After a fumble and two interceptions, Matt Hasselbeck was benched at the end of the third quarter in favor of Charlie Whitehurst.
With two weeks remaining in the season, the Seattle Seahawks are in control of their playoff destiny. In fact, they’ve either had the lead or held a share of the lead in the NFC West for 14 of 15 weeks this season.
If you would have read those two sentences three months ago, as a Seahawks fan you likely would have accepted that as great news. But 15 weeks later the team is also two games under .500, nearly tied for last in the league in rushing offense and saw starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck benched in the fourth quarter of the team’s 34-18 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
After losing six of their last eight games, it certainly doesn’t seem like a team that is poised to make the playoffs, but that is the position the Seahawks find themselves in.
In the first series against the Falcons, they actually looked like a team making a run at the postseason. On a 12-play touchdown drive they controlled the ball for nearly eight minutes, ran the ball for 46 yards and overcame a 10-yard holding penalty as Hasselbeck went 5-for-5 for 44 yards. Marshawn Lynch nearly got in the end zone from 15 yards out, but was able to punch it in on the next play for an early 7-0 lead.
A 46-yard kick return put the Falcons in great field position, and without that short field they may not have been so inclined to go for it on fourth down twice during their touchdown drive. But Atlanta converted both fourth downs, with the first being questionable enough for coach Pete Carroll to throw the red flag in challenge of the official spot.
The Atlanta drive ran out the clock in the first quarter with Seattle in the lead, but less than a minute into the second the Falcons scored on a three-yard touchdown pass by Matt Ryan. After a Seahawks punt on their second drive, the Falcons once again held the ball for more than seven minutes on their way to a 10-7 lead.
Even though stopping the Falcons in the red zone was a win for the defense, it certainly didn’t feel that way after consecutive fumbles by Atlanta favorably bounced back into the hands of their offense. After another three-and-out by the Seahawks offense, everything seemed to be going the Falcons' way.
With the two fumbles not going their way, Seattle remained determined to force the first turnover and Jordan Babineaux made it happen with an interception that led to a 38-yard Olindo Mare field goal. But after that first touchdown drive, Atlanta’s defense kept the 'Hawks from getting another first down through the entire first half. With two minutes left in the half, Ryan led the Falcons on an 80-yard scoring drive to go into halftime up 17-10, and they didn’t look back.
On the Seahawks' first possession in the third quarter, they had the opportunity to get back into a tie game. Instead, Hasselbeck was hit and fumbled in the end zone. Atlanta landed on the ball to go up 24-10.
Matt was clearly frustrated about that play after the game and was disappointed that the officials blew a facemask call. He also said he had Ben Obomanu open for a touchdown on that play and to have it go the way it did turned into a 14-point swing. Instead of tying the game at 17, the 'Hawks were down two touchdowns.
The Falcons turned two interceptions on Seattle’s next two drives into 10 more points and down 34-10, Charlie Whitehurst came into the game. Despite playing only one quarter, Whitehurst finished the game leading Seattle in with 83 passing yards compared to Hasselbeck’s 71 yards in the first three quarters.
I’ve been a defender of Hasselbeck all season, but Matt indicted himself at the postgame press conference. “I seem to do stupid things when we’re losing,” he said. “When we’re down by two touchdowns or more, that’s where I have to be way smarter.”
When asked after the game about the change, Coach Carroll said, “Matt struggled in that third quarter...and it just seemed like the opportunity to go ahead and see what happens.”
“We played a team that epitomizes taking care of the football,” Carroll said. “We’re not playing good enough football to beat a team like that right now.” “If you give stuff away to a good team, you don’t have a chance.”
There were a couple positives: The Seahawks were perfect in red-zone efficiency, and they held the Falcons to less than 100 rushing yards (98). Matt Ryan only had 174 passing yards, but considering all but one of their scores came on drives of 51 yards or less, they really didn’t have to do a whole lot of work on offense.
Despite Hasselbeck’s poor performance in the second and third quarters, the Seahawks announced today that he will be the starter in the game against Tampa.
Coach Carroll made it clear that his focus is on taking the team to the playoffs this year and not looking at the future of the quarterback position. “We’re on the precipice of accomplishing something we wanted to accomplish when we started this season, and I want to make sure we keep that in focus. I’m not worried about down the road right now.”
Carroll said that Whitehurst would be ready to go if needed.
“He’s done a better job each time he’s gone out, and he did some good things yesterday,” said Carroll. “He gives us a chance if we need him to put him in the game and count on him to be able to run the offense.”
At least the playoff picture for the Seahawks is clearer than it was a week ago. Last week Seattle had complete control of their playoff destiny being in position to win out to take the NFC West championship. Luckily that continues to be the case, but with a long road trip to Tampa next up on the schedule most fans are looking a little deeper into what kind of help the Seahawks may need if the Bucs win at home.
With a loss in Tampa the Seahawks would need a St. Louis (6-8) win at home over San Francisco (5-9). Those two teams will play early, so Seattle will know whether or not they need to beat Tampa Bay to continue to control their own destiny. A San Francisco win coupled with a Seattle loss would allow the 49ers to take control of the division and need only a win over Arizona (4-10) on Jan. 2 to take the NFC West.
If the Seahawks end up getting a banner up in the rafters this year, I hope the team that shows up the final two weeks of the season can give fans a good reason to forget about these last eight games.
Brandan Schulze is a Navy veteran and member of the military chapter of the Sea Hawkers, the official booster club for the Seattle Seahawks. For more information on the chapter, visit www.militaryseahawkers.ning.com. Membership is free for all military service members and veterans.