SEATTLE – After walking past the stunned fans and through the familiar notes of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” blaring from the Qwest Field speakers, after entering a locker room filled with crying teammates despite their head coach’s words of encouragement, Lofa Tatupu pulled his brand new T-shirt over his head and wore it with pride.
Across his chest were the words: “Seattle Seahawks: NFC West champions.”
Most of Tatupu’s teammates were in no mood to celebrate the occasion, but the Seahawks’ Pro Bowl middle linebacker was holding his head high.
“I’m always so negative after every loss, so I figured, hey, we’ve got some good news,” Tatupu said after the Seahawks lost 20-17 to San Diego on a last-minute Chargers touchdown Sunday. “I’m not all excited – the loss is still stinging – but it is what it is.
“We’re division champs.”
Most of Tatupu’s teammates found it more difficult to see the silver lining Sunday afternoon. Despite winning a third consecutive division title because of San Francisco’s loss to Arizona a few minutes earlier, the Seahawks were still numb from Sunday’s stunning loss to the best team in the AFC.
Linebacker Julian Peterson was downright angry. Free safety Ken Hamlin was terse when answering questions from the media. Strong safety Michael Boulware and wide receiver Deion Branch, two of the more obvious reasons for the loss, fought back tears.
It wasn’t the kind of postgame celebration typically found after a division title.
“You don’t feel good about it, obviously,” fullback Mack Strong said in a locker room that was flowing with tears, not champagne. “We’re not going the direction we need to be going. But, at the same time, it still says a lot about this team and what we’ve accomplished so far. We’ve got to concentrate on the positives and go from there.”
The main positive from Sunday’s game, in addition to the division title, was that the Seahawks (8-7) played the Chargers (13-2) even for most of the afternoon. But, as has been the case for three weeks in a row, Seattle lost a lead in the fourth quarter and gave a game away.
Vincent Jackson’s 37-yard touchdown reception after beating Boulware and Kelly Herndon with 29 seconds left led to the Chargers’ fourth comeback win of the year. While the Seahawks were proud to have battled San Diego so tough, they were devastated by the way the game ended.
“We don’t have anything to be happy about,” fullback Mack Strong said. “We played hard, and we played the best team in the league right now, but we had them beat. We step away from here knowing that we played a very fine football team, but we have to find a way to win those games.”
While the Seahawks’ offense struggled for most of the first half – Seattle’s only two long drives concluded with interceptions inside San Diego’s 25-yard line – the defense kept Seattle in the game. San Diego had just 131 yards of total offense, all but 9 of which came on the ground. The 9 passing yards came on Philip Rivers’ only completion of the first half, a touchdown pass to Jackson with 3:18 remaining in the second quarter.
As the Seahawks ran off the field trailing 7-0, a spattering of boos trickled out from some of the disgruntled fans. San Diego expanded that lead to 10-0 after one offensive possession in the second half.
One single play – on Seattle’s second drive of the third quarter – seemed to breathe life into the Seahawks’ offense. Wide receiver Bobby Engram hauled in a 15-yard pass to convert a third-and-8, then made an emphatic first-down gesture to get Qwest Field rocking. Three plays later, Shaun Alexander broke free for a 33-yard touchdown run.
“I felt like there was a lull,” Engram said of the atmosphere in the stadium as the offense struggled to move the football. “I just felt like we needed a little energy, a little excitement on the sidelines. And I wanted to get the fans involved.”
The Chargers added another field goal on their next possession, going ahead 13-7, but Alexander scored again two minutes into the fourth quarter for Seattle’s first lead of the game, at 14-13. A Josh Brown field goal with 5:07 left pushed that lead to 17-13, but the Chargers were not finished yet.
Rivers, who mostly had a horrific afternoon, engineered a five-play, 59-yard drive after the two-minute warning, with his high, arcing pass to Jackson putting San Diego ahead for good. The Seahawks never got past midfield on their final drive, and in the end they lost for the third week in a row.
“I’m grateful of being in the playoffs. But we’ve got to get it done, or we could be going home early,” Peterson said. “It’s as simple as that. Three losses in a row, hey, it’s looking bleak.
“I’m not saying we can’t come out of it – Pittsburgh’s done it (in winning three road games en route to Super Bowl XL) – but it’s rough. If we can’t win this next game and get some sort of momentum, it’s going to be hard for us.”
Coach Mike Holmgren tried to keep a positive slant on the afternoon. He described the Seahawks’ post-game locker room as a bunch of “old, stodgy guys crying like babies,” so he told his players to keep their chins up.
“We got some help, and normally you don’t count on help,” he said of the 49ers’ 26-20 loss to Arizona, “but we are the division champs, and that’s a hard thing to do in this league.
“… People can say what they want, but I, frankly, don’t care.”
Tatupu also was holding his head high, and he was doing it while wearing a brand new T-shirt.
“It was a tough game,” he said. “But if you look at the grand scheme of things, we’re in the playoffs. It’s not something that can be taken away from you, and it’s not something that will be hanging over our heads going into the final week of the season.
“Does the loss feel bad? It hurts, yeah, it does. I don’t know how merry my Christmas will be, but you’ve got to move on.”