SEATTLE – How ironic.
And how appropriate.
That a game in which the Patriots defense took more than its share of lumps all afternoon should be signed, sealed, and delivered by a big play from that same defense.
New England had been so banged up at linebacker this week that it was forced to turn to a pair of semi-retired former players – Rosevelt Colvinand Junior Seau– to help stop the bleeding. With just a few days to get up to speed, both Colvin and Seau wound up playing nearly the entire game against the Seattle Seahawks out of necessity.
Starting nose tackle Vince Wilfork, inside linebacker Tedy Brushci, and safety James Sandersall left the game with injuries and never returned. That helped the Seahawks and their backup quarterback, Seneca Wallace(subbing for an injured Matt Hasselbeck), jump out to a 14-3 lead early on.
Wallace was having success both throwing (20-for-28, 212 yards, 3 TD) and scrambling (3 rushes for 47 yards) against New England's patchwork unit, forcing the Patriots coaching staff to reshuffle its lineup and rethink its game plan.
"We had to cut back a little bit. We had a little trouble, obviously, the first couple of drives with Seattle," a clearly relieved head coach Bill Belichicktold reporters immediately after the game.
"They have a lot of quick, up-tempo plays and we were scrambling a little bit to get where we needed to be and see things. We tried to settle down a little bit. That combined with some of the people that weren't able to finish the game just all added up to, 'Let's get back to basics.' And that, probably, in the end, served us well."
It sure did.
After a furious 4th-quarter comeback by QB Matt Casseland the offense, during which they took the lead with a touchdown and subsequent 2-point conversion, Seattle still had more than two-and-a-half minutes left to try to at least tie the game with a field goal.
Two plays after they got the ball back, they found themselves on New England's 44-yard line as the clock ticked down to the 2-minute warning.
After the timeout, Wallace took the 2nd-down snap and dropped back to pass. But like a speeding bullet, Pats safety Brandon Meriweathershot through the Seahawk's offensive line (itself in shambles with three starters out all game) and immediately drilled Wallace.
The ball popped loose from Wallace's hands and was recovered by defensive lineman Richard Seymour. With no timeouts left, Seattle could only watch as the Pats knelt on the ball for three straight plays to end the game.
New England did an admirable job getting pressure on Wallace all afternoon in drizzly Seattle, but had a difficult time actually taking him down because of his athleticism and speed getting out of the pocket. So, how did Meriweather read the play and time his blitz so perfectly?
As Belichick indicated, Meriweather got back to basics. He used his eyes, ears, and instincts to make the game-saving play.
"I was trying to disguise it and show late," he said of his pre-snap position near the line of scrimmage. After nearly four full quarters of studying the Seahawks' up-temp West Coast offense and listening to the cadence of Wallace, Meriweather found something he could use.
"I had a key on how they snap the ball, what sound they go on and everything ... Once you realize that, you just go off of them," he explained. "I just kind of timed it up pretty good and I hit the hole right on time."
Meriweather went on to say that he wasn't necessarily trying to force the fumble, and that he didn't even know he had done so until he got up and saw his teammate with the ball in his hands.
"I was trying to go for whatever I could get," Meriweather admitted. "He's an elusive quarterback so I was actually just trying to get there to get my hands on him, then go for the strip."
"It was huge play," Cassel said in his post-game press conference. "And the emotions of the game, as you well know, it was just an emotional roller coaster. To have us come up with the ball at the end, knowing that the game was over, it was a rush of emotions and everybody was elated."
"We have a lot of really tough people in that locker room, both physically and mentally," Belichick observed. "This time of year, everybody's banged up and they play through it. We've had our ups and downs. I really take my hat off to our players today. They really played hard on the road, long trip, and they came back and battled for 60 minutes."
Meriweather spoke of feeling relieved that he was able to make the play after the Pats started out so slowly and got behind early.
"It just lets you know that everybody has to be prepared every second on every play and you have to keep your head in the game," he noted.
But Meriweather was reluctant to savor the play on a personal level.
"I think it was a bigger play for the team than it was for me. Personal glory for me really means nothing. The team winning and continuing a run to the playoffs mean everything."
With the New York Jets having lost to San Francisco Sunday, coupled with the Miami Dolphins' win over Buffalo, the playoff race just got tighter. The Jets, Dolphins, and Patriots all own 8-5 records with just three games remaining. Any of them can win the division and thus secure a home playoff game.
When informed of this fact and then asked how big his play was in that context, Meriweather just laughed.
"I think you know," he replied with a huge smile. "I think you know."