Losing team could well win the ‘NFC Worst’

Well, somebody has to win the NFC West, where mediocrity would be an improvement.

There is an increasingly strong possibility that the champion will have a losing record.

Not only that, a 7-9 St. Louis or Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco team could wind up hosting a first-round playoff game against a team that has won 10 or 11 games, maybe more.

That potentially embarrassing scenario results from an NFL rule that guarantees each division champion a home playoff game.

With five weeks to go, Seattle and St. Louis are tied for first at 5-6, with San Francisco 4-7 and Arizona 3-8.

As Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck put it, “Yeah, it’s weird.”

In games outside their division, NFC West teams are 10-20. Only St. Louis is respectable at 4-4. The division has played a big role in Kansas City’s revival. The AFC West-leading Chiefs have beaten San Francisco 31-10, Arizona 31-13 and Seattle 42-24.

The coaches of the four NFC West teams don’t like to talk about the sorry state of their division. They’re understandably consumed by trying to right their respective ships.

“I don’t know. It’s hard for me to speculate on that,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said on Tuesday when asked if he thought the division winner would have a losing record.

Whisenhunt’s Cardinals, winners of the NFC West the past two seasons, are mired in a six-game losing streak and were embarrassed on national television in a 27-6 home loss to San Francisco on Monday night.

“My focus right now is really worrying about what we do. As a Cardinal answer to a non-Cardinal question, I’m really worried about what we’re going to do,” Whisenhunt said. “I’m not worried about that right now. We have played all the three teams in our division and to me they have all been good football teams.”

To him maybe.

Here is a look at the “contenders” and what they face to try to finish at least at .500.

-The Rams: St. Louis could have the best shot. After going 6-42 the past three seasons and 1-15 last year, the Rams are on the rise under second-year coach Steve Spagnuolo and rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. They play three of their last five against NFC West opponents. A sweep there and St. Louis could lose to Kansas City and New Orleans and still finish 8-8. It could come down to the regular-season finale at Seattle on Jan 2.

-The Seahawks: Seattle has allowed 76 points in its last two games, losses at New Orleans and at home against Kansas City. On the positive side, the Seahawks have a home game against the Carolina Panthers, whose only win this season was against, of course, an NFC West foe – 23-20 over San Francisco. But the Seahawks have Atlanta at home and are at Tampa Bay. Seattle might have to sweep San Francisco and St. Louis to climb to .500.

-The 49ers: San Francisco was the preseason favorite but started 0-5. The 49ers have won three of four since Troy Smith became starting quarterback but have lost star running back Frank Gore for the season with a hip injury. They would have to finish 4-1 to get to 8-8. That would require a victory at Green Bay or San Diego, along with a sweep of Seattle, St. Louis and Arizona.

-The Cardinals: Forget about it.

If the playoffs were to start this weekend, St. Louis – with a tie-breaking win over Seattle – would open at home against the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, who are 8-3.

Two years ago, a 9-7 Arizona team played at home against 11-5 Atlanta and barely won 30-24, with a big assist from a boisterous crowd, in the first step to an unlikely run to the Super Bowl.

St. Louis or Seattle would have to finish 4-1, San Francisco 5-0, to equal Arizona’s 9-7 record that year.

“We’re trying to get our ball right,” Seahawks first-year coach Pete Carroll said. “It happens that we’re still in this race. … I think teams have to learn what it takes to be a champion team, what it takes to be on top, and what it takes to be in the lead position before you can expect to move on and take on bigger fish to fry.”

While others may ridicule the division, it’s no laughing matter for the coaches involved. San Francisco’s Mike Singletary has wept after almost every loss, and that’s a lot of crying. He and several of his players even cried during the team’s overpowering win over the punchless Cardinals on Monday night.

“The most important thing is what you do after you wipe the tears away,” Singletary said. “It’s not the fact that someone cries. It’s extremely important what they do after that, after the disappointment. That’s the thing that separates when you continue to move on and get better or stay where you are and listen to the circumstances around you.”