SEATTLE -- There are numerous ways to describe Matt Hasselbeck's performance in the Seahawks' 41-36 wild-card upset victory over the Saints on Saturday. However, none is better than coach Pete Carroll's summation:
"Matt Hasselbeck was ridiculously good," he said.
So simple. So succinct. So utterly accurate.
In a game in which Hasselbeck was as big an underdog as his team -- which some called the worst in playoff history after entering the tournament with a 7-9 record -- he stared down his doubters and the Saints' respected pass defense by completing 22 of 35 passes for 272 yards and four touchdowns, with only one interception. On several occasions he had not only defenders and a sellout crowd of 66,336 fans shaking their heads, but also his teammates.
"He had a few balls he had to throw probably a full second before he wanted to," backup Charlie Whitehurst said. "The one with the double-move on Cameron Morrah? Just incredibly tough. The one to Mike Williams with two defenders on him? Amazing. It's like, if you hit three out of 10 of those you feel pretty good about it. But he hit every one on them. Awesome."
The irony is, part of the city said during the week that Whitehurst should get the start after filling in solidly the previous week in a playoff-clinching win over the Rams, while Hasselbeck was out with a hip injury. The attitude was: Why fix what isn't broken? Plus, Hasselbeck is in his 12th season and not under contract for 2011. Why not give Whitehurst a shot?
Hasselbeck did not acknowledge any motivation beyond winning the game, but tight end John Carlson was among a few teammates who said they noticed an "extra edge" to him during the week.
"Matt is the ultimate competitor," says Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant. "Anytime the odds are against him, that's usually when he steps up and has some of his greatest games."
There was a collective cringe among the sellout crowd when Hasselbeck threw an interception on his third pass attempt. New Orleans converted the takeaway into a touchdown and a 10-0 lead and appeared to be on its way to covering the 10½-point spread that made Seattle the largest home underdog in playoff history.
However, when Carroll told him to forget about it and move on, Hasselbeck was good. He immediately led the Seahawks on a six-play, 57-yard drive, completing each of his four passes, the last an 11-yard strike to Carlson.
And after the Saints pushed the margin back to 10 with a 5-yard touchdown run by Julius Jones, Hasselbeck led a five-play, 70-yard drive on which he completed each of his three passes -- including the stunning 39-yard floater to Morrah, followed by a 7-yard strike to Carlson.
"I was anxious to see Hasselbeck play today," said cornerback Jordan Babineaux. "Here's a guy who has the experience of the postseason, been to the postseason, has led this team to victory numerous times, and when we played the Saints earlier he ripped them apart. I told the guys earlier in the week that 8 (Hasselbeck's jersey number) was going to come through and win this game for us."
The victory was by no means a one-man show. Running back Marshawn Lynch may have had the play of the game when he scored on a 67-yard run to with 3:22 to play, after the Saints had cut the lead to 34-30. Lynch was touched by no fewer than eight defenders, and his stiff-arm of cornerback Tracy Porter is sure to take a prominent place in Seahawks lore. "Greatest run I've ever seen," says backup Justin Forsett.
The Saints were nearly out of runners early in the fourth quarter. Leading rushers Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas were placed on injured reserve during the week, and Reggie Bush left with a leg injury at the end of the third quarter; and Jones followed him to the sideline for good early in the fourth.
That put the game squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Drew Brees, who attempted 60 passes. He completed 39 for 404 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers.
The Saints were hurt by their inability to consistently convert in the red zone. They settled for field goals on three of their seven trips inside the Seattle 20, while the Seahawks scored touchdowns on two of their three trips inside the New Orleans 20. On each score, Hasselbeck capitalized on what appeared to be busted coverage by the Saints, who were playing without injured safety Malcom Jenkins, arguably their top defender this year.
The win was Hasselbeck's fifth in a row at home in the playoffs. Even more noteworthy is how he has played after missing a game. In his last four outings after returning from injury, he is a combined 82-of-127 for 1,058 yards with 12 touchdowns and one interception.
"I don't know what it is," he said when asked about it.
Nor does he know if this will be his final season in Seattle. He looked like a man smelling the roses as he left the field. He stopped to take a picture with his kids, then walked off with 5-year-old son Henry on his shoulders.
"As a football player, you never know when your last play is going to be," he said. "You really don't. It's tough, but that's just football. I'm sort of just trained (that way); it' sort of my mentality that you never know. You just never know."