SEATTLE – Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren was too busy to watch what turned out to be the most pivotal play in Saturday night's NFC wild-card game at Qwest Field. He was distracted with future plans as the Dallas Cowboys lined up for the potential game-winning field goal with 1:19 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"I was really focused on what we would do next if we got the ball back," Holmgren acknowledged. "I was going back to talk to [quarterback] Matt [Hasselbeck] about the personnel he wanted in the two-minute offense. I was talking to receivers about 'we don't have any timeouts, so we have to be smart and use the sidelines.' "
As it turns out, the forward planning was unnecessary. There was no game-winning field goal from Dallas. There wasn't even an attempt.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, one-time overnight sensation who had such a strong grasp on everything at an earlier juncture this season, lost the handle at the worst possible time. His mishandle on a 19-yard field goal attempt – an "extra point" as Cowboys coach Bill Parcells called it – led to a subsequent carry and then lunging tackle by cornerback Jordan Babineaux short of the first down or touchdown in Seattle's stunning 21-20 victory.
While Seahawks players celebrated, Romo lay slumped on the field in shock.
"Yeah, that's a good word for it," said Romo, who performed efficiently (17-of-29, 189 yards, one TD) up to that moment in his playoff debut. "It's very disappointing – I take responsibility for this season coming to an early end."
With Romo taking the blame, it's appropriate for Babineaux to take the credit.
"I had no choice," said Babineaux, only in the starting lineup because of injuries to three other Seahawks corners. "It's either catch him or go home.
"Like I said, desperate measures call for desperate times. It was just one of those moments."
While Dallas players can start getting ready for vacation, the Seahawks are preparing for a second-round road matchup against the New Orleans Saints or Chicago Bears next weekend. If the third-seeded Philadelphia Eagles beat the New York Giants on Sunday, Seattle heads to Chicago. If the sixth-seeded Giants spring the upset, the Seahawks face the Saints. And while most players generally don't make their preferences known in these instances, Seattle linebacker Julian Peterson wasn't afraid to go public with his choice.
"Hopefully, it's Chicago," admitted Peterson, involved in a wild scramble that resulted in a Seattle safety in the fourth quarter. "They're the only team that really convincingly beat us this year, so we're looking forward to going into Round 2 with them."
But there would be no do-over with the Bears had Seattle not pulled off the tiebreaker in a trilogy of sorts against Dallas.
The Cowboys were on the verge of wrapping up a victory in Seattle last season before the Seahawks scored twice within the final 40 seconds to win 13-10. A season earlier in Seattle, Dallas overcame a 10-point deficit in the final two minutes to win 43-39.
"If you coach long enough, you probably wind up seeing most things," said Holmgren, who was on the losing side of Terrell Owens' "redemption catch" when the 49ers beat the Packers in the 1998 NFC playoffs.
Parcells thought he'd seen enough good moments from his team to shake its bad spell at season's end and advance to the divisional round.
"Seems like we were going to have it there with the apparent first down," a glum Parcells said. "We could have just kneeled down on the ball and they would have taken their last timeout. Kneeled it again and the game would have gone down to about six seconds and then we would have kicked the field goal."
But the aforementioned "first down" that wasn't became one of many plays that helped turn the fortunes for both teams in the fourth quarter. Yet, even after all the craziness that went against his 'Boys in the fourth quarter – the Terry Glenn fumble which led to the safety, which led to the eventual game-winning touchdown by Seattle, which preceded the overturned first down and field goal try – Parcells figured Dallas would have one more chance to score.
"If we can make them punt it out of their end zone, we would have a chance at a field goal," Parcells said.
Seattle got the ball back with 1:14 left at its own two-yard line with no timeouts left. However, Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander had a much different thought than Parcells.
"If I pop one more, it's over with," Alexander said.
On Seattle's first play following the Romo mishandled snap, Alexander went off tackle for 22 yards to dramatically lessen Dallas' chances. The Seahawks failed to run out of the clock, but Dallas only had time for a hail mary from the 50-yard line and came up short.