By SCOTT M. JOHNSON
DENVER – Thrust into the role of spoilers after a horrific start this season, the Seattle Seahawks haven’t even been successful at that.
The Seahawks had their second chance in three weeks to help the Oakland Raiders’ quest for an AFC West title, but lost to the Denver Broncos again. This time, Denver used two first-half turnovers to take an early lead, and never looked back in a 31-24 win.
Amid the coldest weather ever for a Seahawks game, Seattle couldn’t put a halt to Denver’s six-game winning streak. The Seahawks (5-9) rallied back from a big early deficit, but never caught Denver the rest of the way.
“We’re not playing for the playoffs, we’re just playing football,” coach Mike Holmgren said after being guaranteed of his first losing season as an NFL head coach. “They give tremendous effort, but, boy, we do dumb things. That’s indicative of a young team that’s pressing, trying to find its way. And that’s kind of what we are right now.”
The two biggest mistakes came from the arm of quarterback Jon Kitna, who was intercepted twice in the first 19 minutes to help the Broncos (10-4) build a 14-3 halftime lead.
Al Wilson intercepted a Kitna pass in triple coverage and returned it to the Seattle 7, setting up a Gus Frerotte-to-Ed McCaffrey touchdown pass with five minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Less than 10 minutes later, Jimmy Spencer intercepted a Kitna pass and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown – his second touchdown return against the Seahawks in three weeks.
It was one of the “dumb” plays to which Holmgren was referring.
“I probably should have called timeout” before the play, Kitna said. “We were rushing to get set. … It was just miscommunication.”
Rookie wide receiver Darrell Jackson lined up on the left side of the field, but was motioned to the other side by Kitna. Upon the snap of the ball, Kitna threw to Jackson’s side, expecting a slant pattern toward the middle of the field, while Jackson ran straight ahead past Spencer.
“It was a bad read,” Jackson said. “It was all my fault. It comes down to playing together a long time. I should have run the slant.”
Although the play would loom large at the end of the game, it did not bury the Seahawks. In fact, Seattle came out of halftime inspired despite the 14-3 deficit.
“It sucked, but there weren’t doubts,” wide receiver Derrick Mayes said of the halftime atmosphere. “You find yourself down 14-3 plenty of times. You can’t pack up the tent. As long as you have that attitude, you can put yourself in the position that we did today.”
Despite playing parts of the game without injured starters Jay Bellamy, Cortez Kennedy, Lamar King and Willie Williams, the Seattle defense held the AFC’s top-ranked offense to its second-lowest yardage total of the season (313). All the while, Kitna settled down to throw for a season-high 298 yards and three second-half touchdowns.
The Seahawks closed to within a touchdown, at 24-17, on Kitna’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Jackson with 9:21 remaining, only to fall behind by 14 after the Broncos responded with a six-play, 62-yard scoring drive.
Aided by a turnover on downs that was created when Reggie Brown broke through the Denver line to tackle punter Tom Rouen, the Seahawks closed to within seven points again when Kitna hit Sean Dawkins on a 22-yard touchdown pass with 2:28 to go. Dawkins got his hands on an onside kick, but the Broncos ultimately gained control and ran out the clock.
It would have been a nice time for the Seahawks to return a Raiders favor from last season, when Oakland knocked off Kansas City on the final Sunday to put Seattle into the playoffs. The Broncos are still on the Raiders’ heels in the AFC West race, and can clinch a playoff berth tonight if Buffalo loses or ties at Indianapolis.
As it turns out, the Seahawks’ last chance as spoilers will come this Saturday against those same Raiders at Husky Stadium.
“We’re just going to play to win every game,” said safety Reggie Tongue, who replaced Bellamy in the first quarter. “At the same time if we can stop somebody from getting in, we’re going to try to stop them.”