SEATTLE - In the course of a season there are certain games that define a team. This was one of those games.
With their playoff quest on the verge of coming to an end at Qwest Field, the Patriots defied defensive injuries and a fourth-quarter deficit to define themselves with a 24-21 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. The win, coupled with the Jets' loss to the 49ers, pulled the Patriots into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East at 8-5 with the Jets and the Dolphins, who beat Buffalo, 16-3, yesterday.
"Definitely, the biggest win of the year," said wide receiver Jabar Gaffney.
Trailing, 21-16, the Patriots got the ball at their 29 with 8:47 left. With their season on the line, Matt Cassel thrice converted on third down, then completed a 25-yard wide receiver screen pass to Wes Welker (12 receptions for 134 yards) that gave the Patriots first and goal at the Seattle 6.
On fourth and goal from the 1, Sammy Morris, who was stuffed on third down, went over the top to give the Patriots their first lead of the game with 2:44 to play.
"It was a huge win, a huge win, a huge drive," said Cassel, who was 26 of 44 for 268 yards, a touchdown, and a 2- point conversion pass to Welker. "Everybody stepped up. That is what big games come down to, and we knew that the season was on the line and we had to come up here and take care of business in order to put us in a position to still be in that playoff hunt. It was a huge drive and everybody understood that, and we were able to execute and get points on the board."
The Patriots' depleted defense, which started the game without defensive end Ty Warren (groin) and lost nose tackle Vince Wilfork (shoulder) and linebacker Tedy Bruschi (knee) on Seattle's first two drives, protected the only lead it was handed.
On second and 11 from the New England 44, Brandon Meriweather burst through the Seattle line as part of an all-out blitz and knocked the ball loose from Seneca Wallace, who had gotten the start in place of the injured Matt Hasselbeck. Richard Seymour recovered at the Seattle 49.
"We haven't stopped teams when we needed to, so it was a big stop for us defensively," said Seymour. "I thought Brandon made a heads-up play getting the ball out, and the ball was just laying there like an egg on the ground."
In the early going, it looked like the Patriots were going to lay an egg against a sorry Seattle team. The Seahawks (2-11) scored on each of their first two touches, and making matters worse, Patriots defenders became an endangered species. Wilfork (seventh play of Seattle's first drive), Bruschi (fourth play of the second quarter), and safety James Sanders (nagging rib injury) all left the game in the first half and didn't return.
Former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch, who tormented his former team with four catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns, gave Seattle a 7-0 lead with a 14-yard reception, beating Meriweather, who was selected with the first-round pick Seattle shipped to New England in exchange for him in 2006.
After a season-long 50-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski, Seattle stretched its lead and New England's defensive depth even further, as Bruschi had his knee taken out by a teammate.
That resulted in stay-at-home dads-turned-defenders Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin, who were signed by the Patriots on Friday and Wednesday, respectively, on the field at linebacker. Two plays after he made his 2008 debut, Seau just missed deflecting a Wallace pass that ended up as a 10-yard touchdown toss to tight end John Carlson. That gave Seattle a 14-3 lead.
Ellis Hobbs returned the kickoff 55 yards and the Patriots cut the lead to 14-10 with 9:09 left in the half, when Cassel hit Benjamin Watson with a 2-yard toss. That was the score at the half.
Gostkowski trimmed the lead to 14-13 with a third-quarter field goal, but he couldn't come up with a Josh Wilson fumble on the ensuing kickoff that bounced right to him.
That proved huge when on the second play of the possession Branch took a short pass from Wallace (20 of 28 for 212 yards and 3 TDs), sidestepped Seau and cut across the field on a 63-yard catch-and-run to the Patriots 9.
Two plays later Branch one-handed a Wallace pass for a 4-yard touchdown to put Seattle ahead, 21-13, with 41 seconds left in the third quarter.
But that would be the last time Seattle scored, as a Patriots defense that had just four remaining opening day starters - Mike Vrabel, Jerod Mayo, Hobbs, and Seymour - answered the call with the likes of Antwain Spann, Le Kevin Smith, Mike Wright, Gary Guyton, etc.
"Unfortunately, it seems like we get an abnormal amount of people getting nicked up," said James Sanders. "And a lot of guys step in and continue to make plays and help the team win. We've persevered through a lot. That just tells you about the character of this team."
But the Patriots have no time to savor this season-saver in Seattle. It's on to Oakland. As the Jets learned, you can't take a bad Bay Area team lightly.
"Now, it's like a three-game season for us," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "We've just got to pick up the pieces today and have a good week and get ready for Oakland."
If the Patriots win out against Oakland, Arizona, and Buffalo, they have a good chance of making the playoffs. The Jets and Miami play in the final game of the season.
"We're in a dogfight," said Welker. "We need to do everything we can to keep our season alive. The playoffs are three weeks early."