- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

There were never any questions about Seattle’s offense as the Seahawks earned playoff berths in 2003 and 2004. Shaun Alexander had been one of the NFL’s top running backs for a few years. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck went to the Pro Bowl in 2003. Tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson were the league’s top left side of an offensive line.

But the 2005 Seahawks are 12-2 and on the verge of clinching home field advantage in the NFC playoffs because of a rebuilt defense that has allowed the third-fewest points and rushing yards in the conference.

Only end Grant Wistrom, cornerback Marcus Trufant and linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski were regulars on the 2004 defense that ranked 10th in the NFC in points allowed and 11th against the run.

End Bryce Fisher and tackle Chuck Darby — the only 2005 starter who’s 30 years old — were signed as free agents as was currently injured cornerback Andre Dyson. Linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill are rookies. Tackle Marcus Tubbs and safeties Michael Boulware and Marquand Manuel were backups last season.

All those moves made the defense younger, faster and better. The Seahawks have a league-high 45 sacks, their most in seven years. Opponents are averaging just 3.8 yards a carry and have run for just four touchdowns as Seattle has won a franchise-record 10 straight games to clinch the first first-round bye in team history.

Having one or two playoff home games will be crucial for a team that’s 11-12 on the road but 21-4 at Qwest Field in last three seasons, including 7-0 this year heading into Sunday’s possible Super Bowl preview against AFC regular-season king Indianapolis (13-1).

Just last week at lowly Tennessee, Seattle had to scramble back from a 24-14 deficit to win 28-24.

“In years past, we have not been able to bounce back from something like that, but this team is different,” said coach Mike Holmgren, still seeking the first playoff victory of his seven-year regime.

With the Colts stunned by the death of coach Tony Dungy’s 18-year-old son and likely resting many of their regulars, Sunday’s game won’t give much of an indication if the Seahawks — 1-2 against currently playoff-bound teams — are for real.

But they certainly have the right quarterback and running back.

Hasselbeck, 30, has completed 50 of 67 passes for 609 yards with eight touchdowns and just one interception the last three games and leads the NFC with a 96.3 passer rating.

“Matt’s just come of age,” Holmgren said. “This is his third year playing all the time and he is making the most of it.”

Alexander, 28, leads the NFL with 1,668 rushing yards and his 24 touchdowns are just three shy of the record. And despite handling the ball 343 times, Alexander hasn’t lost a fumble.

For good measure, the 31-year-old Jones has given up just one sack in more than 1,000 dropbacks dating to 2003. And the 28-year-old Hutchinson hasn’t been flagged for a penalty all season.

Huizenga bails — Miami owner Wayne Huizenga has dropped plans to develop the area around Dolphins Stadium into a permanent Super Bowl site with shops and restaurants and is focusing on upgrading the stadium. Huizenga said he needed the NFL to award him a Super Bowl at least every three years in order to make the investment worth it.

“It’s off the table,” Huizenga said. “A lot of people at the NFL liked the idea, but we can’t get the owners to support the idea.”

Generous back — First-year Browns running back Reuben Droughns celebrated becoming the team’s first 1,000-yard runner since 1985 by giving diamond watches, valued between $3,000 and $5,000, to all nine of his linemen, two fullbacks and two tight ends.

“I got some very good champagne for the guys in Denver when I went over 1,000 yards last year,” Droughns said. “But because a 1,000-yard season hadn’t been done [here] in a while, I had to do more.”

The recipients were overwhelmed by Droughns’ gifts.

“Spectacular,” guard Cosey Coleman said. “It doesn’t get any better than this. I don’t get many gifts, and this one is off the charts.”

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