There was a time when the host baseball team came to bat in the bottom of the ninth to make three meaningless final outs even when the visiting team trailed after the top half of the inning and thus had already lost. The rule obviously changed, and today plenty of baseball games are 8-1/2 innings long. But the National Football League still mandates nearly meaningless games, and one was played in Green Bay on the year's first day, ending with the Packers beating the Seattle Seahawks 23-17.
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The 13-3 Hawks had, of course, already secured home-field advantage for their first and, if there is one, second playoff game. About all there was to keep sideline existentialists from proclaiming the game's ultimate meaninglessness was Shaun Alexander. The league's frontrunner for postseason plaudits got both numbers he wanted: a 28th touchdown to set a league season's record; and 73 ground yards to give him 1,880 and the NFL rushing title, which he missed by just a few feet last year.
"Now our second season starts," intoned Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, who kept key players out of some or all of the game, lest they get injured prior to the approaching final ascent toward a Super Bowl berth.
There had been a chance that Alexander would be used for only a few plays. But New York Giants runner Tiki Barber had passed Alexander by 53 yards. That meant the star Seahawk needed the entire first half to establish a safe distance from the Barber total. It also gave Green Bay the advantage of knowing that Alexander would carry the ball much of the time. It took him three tries near the goal line to get his touchdown with 13 minutes left in the second quarter, and most of his yards were hard-won.
Afterward, Holmgren said he had notified Alexander that the runner wouldn't play the second half, records or not. But the coach noted that there was great fan expectation to be met and "the offensive linemen wanted to do this for [Alexander]. He deserved to do this. Thank goodness he didn't get hurt."
Hawks coaches plan to rest players for a few days and enjoy the luxury of wondering which opponent will play them at Qwest Field on either Jan. 14 or 15. As a growing consensus of national pigskin experts has it, at Qwest the first-seeded Seahawks would be difficult to beat for any of the other five clubs (the Chicago Bears, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Giants, the Carolina Panthers, and the Washington Redskins) in the National Football Conference playoff bracket. Seattle's 11-game win streak — it probably would have been 12 had the Hawks really needed the Green Bay game — engenders that sort of unprecedented respect for the down-so-long franchise. And while the team's next opponent and play date aren't yet known, it's certain that the upcoming Hawks contest will be anything but meaningless.