ST. LOUIS – Lost amid the wild finish that included a game-ending 54-yard field goal and a debate over how certain rules are interpreted was an important development for the Seattle Seahawks in their dramatic 30-28 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
The Seahawks, who still are missing franchise running back Shaun Alexander and top tight end Jerramy Stevens, may have found the go-to receiver they so badly sought in the offseason. Deion Branch, whom the Seahawks acquired two months ago, got his first start for his new team and contributed significantly with a team-high six catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns.
What Branch has provided is proof that subtle things can make all the difference – be it the way you use your hands to get open, how you run routes or how you react under pressure.
Or particularly, a nasty holdout.
Branch landed in Seattle after missing all of training camp with New England because of a contract dispute. Many people thought Branch would cave at some point and return to the Patriots. Instead, he held his position, believing he was worth the six-year, $39 million contract he ultimately got from Seattle.
"The thing is to be calm," Branch said, referring to how he and his new teammates reacted after St. Louis took a 28-27 lead with 1:44 remaining. Branch could just as easily have been referring to his holdout. "You can't panic. If you panic, you'll never win."
Branch, whose second touchdown gave the Seahawks the lead early in the fourth quarter after the Rams had dominated for much of the game, helped the Seahawks avoid that panic with constant preparation.
After being traded to Seattle on Sept. 14, Branch has spent extra time catching up with his new quarterback. On Tuesdays, Hasselbeck regularly has seen Branch catching passes from the equipment manager or working on his release by pushing a blocking sled.
In the process, Branch has backed up the high praise New England quarterback Tom Brady gave him when Brady called Hasselbeck.
"It helped me get to know [Branch] better," Hasselbeck said, referring to Brady's evaluation. "Deion is everything that Tom said he would be. It was all good stuff. It was about his explosiveness, how he thinks like a quarterback out there and understands how to get open in space."
Branch also showed that he understands leverage, and not just the contract variety.
As St. Louis got off to a torrid start on offense, scoring on three of its first four possessions, Branch accounted for Seattle's lone score on a 15-yard pass from Hasselbeck.
On the pattern, Branch got open at the last second by pushing rookie cornerback Tye Hill ever so subtly at the end of the pattern. Hill, a first-round pick who got torched for two scores in his first start, complained in vain.
Then again, the Rams were complaining loudly after the game, one which changed faster than a Miami sky in the summer.
After St. Louis took a one-point lead on a 67-yard touchdown pass from Marc Bulger to Torry Holt (the last of three scores for Holt), Seattle drove to the St. Louis 31-yard line. Hasselbeck spiked the ball to stop the clock with four seconds remaining.
However, Seattle was penalized for an illegal formation on the play and the Rams thought that meant that the game was over. Normally, penalties against the offense in the final minute require a 10-second runoff of the clock, meaning that the game could have been over.
Not so, veteran referee Ed Hochuli explained.
"It was an illegal formation," Hochuli said. "The players were all set, but the widest receiver, instead of being up on the line of scrimmage, he was in the backfield, putting only six men on the line of scrimmage. So, it's an illegal formation foul … and that's a situation where there is no 10-second runoff."
Calls to three different people in the NFL office to check on the rule were not returned as of Sunday night.
At the time, numerous Rams players and coaches, including first-year head coach Scott Linehan, were saying that the game was over. Several Rams players even started running toward the locker room, looking like edgy eighth graders on the final day of school.
Regardless, after the 5-yard penalty was marched off, Brown calmly nailed the last of his three field goals, all coming from 49 yards or longer.
"We made the game more interesting than it had to be," Holmgren said. "It was a great game to watch, I'm sure. A tough game to coach."