First things first: The Seattle Seahawks, by virtue of their 20-10 blanching of the Washington Seriously Sunburned Skins on Saturday, Jan. 14, and the early departure from the NFL playoffs of the Indianapolis Colts the next day, are the betting favorites to win Super Bowl XL. One problem, of course, is that the Hawks now have to face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Jan. 22. To earn a transcontinental trip to Qwest Field for the National Football Conference championship game, Carolina, the best road team since the Grateful Dead, mastered in a mere eight days both the Bears in Chicago and the Giants in New Jersey.
NFL playoffs at a glance.
Yahoo! NFL coverage.
But let's get back to the most important aspect of big-time sports: gambling. As of Tuesday, Jan. 17, Wager-sages had the Hawks four-point favorites against Carolina and gave them 8-5 odds to win the Super Bowl. Gamblers know something. The betting line, for example, had been Seattle over Washington by nine points all week. It jumped a half point the final day of wagering, indicating that money was moving in one direction because the gamblers had reached consensus: Seattle would win. Hawk money prevailed by half a point, and the win means plenty.
For one, the division-playoff victory means the Hawks will be one of the final three teams standing on Sunday. The National Conference battle starts at 3:30 p.m. Pacific time, after the noon AFC game has been decided. Either the Hawks or the Panthers will be in Detroit Feb. 5 to play the Denver Broncos or Pittsburgh Steelers in the Big One.
It also means the franchise no longer is a league laughingstock. Playoff victory had eluded the team since Dec. 22, 1984. The Hawks beat the spread despite the early loss of league most-valuable player Shaun Alexander (concussion) and three slick-fingered turnovers. The defense pressured opposing quarterback Mark Brunell and limited big plays. Matt Hasselbeck never lost control of his offense, hitting critical completions when the team most needed them. The Hawk QB (16 for 26, 215 yards, one rushing touchdown) came into the game with one finger raised to signify the proverbial "we're number one." When he trotted off a few minutes after time expired, he held up two digits in the "victory" sign. After Carolina, maybe he'll cross his ring and middle finger while jutting out his thumb to form an "XL."
But the Hawks simply can't commit stupid fumbles and beat Carolina, the league's top team in positive-turnover ratio.
"Almost always in the playoffs, if you have too many turnovers, you're going to lose," coach Mike Holmgren observed after the Skins game. He said a key to victory was the way his lesser ball carriers met the challenge when it was clear a slap-happy Shaun wouldn't return. Reserve RB Maurice Morris got essential short yardage for first downs. Fullback Mack Strong (one of five Hawks named to start in the Feb. 12 Pro Bowl game) answered an audible call and hustled for 32 yards late in the game, eating clock and frustrating the Skins defense. Holmgren also appropriately singled out Darrell Jackson. At one point during the second quarter, the press was informed that D-Jack's return from a back injury was "questionable." It proved to be more of a rhetorical question, as in: "How many great grabs is Jackson making today?" It was nine for 143 yards, including a 29-yard sliding touchdown reception and a sensational sideline catch that he somehow controlled after being flattened.
As for Alexander's condition, the coach said he's pretty sure the running back will be fine to play against the Panthers. Holmgren said that if he were to have shown Alexander a picture of a truck after the Washington game, "I'm pretty sure he'd know it was a truck and not a butterfly."
The fan spectacle, as usual, resembled the sports movie Fellini never made. Fans formed lines outside Pioneer Square bars before dawn Saturday. Loyalists in the southwest corner of Qwest seating stuck around in the driving rain for an hour after the victory. Outside the stadium, police presence seemed to discourage anything worse than a few scuffles that were reported. The attendance was third-best in Qwest Field history, but that promises to be eclipsed by the conference championship, tickets to which are all sold and remain available only via secondary sources.
Certain fans already are cashing out IRAs to raise the 20 grand or so required to hail the Hawks in Detroit Feb. 5. Some luck: The Seahawks' one Super Bowl appearance would happen during a rare non-Sunbelt year. National Football League officials apparently chose Detroit when the first choice, Duluth, proved unavailable because the annual Ice Carving Finals had claimed every room in the town's three motels.
In any case, if there is to be a Hawks Super Bowl, the serious betting money says the big party won't be in Michigan. It will be sprawled across the Pacific Northwest and may not end for days.