2004: NFC West champs, at last

The Seahawks won the NFC West in uneven fashion, but their playoff-victory drought was extended to 21 seasons when Matt Hasselbeck’s fourth-down pass went off Bobby Engram’s hands in the end zone against the Rams.

With 27 seconds left in regulation and the Seahawks trailing the St. Louis Rams by seven points in their wild-card playoff game at Qwest Field, Matt Hasselbeck had the ball right where he wanted it: Heading toward the sure hands of Bobby Engram in the end zone.

Instead of overtime, however, the Seahawks lost to the Rams – one more time – as the fourth-down pass went off Engram’s hands and fell incomplete.

Hasselbeck slumped to his knees and put his hands on his helmet. Engram looked at his hands, and then the ball. The Rams began to celebrate.

Record: 9-7 (first in NFC West)

Playoffs: 0-1, lost to St. Louis in wild-card game

Owner: Paul Allen

Coach: Mike Holmgren

Captains: QB Matt Hasselbeck (off.), LB Anthony Simmons (def.), WR Alex Bannister (ST)

MVP: not awarded after 1998

Man of the Year: FB Mack Strong

Largent Award: Strong

Leading passer: Hasselbeck (279 of 474 for 3,382 yards, with 22 TDs and 15 interceptions)

Leading rusher: Shaun Alexander (1,696 yards and 16 TDs)

Leading receiver: Darrell Jackson (87 receptions for 1,199 yards)

Leading tackler: CB Marcus Trufant (93)

Special teams tackles: LB Niko Koutouvides (16)

Interception leader: CB Ken Lucas (6)

Sack leader: DE Chike Okeafor (8½)

Leading scorer: Alexander (120 points)

Pro Bowl selections: Alexander, LG Steve Hutchinson, LT Walter Jones

All-Pro: Jones (first team); Alexander (second team)

National honors: none

It was on that disappointing note that the Seahawks’ 2004 season came to an end.

“I don’t know how much I could have done differently,” said Hasselbeck, who had to duck away from a Rams defender, which caused Engram to lose sight of him – and the ball.

“The first question I get is: Could you have run? No. I know that for sure. Could I have thrown the ball better? Yeah, probably.”

The game played out much like the season, as the Seahawks overcame a 14-3 deficit to take a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, only to watch the Rams score 10 points in the final eight minutes.

The ’04 season had begun on a historic note, as the Seahawks won back-to-back road games – 21-7 over the Saints in New Orleans and 10-6 over the Buccaneers in Tampa. The only other times they had opened with two consecutive road wins came in 1994 and 1985. They then ran their record to 3-0 for the second consecutive season, and in emphatic fashion with a 34-0 romp over the San Francisco 49ers in the home opener.

But that was followed by three consecutive losses, including a six-pointer in overtime to the Rams at home. After two more wins, the Seahawks dropped three of their next four before rallying to win three of their final four. It was enough – just enough – to clinch the NFC West title for the first time with a 9-7 record and advance to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1987-88.

The steadiest performers in this up-and-down season were a familiar cast.

Shaun Alexander led the NFC in rushing with 1,696 yards, but missed tying the Jets’ Curtis Martin by 1 yard for the NFL rushing title.

The Seahawks would not have won the West without Alexander, who also scored 20 touchdowns.

As was the case during the other seasons in which he scored 16-plus touchdowns (2001-05), Alexander’s trips into the end zone came in bunches: three against the Saints in the opener; three against the 49ers in Week 3; three against the Cardinals in Week 16; two in the rematch with the 49ers in San Francisco in Week 9; two against the Cowboys in Week 13.

It was a similar situation with his rushing yards. In one three-game span at midseason, Alexander ran for 195, 160 and 176 yards. In the final month of the season, he had 112- and 154-yard games. He also had 135 yards in the opener and another 150 in the first game against the Rams.

Much of the credit also goes to his line – the left side of Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson, who joined Alexander in being voted to the Pro; center Robbie Tobeck, right guard Chris Gray and Chris Terry and Floyd “Pork Chop” Womack, who split the season at right tackle.

Hasselbeck, meanwhile, passed for 3,382 yards and 22 touchdowns, with Darrell Jackson catching a then-club record 87 passes for 1,199 yards and seven TDs.

Things didn’t go as well on defense, as the Seahawks ranked 26th in the league and allowed opponents to convert 56.3 percent of their third-down situations in the team’s eight losses. Cornerback Marcus Trufant led the team in tackles (93) and tied for second in interceptions (five). But coordinator Ray Rhodes was not able to overcome the combined 51 games that linebackers Anthony Simmons, Chad Brown and D.D. Lewis, defensive end Grant Wistrom and cornerback Bobby Taylor would miss because of injuries.

The 34-year-old Brown missed the first six games after breaking his left leg during training camp and then three more while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, but he had 21 tackles and two sacks in the final two games. The defense definitely missed his presence – and production.

Even the highlight moments were uneven: rookie Michael Boulware intercepting a pass and returning it 63 yards for a game-winning score with 56 seconds left in a 24-17 win over the Miami Dolphins; Hasselbeck passing for a 414 yards and three TDs in a 43-39 loss to the Dallas Cowboys; and Hasselbeck passing for two scores and running for a third in the regular-season finale against the Falcons, which the Seahawks won as Brown and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard stopped Warrick Dunn short of the goal line on a two-point conversion that would have tied the score.

It was enough to make Mike Holmgren come out of the season wondering if he wanted to coach another season.

“I don’t really feel like the coaches need a vote of confidence from us,” Hasselbeck said after the season when asked about Holmgren’s situation. “It’s been a tough season, and probably frustrating season for (the coaches) just because we haven’t always done what they’ve prepared us to do.”

But, as with the disheartening loss to the Green Bay Packers in their playoff opener the previous season, the Seahawks used the disappointing end to the ’04 season as a springboard to what would be a season of unprecedented success in 2005.

Hasselbeck could feel it coming.

“I know that I grew and I was a better football player this year because of what happened last year,” he said. “I’ve just got to trust that the same thing will happen from this experience, and make you want it more.