Thursday, December 01, 2005

Week 12: Seahawks 24 - Giants 21


When you think of difficult places to play in the NFL, Seattle isn't exactly the first place that comes to mind. It is portrayed as a city of grungy, laid-back, perhaps slightly depressed white dudes in flannel shirts, who smoke their cigarettes and drink their coffee, dudes for whom screaming and chest-painting do not come as naturally as they do to the men of many other NFL cities. Like the weather in their city, Seattleites have a reputation for being moderate, and their football team reflects this ethos of moderation: For the past twelve years, their Seahawks have won somewhere between 6 and 10 games, neither too good nor too terrible, certainly nothing to get too excited about in either direction. But coming into Week 12 of this 2005 football season, the Seahawks boast an NFC best record of 8-2, and a rabid bandwagon of fan support to go with it, and if the Giants have any illusions of a benign road game in the peaceful Pacific Northwest, a raucous Qwest Field makes it unmistakably clear that this Seattle team and its fans are not here to play nice. As game time approaches, you can sense a certain charge to the normally mild Seattle air, something the commentators call a playoff atmosphere.

Jay Feely sails the opening kickoff into the afternoon sky, and the Battle in Seattle is underway. Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawk offense trots onto the field, a unit that has surpassed expectations by leading the NFL in total yards, though not points scored. This potent offense is fueled by the running of Shaun Alexander, a patient and intelligent runner whose knack for making the most out of holes reminds you of the Giants’ own Tiki Barber. Both runners have an outstanding feel for the spatial and timing aspects of running, and while Tiki is perhaps a little more crafty, Alexander is more physical. Going into the game, Alexander leads the league with 1229 yards and 19 touchdowns, gaudy numbers that are finally earning him the recognition he has always deserved.

He makes his living behind a rock-solid left side of the offensive line, led by Guard Steve Hutchinson and future Hall-of-Fame Tackle Walter Jones. The 31 year-old Jones is an absolute physical specimen of a football player, a 6-5, 308 pound man who can be described as lean, a man who despite his size has absolutely no trace of awkwardness. In his ninth year of professional football, Jones is at the top of his game; coming into today’s action, he has the staggering distinction of not having surrendered a sack in two years.

This protection has allowed Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to enjoy a bounceback season from his sub-par 2004. Although the Seahawks number one receiver Darrel Jackson is out with an injury, Hasselbeck has two dependable targets in veterans Bobby Engram and Joe Jurevicius, the erstwhile Giant who seems to have finally harnessed his considerable physical skills.

But despite the excellent offenses on the field today, it is the the defenses that rule the first quarter, as the first few possessions become a field position struggle. You can sense that these teams are very evenly matched, and the mostly scoreless first quarter has the taut intensity of a good pitcher’s duel.

It is the Seahawks who break through first. From their own 25, Matt Hasselbeck fires a bomb downfield for Bobby Engram, who gets tangled up with Giants safety Brent Alexander, yielding a 29-yard defensive pass interference penalty. Two plays later, Hasselbeck heaves a pass towards the end zone for the 6-5 Joe Jurevicius. Corey Webster, the Giants rookie cornerback who is making his first career start, is step-for-step with Jurevicius, but he overanxiously mistimes his leap for the ball, and Jurevicius plucks it over the top for the Seattle touchdown. Qwest Field erupts in a deep roar as the home team draws first blood.



As the teams switch sides for the second quarter, the defensive struggle resumes, with both sides biting and scratching for field position and exchanging punts. The game is intense and briskly paced, and the Qwest Field crowd grows more into it with the passing of each play. A modern, elegant stadium, Qwest Field has two canopies that cover the stands to shield fans from Seattle downpours, but also have the effect of trapping sound inside the stadium. As the intensity of this game continues to build, the Seattle crowd discovers that it can be an effective “12th Man,” ratcheting up the noise and flustering the visiting Giants. On one set of downs in the second quarter, the Giants commit a staggering five false start penalties. Five false start penalties in one set of downs! It has to be a record.

The Seahawks appear poised to take a significant edge when they move into Giant territory on the next series. When Matt Hasselbeck completes a crossing pattern to Bobby Engram on 3rd and 6 for a first down near field goal range, the Giants appear on the brink of going down by two scores in this tight contest. But Will Allen, trailing Engram all the while, rips the ball loose on the tackle, and then recovers the fumble himself, giving the Giants the ball and staving off a potentially perilous situation. Finally, the Giants are able to put some successful plays together -- some Eli Manning throws and a pass interference call were key -- moving down to the Seattle 21 before Jay Feely bangs in a 39 yard field goal, getting the Giants on the board with four and a half minutes to go in the half. Allen’s forced fumble was big; it could have very easily turned into a 10-0 game, but now the Giants are right there at 7-3.

And when the Giants stuff the Seahawks again on the next series -- thanks in large part to a forced fumble on 2nd down by Osi Umenyiora on which the Seahawks retained possession – the Giants offense gets right at it again. Eli Manning completes four passes on this drive for a total of sixty-two yards, bringing the Giants all the way down to the Seattle 7 with 1:23 remaining in the half. After two incomplete passes, Eli hits Jeremy Shockey in the end zone, who catches the ball and then gets rocked by Seahawks safety Jordan Babineaux, a blow that sends Shockey thudding to the ground and jars the ball out of his arms. However the officials rule the play a touchdown, based on the logic that because there was a point during which Shockey had both possession of the ball and two feet down -- if only for the briefest instant – it is a touchdown at that moment, play over. Because the play took place during the last two minutes of the half, however, it must first go up to the booth for review. The evidence is still inconclusive: Shockey’s second foot may have grazed the ground, but it may not have. But since the burden of proof is on the side of overturning the call, the lack of indisputable evidence means that the touchdown stands. After much ado, it is now 10-7 Giants; Qwest Field falls silent, and the Giants celebrate, and a minute later, they trot into the locker room with a halftime lead.

At this point, it appears that the Giants have absorbed the Seahawks' best shots, and having weathered the storm, should be poised to come out strong in the second half. Aside from the somewhat flukish Jurevicius touchdown, the defense has really put the clamps down, having not allowed so much as a first down since. At the half, the numbers significantly favor the Giants: they have outgained their hosts 212 to 126, and hold a lopsided edge in time of possession, 18:40 to 11:20.

Indeed, it is a confident Giants team that emerges from halftime, and their confidence rises further when an errant Matt Hasselbeck pass on the Seahawks’ opening series is intercepted by Brent Alexander, giving the Giants the ball at the Seattle 26, and setting up the reliable Jay Feely’s 43-yard field goal, which extends the Giants lead to 13-7.

The Seahawks ensuing possession is yet another three and out, and with the Seahawks on the ropes, the Giants offense immediately goes back to work. Runs of twenty and seven yards by Tiki Barber, and eleven yard Eli completion to Shockey give the Giants a 1st and 10 at the Seattle 36. Points are a near-certainty: a field goal would put the Giants up by two scores, while a touchdown would give them a commanding 20-7 lead. The Giants go for the jugular, calling a deep corner pass to the resurgent Amani Toomer. But pressure from the Seahawks flushes Eli out of the pocket, and in a youthful panic, he blindly flails a high, arcing duck in the direction of no one in particular. Seattle safety Michael Boulware gratefully camps under it and makes the interception, bringing it all the way back to midfield, and in the blink of an eye, the momentum has just shifted as the Qwest Field crowd snaps out of its dormancy.

So, too, does Shaun Alexander, who the Giants have admirably held in check so far by playing hard, disciplined defense. But on this drive, Alexander carries four times for forty yards, and then, quicker than you can figure out how to spell J-U-R-E-V-I-C-I-U-S, Hasselbeck hits the former Giant for their second touchdown of the day, this time in front of the struggling Curtis Deloach. The drive took all of six plays and two minutes; the lead, and the momentum, belong again to the Seahawks.

And when the Giants take possession again, the Qwest Field crowd dials up the intensity on the stunned visitors, which effectively causes the Giants to torpedo themselves with three penalties on the next series. For as great a season as this has been for the Giants, penalties have been a persistent source of vexation. In this game, they will have committed 16 penalties for 114 yards, gifts that the best of teams would struggle to overcome, especially against a good opponent like Seattle. Colonel Tom deserves a lot of credit for the Giants’ re-emergence as a contender, but for a coach with a reputation as such a disciplinarian, his team’s penchant for stupid penalties is puzzling.

After the Seahawks get the ball back, the Giants defense regroups, holding Seattle to another three and out; the Giants regain possession as the fourth quarter dawns. After driving to midfield, they fail to convert a key 3rd and 2, and are forced to punt the ball back to Seattle with 11:14 remaining.

It is at this point that the Giants defense has an untimely collapse, as the Seahawks mount a methodical, emphatic drive on them. Matt Hasselbeck completes five of six passes for 69 yards: three of these passes are caught by Joe Jurevicius, who is torturing his former team and their inexperienced cornerbacks, and the last of them goes to Bobby Engram, who jukes and muscles his way for a tough 10 yard gain on 3rd and 11, setting up a 4th and 1 from the Seattle 4. Up by 1 point, Mike Holmgren makes the gutsy call and goes for it; Shaun Alexander squeezes his way through an opening for the first down before grinding across the plane for… no signal… for the touchdown. The PAT makes it 21-13 Seahawks, and with 4:33 remaining, time is running out on the Giants.



Fortunately for the Giants, they have a talented, unflappable young quarterback who has a knack for rising to the occasion. Although it is only his second year in the league, Giants fans have become well-acquainted with Eli Manning’s 2-minute face. It is almost a sleepy face, with his eyes two-thirds open and his lower jaw slightly protruding, betraying only the slightest trace of tension. Like a kid locked into his video games, the face manages to be languid but serious, showing nothing but complete immersion in the task at hand. The face exudes a kind of eerie calm, an expression that would fit perfectly on the face of a serial killer who seems almost normal, but who gives himself away by being a little too calm: It’s the quiet ones you’ve gotta watch. And after a good Chad Morton return brings the Giants to their 39, Eli, his face, and his offense trot onto the field, attempting to replicate the grace under pressure that has been displayed this year against Dallas, Denver, and Minnesota.

Young Eli does not disappoint, leading his team downfield with surgical precision, and even showing his mettle by running for a key nine yards. From the Seattle 25, the Giants face a 3rd and 10, and Eli finds Jeremy Shockey – who, for his part, has played a gritty, brilliant game -- for a clutch 13-yard first down, taking the Giants down to the 12. On the next play, Eli lofts one over the top for Amani Toomer, who manages to secure the ball and keep two feet in bounds as he’s falling out of the back of the endzone. Touchdown, Giants, says the back judge official. Another replay of a Giants touchdown call yields a similar conclusion to the earlier Shockey touchdown: A tiny part of Toomer’s heel might have touched the white line at the back of the end zone, but it might not have. Either way, there is certainly no conclusive evidence in any of the available replays, and the touchdown stands.


Still down by two, the Giants must now convert a two-point conversion to tie the game, the second time they’ve been faced with this nerve-wracking predicament in the past three weeks. They line up in a stacked trips formation, and Jeremy Shockey runs a quick stop pattern, finding a small bubble in the Seahawks coverage in which Eli is able to squeeze a pass. Shockey makes the grab for the successful conversion; Eli has done it again.

But there are still two minutes left, and the Giants know from their experience of two weeks ago that they're not out of the woods yet. This time, the Giants defense steps up -- aided by a penalty on the formerly invincible Walter Jones, who has met his match in the Giants rising star of a defensive end, Osi Umenyiora -- producing another Seahawks three and out, and when Chad Morton niftily darts Tom Rouen’s punt back to midfield on a key eleven yard return, it is the Giants who are poised to position themselves for a game-winning field goal.

The offense doesn’t miss a beat, as Eli hits Shockey for eight and then Burress on a key third-down slant for eleven, bringing the ball down to the Seahawks 31, which is the outer edge of reasonably sure Feely Field Goal range. Tiki Barber grinds out some tough nine yards on the next two plays, bringing the ball to the 22 and setting up Feely for a 48 yard, game winning field goal attempt with four seconds remaining. He has drilled a 39 yarder and a 43 yarder today, and has been extremely reliable in this his first year with the Giants, going 23 for 25 up to this point. A free-agent acquisition, he has been just what the doctor ordered, stabilizing our field-goal kicking and providing excellent kickoffs that have consistently denied our opponents good field position. A forty-yarder is no chip-shot, but it is also no challenge for a good kicker like Feely. He lines up his kick from the left hashmark as the 67,102 onlookers at Qwest Field hold their breath and pray for a reprieve. The snap is good, the spot is good, and Feely’s kick pretty much stays on a direct line from the left hashmark to the left upright. As it sails through the air, it can either veer left, stay straight and hit the upright, or, less likely, move right a fraction of a degree and sail through. It veers left. The Seattle crowd goes bananas, and we’re going to overtime.


Onto the overtime coin toss, one of the more interesting things in sports to see on T.V. Jeff Feagles, representing the Giants as a Captain and playing in his NFL record 283rd consecutive game, calls Heads, which seems to make sense in the same way that if you playing the Giants in Rock-Paper-Scissors, you would expect them to throw Rock. But it turns up tails, and the Seahawks elect to receive. The Giants defense, however, summons its will power and holds the Seahawks three and out, punctuated by a successful third-down blitz by middle linebacker Antonio Pierce. After the Seattle punt, the Giants take over at midfield, once again in good position to end this classic game.

The drive appears to be going nowhere fast as they lose three yards on the first two plays, but then Eli drills a huge 23-yard square-in to Plaxico Burress which brings the Giants to the Seattle 31, and a gives them a fresh set of downs to work their way into more advantageous field goal position. On the next play, Eli hits Jeremy Shockey on a little out, who brings the ball in and turns upfield. But Seattle’s LeRoy Hill wraps up Shockey and jars the ball loose, where, for a moment, all bets are off as twenty-two grown men descend on the synthetic inflatable spheroid known as The Pigskin. Tim Carter, the Giants underutilized speedster, bails the Giants out by recovering the ball at the 20-yard line, and the Giants exhale. But the savvy Mike Holmgren challenges the play call, perhaps informed of the strong possibility that Shockey never actually had possession before Hill’s hit caused the “fumble,” which would render the play an incomplete pass and nullify the sixteen yard gain. Upon further review, the Seahawks finally get the best of a challenge; the play goes as an incompletion, sending the Giants back to the thirty-six.

And when the Giants next two plays yield zero yards, Coughlin faces a difficult decision. Does he send out Jay Feely for a 54-yarder, after he has just missed one from 40? Coughlin says yes, and Feely trots out. The snap is good, the spot is good, and the kick appears to be good before dying in the endzone, woefully short. Once again, the Seahawks have new life, and the Giants defense again has to strap up their helmets and dig in their heels as Seattle takes over close to midfield.

But just when it appears that the Giants have finally given the Seahawks one chance too many, the defense valiantly keeps the Seahawks out of field goal range, bottling up Shaun Alexander on a first down run and a second down pass. Aside from the three touchdown drives, the Big Blue defense has turned in a dominant performance. They trot off the field triumphantly, having given their offense another shot as Eli and the boys take over at the 20.

As clutch as the Giants defense has been, the Seahawks defense has been the exact opposite. Needing to prevent a touchdown in the late fourth quarter, they failed; needing to prevent the subsequent two-point conversion, they failed; needing to prevent the Giants from getting into field goal range at the end of regulation, they failed; and then, in overtime, charged with the same task, they have already failed once. And when Tiki Barber follows a beautifully blocked counter through a gaping hole and explodes untouched into the secondary, implausibly splitting two Seahawk defensive backs on the way to a 49 yard run that takes the Giants down to the Seattle 31, it appears that Seattle’s defense has failed them yet again.

The Giants can muster only four yards in the next three plays, moving them to the Seattle 27, and setting up Jay Feely’s third attempt to win the game in the past thirty minutes, this time from 45 yards. It’s a little longer than they might have liked, but still eminently makeable, and Feely lines up to attempt a kick that would allow him to laugh off the previous two attempts in an “Aw, you know, it’s a crazy game, but I’m just glad we came out on top” way. But it surprises no one when he misses; in fact, the only surprising thing is the manner in which does – it’s short! – showing just how much his mechanics have been compromised by whatever is going through his head. Qwest Field is giddy as the Seahawks once again get away with something; despite their poor play over the last several series’, they are today's Cat with Nine Lives, or Teflon Don.



With 6 minutes left, the Seattle offense takes the field again, and when Hasselbeck gets flagged for an eleven yard intentional grounding penalty of first down, they seem to be well on their way to continuing their futility. But on the next play, a blown coverage by rookie Corey Webster allows D.J. Hacket to get wide open, and Hasselbeck hits him for a 38 yard gain. A big break for the Seahawks, and they are in business at the Giant 38 as Qwest Field quakes. The Giants defense, dazed by this sudden reversal of fortune, cannot recover in time to prevent Shaun Alexander from ripping off two consecutive runs of 8 and 13 yards, moving the Seahawks into chip-shot range at the Giant 17. A couple of runs and a “Centering” of the ball bring 4th down and Seattle kicker Josh Brown onto the field. His 36-yard field goal is not pretty, but it sneaks through the uprights. The Seahawks have somehow won this game, and the Giants now must take the red-eye back to the East Coast, left to contemplate their second bitter defeat in the past three weeks.



The Seahawks are now sitting pretty atop the NFC at 9-2, while the Giants have moved back into a tie with Dallas at 7-4. Now two games behind Seattle in the conference, they have squandered a terrific opportunity to stake a strong claim to home-field advantage in the playoffs, a claim that was eminently within reach about three times this afternoon. But as painful as this loss was, it wasn’t discouraging. Although they are two games behind them in the standings, it would be hard to argue that the Giants are not a better team than the Seahawks, who they outgained 490-355, with 25 first-downs to the Seahawks 17. More importantly, the Giants offense was repeatedly able to move the ball in the game’s critical drives, while the defense was able to stop the Seahawks. Save for Jay Feely’s monumental choke for the Giants ages – there is really no other way to put it – they would have won this game. And although the road to the Super Bowl will probably go through Seattle now, you can be sure that the Giants would relish another crack at these guys.

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