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Sweep victory for St. Louis

Matt Hasselbeck waited all season to redeem himself for what happened in last season's playoffs at Green Bay.

One year later, the outcome was painfully similar.

Marc Bulger threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns, the last a 17-yarder to Cam Cleeland with 2:11 to play Saturday, leading the Rams to a 27-20 win over Seattle and making St. Louis the first team without a winning record to advance in the playoffs.

"We know we're a good team," Bulger said. "We have talent, but we've made a lot of mistakes this year. Seattle played us good but fortunately we've been making plays the last three weeks when we've had to and that wasn't the case all year."

Hasselbeck led a final charge but came up short again. Last year, his throw for Alex Bannister was picked off by Green Bay's Al Harris and returned 52 yards for an overtime TD.

This time, Seattle faced fourth and 4 at the Rams 5 with 27 seconds to go. Hasselbeck stepped into the pocket, briefly considered running, then sidearmed a pass that zipped through Bobby Engram's hands in the end zone.

"The ball was coming in hot. It was a little tight in there. I think I surprised him a little bit," Hasselbeck said.

"I've got to find a way to make that play," Engram said.

Hasselbeck dropped to his knees and pounded a fist on the turf. He stood and slapped both hands on his helmet. Then he let out a scream of frustration, appearing ready to break into tears as he headed to the sideline.

"I wish I had it back," he said. "That's one play that could have done it for us. I'm sure there are a handful of others earlier in the game that could have done it for us. I'm not going to dwell on that too much."

The Seahawks, who won the NFC West at 9-7 despite losing twice to St. Louis, have not won a playoff game since Dec. 22, 1984, the NFL's longest drought. And this one stings more because the NFC West rival Rams became the first 8-8 team in league history to win in the playoffs.

"One of these years, we're going to win a playoff game and take that next step," said coach Mike Holmgren, who is 0-3 in the playoffs in six seasons with Seattle. "It will happen if we keep the team together."

The Rams, who will travel to Philadelphia or Atlanta for next week's divisional round, beat Seattle in all three meetings this season, twice in Seattle. Their only other road win this year was at San Francisco, which finished a league-worst 2-14.

But they are heating up at the right time. They won their final two games to reach the playoffs, with Bulger throwing a season-high 450 yards and three touchdowns in last weekend's 32-29 overtime defeat of the Jets.

"Maybe it's just knowing our butts are on the line. You've got to play well or you're going home," guard Adam Timmerman said. "It's unfortunate it took that urgency for us to get things done, but we're playing our best ball right now.

Jeff Wilkins tied it at 20 on a 27-yard field goal with 8:07 to play. The defense forced a punt, then Bulger got busy. He led a seven-play, 76-yard drive, throwing twice to receivers who had not caught a pass in the game.

First came a 31-yard gain on third and 2 on a swing pass to Shaun McDonald _ his first catch _ then Bulger found Kevin Curtis for 13 yards. Cleeland's TD was his first catch of the day, too.

"I was waiting," Cleeland said. "I had a couple plays where Marc got sacked and didn't have a chance to get it to me. I was just waiting for my number to get called, and I made the play. It was a simple seam route."

Bulger completed 18-of-32 with one interception, but it was his leadership and calm demeanor that meant as much to the Rams.

"If you want someone in the foxhole when it counts, somebody to take that last shot at the buzzer, you want it to be Mark," coach Mike Martz said. "That's his personality. That's one of the things that makes him different."

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