Pickoff return punches ticket for Packers

Harris first NFL defender to score in OT in playoffs

Seahawks beaten, 33-27

Nfl Wild-card Playoffs

January 05, 2004|By Don Pierson | Don Pierson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- For Green Bay Packers cornerback Al Harris, it was the perfect end to a nearly perfect football game.

As he ran 52 yards to the end zone with an interception to beat the Seattle Seahawks, 33-27, in overtime yesterday, he could have run all the way to Philadelphia. That's where he came from in a trade before the season and where his play will take the Packers for Sunday's NFC semifinal against the Eagles.

When Harris jumped in front of Matt Hasselbeck's audibled hitch pass for the first defensive touchdown to win an overtime NFL playoff game, it was more than a dream come true. It was practice coming true.

"We anticipated it," Harris said. "When they faced an all-out blitz, they checked to something quick. They played right into it. We knew it was coming."

It was the only turnover in a game played in a 14-mph wind that made the wind chill index minus-7.

"As mistake-free on both sides in rough conditions as you'll see," Packers quarterback Brett Favre said. "I'm sure Matt's beating himself up."

Seattle coach Mike Holmgren had seen this before when he tutored a younger Favre. Now he's working with Favre's ex-backup.

"I audibled to a three-step drop, and one guy is going to come free," Hasselbeck said. "I chose the guy on the left. Al Harris either recognized it or studied it or cheated, but he made a big play."

When the Seahawks won the overtime coin toss, the microphone picked up Hasselbeck saying: "We want the ball. We're going to score."

His boldness could be excused. He had led three touchdown drives in the first four possessions of the second half. The Seahawks had taken a 20-13 lead, the Packers had regained it 27-20 on two 1-yard runs by ex-Seahawk Ahman Green, and the Seahawks had tied it at 27 with 51 seconds left on Shaun Alexander's third 1-yard touchdown run.

"We hadn't stopped them yet," Favre said. "Ahman told me what he said. I thought that was pretty bold. I'd have never said that. He probably wishes it wasn't heard by everyone."

To the contrary, Hasselbeck and the Seahawks think they made a statement despite the loss.

"I was messing around with Ahman and [Packers kicker] Ryan Longwell because I'm good friends with them," Hasselbeck said. "But our offense has a lot of confidence. All the interviews I did were, `Tell us about the Packers; tell us about the Packers.' People didn't respect us."

Hasselbeck completed 25 of 45 for 305 yards and no touchdowns. Favre was 26 of 38 for 319 yards and one gorgeous touchdown strike to tight end Bubba Franks against the wind. It marked the 14th consecutive playoff game Favre had thrown for a touchdown, an NFL record.

Neither explosive running back averaged 3 yards a carry, so the game was in the hands of the quarterbacks, and it was a beautiful exchange of big plays until Harris made the biggest one of his life.

The teams had traded punts in overtime before Hasselbeck faced third-and-11 from his 45 and backed away from center to yell the audible. The pass was intended for Alex Bannister.

"He audibled to a play that is pretty safe," Holmgren said. "Either Al Harris made a heck of a play or we did something a little bit wrong, either depth of route or something."

Favre pointed out that Seattle receivers dropped some of Hasselbeck's earlier passes, including a sure touchdown to Koren Robinson. Holmgren said he is convinced Hasselbeck has "taken the next step" in his second full year as a starter, but he cautioned against comparisons.

"What Matt has to do is do what Brett has done for 12 years," Holmgren said. "He has to continue what he's done for another 10 years. I don't know what more I could say about Brett. He's remarkable in big games."

The win was huge for another Holmgren protege, Packers coach Mike Sherman, who was trying to make up for the Packers' first playoff loss at Lambeau Field, against the Atlanta Falcons last year. Now he'll face another former Holmgren assistant and Favre tutor in Philadelphia coach Andy Reid.

Holmgren was booed when he argued to no avail that Green was short of making a first down on fourth-and-one during the Packers' fourth-quarter touchdown drive to go ahead 27-20.

"A lot of times Ahman goes into a pile and keeps his legs going, and then he bounces outside and makes some yardage," Holmgren said. "I thought he kept his legs going, came back up and fumbled the ball. Where the fumble was was not a first down."

Officials ruled forward progress to keep the drive alive.

Hasselbeck and Favre spoke before the game but not afterward.

"I was in shock a little bit," Hasselbeck said. "I feel very fortunate to have spent as much time with him as I've been able to. I consider him a very good friend. I still wanted him to lose. In a way, somewhere down the line, I'll be happy for him, especially after what he's been through. Right now, it hurts."

The Packers were knocked out of the playoffs with lopsided losses of 27-7 to Atlanta last year and 45-17 to the St. Louis Rams the year before, so Favre knows how Hasselbeck feels.

"I'm sure Matt will learn from today, and each time he's in the playoffs, he'll get better," Favre said.

Favre also might have insight about what was going through Hasselbeck's head in overtime.

"I'm not going to say the pressure got Matt, but at some point you feel like you've got to make a play," Favre said.

Sherman said Favre's game was better than the Monday-night performance in Oakland the day after his father died.

"It was one of the best games he's had, especially since I have been here," Sherman said. "Matt Hasselbeck had a heck of a game. He was very competitive with Favre. I'm sorry he had to end the season on that last pass."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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