Trent Dilfer made a play that was more heroic than graceful. He beat David Macklin to the 30-yard line. He turned a run into an inelegant, improvisational riff that won a football game.

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Even at regular speed the play seemed to unfold in slow motion, like one of those scenes from a bad sports movie.

Looking more like Michael Phelps than Michael Vick, Trent Dilfer was scrambling to his left, stumbling head-first, straining toward the first-down sticks.

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He had lost his voice on the second hut of the snap count. He had lost sight of Bobby Engram, who briefly was open over the middle. So he took off with a wall of Arizona white shirts about to fall on him, looking for 6 yards and a first down.

“It was the longest 7-yard run I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren. “Bless his heart.”

“Tuck the ball,” center Robbie Tobeck yelled as Arizona cornerback Duane Starks stalked Dilfer from behind.

Dilfer stepped out of Starks’ tackle attempt, dropped his shoulders and leaned toward the stripe at the 30-yard line.

“If I could have given him my legs, I would have,” Hawks running back Shaun Alexander said.

Finally, the first down, like the finish line in a marathon, was in sight, and Dilfer desperately dived for the first down that clinched a victory and assured his team a place in the playoffs.

He face-planted into the turf, lost the ball and swatted it out of bounds. On third-and-six with 2:07 to play, Dilfer got 7 yards, got the first down and got his team into the playoffs.

“There are just certain quarterbacks that Michael Vick looked up to when he was young,” said Tobeck, being his usual sarcastic self. “Randall Cunningham, Trent Dilfer. And I’m sure Vick was watching today, and for him to see his idol Trent make a play like that, well, that had to be a thrill.”

Before that play, everything was beginning to feel too familiar, too foreboding. The Hawks had lost 14 points from their 17-point lead.

The Cardinals had scored on matching 29-yard touchdown passes from Josh McCown to Larry Fitzgerald. The crowd was getting antsy, angry.

It felt like déjà boo all over again. A sure win was morphing into another last-minute catastrophe. Like the Rams in October and the Cowboys in December.

Then Dilfer made a play that was more heroic than graceful. He beat David Macklin to the 30-yard line. He turned a run into an inelegant, improvisational riff that won a football game.

“He crashed and burned right at the stake,” Holmgren said. “And it was beautiful.”

“You looked like Morganna,” one teammate teased Dilfer, after the Hawks’ backup quarterback had secured Seattle’s 24-21 win over Arizona.

“I call it a smart play,” said Engram. “He knew where the first down was and he stayed in bounds. He was two for two on the play.”

Dilfer didn’t learn until late morning that he would be the starter. Sore-armed Matt Hasselbeck failed a pregame passing test, and the job was Dilfer’s.

“My heart would have been broken if, game time, he (Hasselbeck) runs out there,” Dilfer said. “That’s how I had to prepare.”

He had prepared all week for the Cardinals, who changed their entire defensive scheme two weeks ago after losing in overtime to San Francisco. They had become more aggressive, more unpredictable.

Yesterday, they threw exotic blitzes at Dilfer he hadn’t seen since the wild Pittsburgh Steelers defenses that featured Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake. They flew at him off the corners, forcing him to speed-read coverages.

“It will be overlooked how tough it was mentally and physically for him to play today,” Engram said. “But Trent’s a warrior, and essentially he won the game for us.”

As Dilfer later said, he wasn’t glamorous. He didn’t fill up the stat sheet like Peyton Manning. He didn’t dodge blitzes as deftly as Vick. He didn’t launch perfect, parabolic passes like Donovan McNabb. He just won.

He completed 10 passes for a mere 128 yards. His quarterback rating was a scant 38.6. But Dilfer got the Seahawks the win that salvaged their mercurial mess of a season.

He doesn’t have the strongest arm. He might not beat Edgar Martinez in a 40-yard dash. But Dilfer wins football games. He won a Super Bowl in Baltimore. He is 2-0 as a starter this year.

He has a quiet, competitive hunger that began with his days as a ball boy for high-school and junior-college teams, hanging out with the blue-collar grunts on the offensive and defensive lines.

“I learned that every play was a battle, and the guys who are usually successful competed play in and play out and didn’t worry about everything else that was going on around them,” Dilfer said when asked for his definition of a winner. “They tried to win the individual battles all the time and tried to out-compete the guy across from them, and at the end of the day, if everybody did that collectively, then you were successful.

“I never lost that. It was always, ‘I’m going to compete harder than anybody else on the football field.’ To me, a winner is somebody who strives for competitive greatness. Their focus is not to get a pat on the back or get individual awards, but to compete so hard it inspires people. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do. I’ve never lost my desire to compete harder than everybody else on the football field.”

And in the last minutes, he made a play a competitor makes. Hurling his body toward the sticks, toward the first down that made the difference in the game.

Trent Dilfer made a winner’s play.

Again.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.