the Seahawks' third interception -- surpassing Delhomme's career playoff total -- late in the third quarter, all doubt was removed.
Alexander added a 1-yard scoring run, and Drew Carter's 47-yard TD reception meant little for Carolina. To finish it off, Smith fumbled on a reception in the final two minutes..
- Ed Hochuli