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Monday, December 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hawks lose their grip in loss to Cardinals

Seattle Times staff reporter

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Seahawks were riding high.

A week earlier they rallied for their most important road win of the season. Their two main offensive stars were back and working into last season's form. They were one win and a San Francisco loss Sunday from their third straight NFC West title.

And they were facing the division doormats, the 3-9 Arizona Cardinals.

Everything was in place for a victory. Instead, the Seahawks were dealt a disappointing 27-21 loss.

Or rather, they dealt themselves the loss. The Seahawks hurt themselves with turnovers and their worst start to a game this season.

Still, Seattle had one last chance to win. These Cardinals had been the NFL's kings of collapse, after all. They had lost three games in the final three minutes this season and lost leads of 14-0 and 17-7 to the Seahawks on Sunday.

The Seahawks, on the flip side, had established themselves as the kings of late-game heroics this season, with four last-minute wins. They were in position to win late again, but this comeback fizzled.

Wide receiver Deion Branch caught an 18-yard pass at the Arizona 7-yard line on fourth-and-20 with less than a minute to play. Branch tried to reach for the first down, but the ball was spotted short.

There was a measurement and a review of the spot. It was upheld, and the Cardinals only had to run out the clock to win.

"I tried to do what I could to get there," Branch said. "I knew where I was. Somebody had to miss a tackle."

Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson didn't, and that was that.

Seattle (8-5) lost a chance to clinch the NFC West, as the 49ers lost to Green Bay. That will have to wait until at least Thursday, when the Seahawks play the 49ers at Qwest Field.

Perhaps more importantly, the Seahawks dropped out of a three-way tie for the NFC's second-best record, losing ground in their quest for a top-two seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

But it was mistakes and missed opportunities that weighed on the players' and coaches' minds after Sunday's game, not the postseason.

The Seahawks lost three fumbles, miscues by the aforementioned superstars, running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. The third came from 2005 Pro Bowl fullback Mack Strong. Two of the fumbles led to Cardinals touchdowns.

"We didn't play like champions, top to bottom," Alexander said. "I led the charge of not playing like a champion. When it's me, Matt and Mack, of all three people, it can't be us three, ever."

The Cardinals (4-9) opened the scoring on their first play. Rookie quarterback Matt Leinart rolled out to his left and threw deep for a 56-yard touchdown to receiver Bryant Johnson. Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant fell down in coverage on the play, leaving Johnson wide open.

Arizona went ahead 14-0 after Alexander's first-quarter fumble, driving 24 yards and scoring on Edgerrin James' 7-yard run.

The Seahawks were reeling but responded quickly. After Nate Burleson returned the kickoff 32 yards, Hasselbeck hit D.J. Hackett for 47 yards, taking Seattle to the Cardinals' 23. The two connected again for a 23-yard TD on the next play.

Trailing 17-7 with 3:14 left in the first half, the Seahawks went back to work on offense. Hasselbeck ran an efficient quick-tempo offense, highlighted by his 18-yard scramble on third-and-13, then found Branch for 20 yards after a pump fake.

On the next play, Burleson hauled in a 5-yard pass for a TD, celebrating by pretending to put sunblock all over himself.

The momentum was with Seattle, and after a missed field goal on the Cardinals' first drive of the second half, the Seahawks charged down the field for another TD. This time it was Hasselbeck to Darrell Jackson for 2 yards, Jackson's team-leading 10th TD catch of the year.

The Cardinals regained the lead, 24-21, early in the fourth quarter. From there, the Seahawks defense held the Cardinals to a field goal with 3:30 left. Seattle would need a TD to win.

The final Seahawks drive, from their own 17, started out well, Jackson catching a 23-yard pass and Alexander running for 12 yards.

Then, disaster.

Former Seahawk Chike Okeafor blew around the right side and sacked Hasselbeck for an 8-yard loss on third-and-12, leaving the Seahawks with one last chance to get at least a first down. It didn't happen.

"It's hard to ... go 83 yards to score a touchdown in the last two minutes of a game," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "But we got down in there and we missed it by a foot."

Clinching another division title and a playoff spot won't have to wait a whole week, though, with this week's game on Thursday.

"You don't want that bad taste in your mouth, so you want to get back out there," linebacker Lofa Tatupu said.

José Miguel Romero: 206-464-2409 or jromero@seattletimes.com

Matt vs. Matt
Rookie QB Matt Leinart made his ninth pro start Sunday and faced Seahawks veteran Matt Hasselbeck. Their stats:
QB Matt Hasselbeck
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rating
28 20 243 3 0 133.5
QB Matt Leinart
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rating
34 21 232 2 1 89.3

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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