'Hawks play into Pats' hands
The Seahawks did exactly what they couldn't on Sunday -- made enough negative plays to help the Patriots beat them.
FOXBORO, Mass. -- Matt Hasselbeck expected his offense to make plays, both positive and negative, against the Patriots defense Sunday. One of the keys to the game, he said Wednesday, would be overcoming those negative plays.
Hasselbeck's predictions turned out to be right on. The Seahawks made negative plays, no doubt more than they expected. And they lost, 30-20, because the negative plays were too major, too numerous, and too ill timed, especially.
Meanwhile, the Patriots again made plays at key moments, extending their league-record winning streak to 20 games and tying the mark with their 17th consecutive regular-season victory.
Interceptions on the Seahawks' first two possessions put the Patriots in position to score 10 first-quarter points. New England led, 20-6, at halftime. That's a large lead to overcome on the road at Sun Devil Stadium, let alone Gillette.
"We came out real jittery in the first half, and that was disappointing, especially on offense," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said after the game.
Still, the Seahawks found themselves 13 yards away from taking the lead with about four minutes left in the game. That's when a bad play turned worse.
On second and 12 from New England's 15-yard line, Hasselbeck, trying to avoid taking a sack, threw in the vicinity of Darrell Jackson, though not close enough in the view of the officials. The quarterback was called for intentional grounding. According to Hasselbeck, the play was doomed before the snap.
"We had a silent snap count on and our motion wasn't really good," he said. "I was looking that way and a sack at that point is a bad thing, so that's why I threw it, thinking someone was going to peel out."
He later added that his read on the play was "clouded, because they were screwed up, and we were screwed up. It wasn't going to work from the get-go."
So rather than score a touchdown and take a one-point lead, the Seahawks had to settle for a field goal and a 23-20 deficit. The Patriots clinched it with a touchdown on their ensuing possession.
Hasselbeck later said the conclusion to the Seahawks' penultimate possession didn't decide the game. "To me, that wasn't the one big play that hurt us. There were 20 plays I'd put ahead of that one."
Perhaps so, but that one bad play epitomized what a bad afternoon it was for one of the league's best offenses. Hasselbeck threw for 349 yards, but he barely completed 50 percent of his passes (27 of 50), did not throw a touchdown, tossed those two costly interceptions, and posted a quarterback rating of 59.5.
The West Coast offense is based on timing. The Patriots knew that if they could disrupt that timing, they'd have an easier time slowing down Seattle's up-tempo attack. The idea is for the ball to come out quickly, but time and time again, when Hasselbeck went back to throw, he had to hold on to it because the receivers weren't where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. Usually, that was because they were having a hard time getting off the line thanks to the trademark physical play of the Patriots' linebackers and defensive backs. New England held Seattle in check by forcing Hasselbeck to check down or to escape the pocket.
The Patriots sacked him three times, all of which could be attributed to good coverage.
"They're smart," Hasselbeck said. "They know some of the things we like to do. They know some of the guys we like to get the ball to. They tried to make it difficult on us. It's one of the things they do well."
The Patriots did it a little too well, too often, and too blatantly during last season's AFC championship game against Indianapolis, so much so that the league's competition committee, of which Holmgren is a member, made contact on receivers more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage a "point of emphasis" for the officials.
Ironic, then, that the Patriots would defeat Holmgren using the very tactics he and his offensive-minded colleagues sought to limit.
|“||"We came out real jittery in the first half, and that was disappointing, especially on offense. ”|
|—Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren|
"More than the confusion factor," Holmgren said, "what affected us was the physical play of their linebackers and secondary. Bumping us off our routes -- and do that legally -- doing a good job of disrupting our timing a little bit. We had to get more aggressive as receivers in the second half, and I think we did."
Said Jackson, whose actions (two catches, 40 yards) did not speak as loudly as his disparaging words toward the Patriots last week, "They hold, they face mask. They get away with a lot up here in Foxboro."
Holmgren and his staff also countered by adjusting their play calling at halftime, and the results were a 210-yard half by Hasselbeck and a six-catch, 121-yard half by Koren Robinson, who dropped several big gains earlier in the game. But the Patriots, who led throughout, were content to give up completions underneath. They were protecting a lead. Two-deep coverage was the norm.
"When we were down," Hasselbeck said, "they were saying, 'OK, no big plays.' "
Seattle made a few good plays, such as a 31-yard catch by Robinson (a gain reduced to 16 because of a questionable taunting call), a 37-yarder to Jackson, and a 24-yard catch and run by Shaun Alexander. But they missed several more, and made too many to help their hosts.
None of the Patriots' six penalties was for illegal contact or defensive holding; they drew an end zone pass interference penalty on the penultimate play of the game. They covered cleanly.
"I think those defensive backs stepped up and did a nice job on those receivers," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "It wasn't like a lot of one-man routes, just standing there looking at it and trying to find somebody. Everybody has to stand up there and do their job."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com