- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

SEATTLE — The team whose local newspaper proclaimed itself the “City of Self Doubt” left no doubt last night it is the best team in the NFC.

Propelled by two first-quarter takeaways, the return of running back Shaun Alexander and the continued steady play of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, the Seattle Seahawks dominated the Carolina Panthers 34-14 at raucous Qwest Field to clinch the franchise’s first Super Bowl berth.

“To beat them the way we did, I don’t want to say it’s surprising, but it’s quite an accomplishment because they’re a very good team,” Hasselbeck said. “I’m a little bit in shock right now. I hope people took pictures out there so I can look back at them later.”

Before looking at those snapshots, Hasselbeck and the Seahawks have one more step to go. Seattle (15-3) will face Pittsburgh on Feb. 5 in Super Bowl XL at Detroit’s Ford Field.

The Seahawks never trailed and led 17-0 two plays into the second quarter.

Carolina’s bid to join this year’s Pittsburgh team and New England in 1985 as the only teams to win three postseason road games ended because of four turnovers.

“Everything that team did today was superb,” Carolina receiver Steve Smith said. “They outplayed us. They outhustled us. They just flat-out beat us.”

Seattle led 20-7 at halftime and sealed the game on its first drive of the second half, a 65-yard match capped by Hasselbeck’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Darrell Jackson.

Hasselbeck completed his first eight passes and finished 20-for-28 for 219 yards and two scores. He has 12 touchdowns and one interception in his last six games.

“We had a good game plan, and we wanted to come out passing the ball,” Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. “Matt’s not unlike a lot of quarterbacks who hit their first two or three passes and then are off and running.”

Alexander, limited to six carries last week against the Redskins before departing with a concussion, was back to his old self, carrying 34 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns.

“I’ve always believed that if you don’t think big and dream big, you won’t get somewhere,” Alexander said.

Seattle also played well on defense. Quarterback Jake Delhomme was a horrid 15-for-35 for 196 yards and three interceptions, and Smith was held to five catches for 33 yards. Carolina’s run game became impotent (36 yards) when Nick Goings — replacing the injured DeShaun Foster — left the game in the first quarter following a helmet-to-helmet collision.

“We did so much film work that they didn’t surprise us,” said Seahawks defensive end Rocky Bernard, who had two sacks. “We felt like we could get after them. We shut them down pretty early and that built our confidence and allowed us to play more aggressive.”

Seattle’s offense had two touchdowns and a field goal in its first four possessions to take control.

The Seahawks’ first scoring drive was set up by Hasselbeck’s 28-yard pass to backup quarterback Seneca Wallace. It was Wallace’s first catch of the season. On the next play, tight end Jerramy Stevens caught a 17-yard touchdown pass.

Moments later, Seahawks rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu stepped in front of Smith to pick off Delhomme and returned it 21 yards to the Carolina 20. Seattle’s drive stalled and it settled for a 24-yard field goal by Josh Brown.

Seattle free safety Marquand Manuel intercepted Delhomme on the Panthers’ next drive and brought it back 32 yards to the Carolina 17. Alexander ran 15 yards on second-and-9 from the 16 and scored two plays later from a yard out on the second snap of the second quarter.

“Carolina is a tough team when they’re ahead,” Seattle defensive end Bryce Fisher said. “But if they take a shot in the mouth, they have a hard time.”

Delhomme did not complete a pass until the first minute of the second quarter, and the Panthers did not earn a first down on their own until the 12:02 mark of the second period — the same time Smith caught his first pass of the game.

Although Smith was limited to two first-half catches for 8 yards, he still made an impact when he scored on a 59-yard punt return 9:05 before halftime. The play was initially brought back because of an illegal block on Carolina’s Vinny Ciurciu. But officials conferred and ruled no penalty took place, giving Smith his fifth career punt return for a touchdown.

It was Carolina’s only highlight. Seattle regained the momentum with a 10-play, 57-yard drive, culminated by Brown’s 39-yard field goal.

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