SEATTLE -- Shaun Alexander was the NFL's Most Valuable Player, but the Seahawks learned Saturday that their most important player might be quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. It was Hasselbeck's brains, legs and arm that led the Seahawks to their first playoff victory in 21 years.
Alexander left the Seahawks' 20-10 victory over the Redskins after suffering a concussion with 4:29 left in the first quarter. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren reminded Hasselbeck as the first half unfolded that his shoulders would have to be broader. He would have to be the one to lead the team against the tough, aggressive Redskins defense.
Nationally, Hasselbeck isn't a household name. Not yet, anyway, but games such as this NFC divisional playoff are starting to show what a lot of players and coaches already realize. Hasselbeck is more than just a leader of the offense. He, along with Holmgren's play-calling, is one of the main reasons Seattle has been to the playoffs three consecutive seasons and now is within one game of the franchise's first Super Bowl.
Hasselbeck doesn't have the pure passing talents of former Packers teammate Brett Favre, but if you compare his professional evolution in Seattle to Favre's in Green Bay, you see some striking similarities. It was in Favre's fifth year with Holmgren that the Green Bay Packers won a Super Bowl. In this, Hasselbeck's fifth season with Holmgren since coming from Green Bay, he has the Seahawks within one home win of going to the Super Bowl.
Against the Redskins, particularly without Alexander for nearly the entire game, you knew it wasn't going to be pretty. The league's second-ranked offense had four consecutive three-and-outs to finish a scoreless first quarter. Alexander's replacement, Maurice Morris, couldn't break runs longer than 3 yards for a while. Hasselbeck, who often starts games too hyped up, had pass after pass deflected at the line of scrimmage.
"We put a lot on Matt's shoulders, anyways, and I told him that he was going to have to have to do a little bit more," Holmgren said.
In the second quarter, Hasselbeck started carrying the offense with his feet. Trailing 3-0, Hasselbeck managed some short completions to Darrell Jackson. After two first downs, Hasselbeck began doing what he does best -- smart improvisation. For years, the unpredictable plays would drive Holmgren crazy, but five years into knowing Holmgren's West Coast offense has given him the freedom to make things happen.
Twice during that drive, Hasselbeck scrambled for gains. Though the yardage may have seemed miniscule -- 9 yards and 7 yards -- the impact was huge. Former teammate Trent Dilfer says Hasselbeck might be one of the best quarterbacks at coming up with the impromptu play. His running slowed the Redskins' pass rush and started opening up the offense, an advantage the Seahawks usually get from Alexander.
"Since our loss to the Redskins earlier this season, Matt might audible to the right call eight to 10 times a game," center Robbie Tobeck said. "Today, he probably did it five or six times. He got us in the right plays. He's a smart, smart guy. That's what separates him from most of the other quarterbacks."
As a runner, Hasselbeck has deceptive speed. As a thrower, he is deceptively accurate. People tend to forget his 76.1 percent completions in December was an NFL record. His 135.5 December quarterback rating was fourth-best all-time. As he kept getting the Redskins' defense off-balance, he put the Seahawks ahead 7-3 with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jackson, who led all receivers with nine catches and 143 yards.
Sometimes, though, he can get himself in trouble with his creativity. A couple of times Saturday, he did what his teammates called the "whirly bird," a spin move from a retreat in which he releases the ball almost blindly. It could have cost him a couple of interceptions but didn't.
"I'll get in trouble for the whirly bird," Hasselbeck joked after the game. "On that thing, I try to come off the field at the other end (away from Holmgren). I could have gotten in trouble, but it also goes to the confidence I have in getting it to my receivers."
By the second half, things started to click. The Redskins blitzed on a key third-and-3 at the Seahawks 48. The play call from Holmgren was a short hitch route. Against the blitz, Hasselbeck played a little street ball, waving at Joe Jurevicius to run down the left sideline and hitting him for a 31-yard completion. Four plays later, Hasselbeck scrambled for a 6-yard touchdown run to give the Seahawks a 14-3 lead.
"I have a lot of confidence in throwing it up to Joe," Hasselbeck said. "What is he, like 6-6 and 235 pounds? The guy is enormous. Sometimes, you know, at the very worst, it's going to be an incompletion, but he's going to fight for it. That's just the kind of guy he is. Will I get a big minus on my grade checkdown? Yes."
But the Seahawks had a two-possession lead and all the momentum.
"That was just Matt and I adlibbing, if you will," Jurevicius said. "It was a big play, and sometimes, you have to do it. He threw the ball on the money. I was supposed to get a hitch, but it didn't work that way, so we went deep. It was a great play like that. Sometimes it may be called playground football, but it worked."
After Seattle opened a 17-3 lead, the Redskins marched back and scored quickly on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Mark Brunell to Santana Moss that was tipped to Moss in the end zone by Seahawks cornerback Andre Dyson. Seattle's Josh Scobey fumbled the ensuing kickoff, but the Seahawks were saved when John Hall missed a 36-yard field goal attempt.
Hasselbeck's final audible bordered on the weird. He had a third-and-6 at the Seahawks 48 with 5:17 left in regulation. An incompletion would force a punt and give the Redskins another chance. Spotting an all-out Redskins blitz, Hasselbeck checked out of a pass play to a run. Tobeck has heard him audible in those situations many times, but he couldn't believe it when he looked downfield and saw fullback Mack Strong running 32 yards for a game-clinching first down.
That's right, Hasselbeck checked to a 34-year-old fullback in his 13th season, and it hit big.
"It's a little different," Hasselbeck said. "Sean Taylor was blitzing on the weak side A-gap, and nobody jumped offside. I saw a highlight of it, and Ryan Hannam, our tight end, was 30 yards downfield still blocking somebody. We were joking with Mack that he took a lot of time off the clock on that run because of his speed."
The Seahawks ate up enough time to finish that drive with a Josh Brown field goal for a 20-10 lead with 2:54 left. That was the ballgame, and they did it without their MVP.
"It's a great feeling in our locker room right now, because we did come together," Hasselbeck said. "There is something a little bit more special about fighting through adversity and hanging in there in a tough game against a really good defense. Guys get hurt. Pork Chop Womack filled in at left tackle for Walter Jones for a couple of plays. He said something like, 'Did I make you nervous in there when Walt was out?' I told him no."
The Seahawks have been resilient all season. They survived 10 games without Jackson, their leading receiver, because of a knee injury. They survived numerous injuries in their secondary and linebacking corps. And through it all, they've won 14 of 17 games and await the winner of the Bears-Panthers game for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
"We've learned a great deal about losing guys this year," Hasselbeck said. "I've heard Coach Holmgren say that one of the reasons for our success is that our best players are having their best years. I would agree with that, but I would also say that the guys that weren't necessarily counted on are stepping up and being guys that we can count on."
Morris lead all rushers with 49 yards on 18 carries filling in for Alexander. Marquand Manuel has filled in most of the season at safety for Ken Hamlin, who was a victim of a beating outside a local nightclub that left his skull damaged. This team has come together.
Alexander, in fact, was jumping up and down like a kid during the second half when the Seahawks were putting the game away. Knowing the doctors wouldn't let him in the game, Alexander handled Morris' coat and made sure he was supplied with water. He also gave him advice.
"He let me know it was going to be a physical game and just keep on pounding," Morris said. "You might get two or three yards, but you are going to just keep on pounding."
Without Alexander, their MVP, the Seahawks were fortunate they had their MIP, Hasselbeck.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.