SEATTLE — After 27 consecutive days of rain came one glorious night of reign.
The Seattle Seahawks, whose future once looked as foreboding as the slate-gray skies, reached their first Super Bowl with a 34-14 throttling of Carolina in Sunday's NFC championship game.
Long after the game ended, Qwest Field was still filled to the brim with roaring fans. As player after player hoisted the championship trophy overhead, giant cannons blasted plumes of blue, green and silver confetti into the night air. An enormous 12th-man flag -- a tribute to those screaming thousands -- snapped in the wind.
For left tackle Walter Jones, who was around for Seattle's first-round losses in the 1999, 2003 and 2004 seasons, the victory marked the start of one party ... and the end of another.
"Now that we've won this game, I don't have to plan a Super Bowl party," said Jones, whose team will play Pittsburgh on Feb. 5 in Detroit. "I've had a million of those where people come over to my house and watch the Super Bowl. Now, if they have a Super Bowl party, they're going to be watching us. And, man, that's a great feeling."
The moment was especially gratifying for those Seahawks who have been around long enough to know the club's bumpy history. Coming into this season, there was speculation Coach Mike Holmgren was dangling by a thread, and that soon-to-be-free-agent running back Shaun Alexander was utterly replaceable.
Now, Alexander is the league's most valuable player -- he rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns against the Panthers -- and Holmgren is back in the Super Bowl for the first time since taking the Green Bay Packers there in the 1996 and '97 seasons.
"The attitude in the locker room was a lot healthier this year," Holmgren said. "They seemed to be rooting for one another. They're not a very selfish group, honestly, and for a coach ... [that] kind of recharged my head."
All the talk last week concerned the health of Alexander's head. He suffered a concussion early in a divisional victory over Washington and was sidelined for most of that game. It wasn't until late last week that the fog completely cleared.
In describing the minutes after the concussion, he said: "I went from not knowing if I'm Batman or Robin, to feeling pretty good at the end of the game, to every day getting better in my head. I told everybody, 'You know, from the neck down I feel great. But from the head up, we'll have to wait and see.' "
Billed as a potential down-to-the-wire thriller, Sunday's game wasn't even close. The Seahawks put the death grip on Carolina's offense, limiting the Panthers to one touchdown on a controversial punt return and a second touchdown in garbage time.
Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, who came into the game as the closest thing to New England's Tom Brady in terms of playoff prowess, looked like an overwhelmed novice. Before running headlong into a swarming Seattle defense, Delhomme had an NFL-record passer rating of 108.4 in six postseason games. Sunday, he finished with this line: three interceptions, two sacks, multiple bruises, no answers.
"When you get knocked down a lot," Carolina Coach John Fox said, "it will confuse any quarterback."
It wasn't those knockdowns that doomed the Panthers, but the first-quarter knockout of running back Nick Goings, whose day ended when he and linebacker Lofa Tatupu had a meeting of the minds -- make that helmets -- at the line of scrimmage. Tatupu played the rest of the game, but he felt too woozy to talk after the game. Goings, thrust into a starting role after DeShaun Foster suffered a broken ankle a week earlier, was escorted to the locker room in the first half.
Steve Smith, Carolina's spectacular receiver, was blanketed by defenders all game and finished with five catches for 33 yards. His only significant contribution was a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown, but that was clouded by controversy. The return looked as if it might be called back because of an apparent block in the back by Carolina's Vinny Ciurciu. Officials threw a flag but later picked it up -- to the guttural boos of the crowd -- saying there was no infraction.
The Seattle defense didn't just keep up with Smith, but for once kept up with the Joneses.
Safety Marquand Manuel, who returned an interception 32 yards and set up a touchdown that gave the Seahawks a 17-0 lead, said the defense had something to prove.
"Guys took it on our shoulders as a secondary," said Manuel, a fourth-year player who notched his first career interception. "We've been the weakest link, everybody's said we're the weakest link, and we just wanted to come out here and show everybody that these guys on the back end, we can play."
Safety Michael Boulware had an interception too, as did Tatupu. Both sacks were by defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, who could tell right away that Delhomme was out of rhythm.