NFC West champ will have last laugh

As much as we want to joke about the low-rent neighborhood that is the NFC West Division, somebody is going to win this thing (Seattle Seahawks?) and get a home playoff game for the achievement.

There will be an outcry from fans when a team with a much better record in another division stays home for the playoffs because the NFC West champ qualified. The system will be mocked.

An absurd scenario exists whereby all four NFC West teams could go into the final week with 6-9 records, with the winner heading into the playoffs at 7-9 by virtue of a tiebreaker. Unfair by any standards, eh?

But the rules are what they are. And this could be a time when the statutory break works in the favor of the Seahawks … if they can figure out a way to claim the title in the final month of the season.

The stretch run starts Sunday at San Francisco when a game against the Niners (4-8) is crucial. At 6-6, the Seahawks are tied atop the division with the St. Louis Rams, but already have a loss to the Rams on the debit side.

“This is fourth-quarter time coming up in the season and we kick it off with a great matchup and all, but it’s time for us to show the consistency that makes us worthy of having a good football season,” coach Pete Carroll said this week. “That’s there for us now. It’s exciting to be in the position. Coaches, players, everybody’s got to come meet the challenge and get it done. So it’s really a fun time for us.”

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck used an interesting term when he noted that the Hawks now are, after several seasons as afterthoughts, once again “relevant.”

Perfect terminology. Relevant doesn’t necessarily mean good, and it certainly doesn’t say anything about consistency. But they truly are relevant to the discussion, and even that feels like an improvement.

This time two years ago, the Seahawks had just two wins in Mike Holmgren’s final season as coach. His 10 seasons coaching the team to a Super Bowl and six playoff appearances soon would be celebrated by his getting pelted with snowballs during his final lap of Qwest Field.

Last year, the Hawks had five wins but were about to set off on a four-game losing streak to wrap up the season that led to coach Jim Mora’s one-and-done ouster.

So, if the division is a league-wide punch line, so what? Being able to say the word “playoffs” in December is a lot better than where this team has been.

In the final four games, Seattle has two long-shot games – home against Atlanta (10-2) and a long road trip to Tampa Bay (7-5) – and two that look like “swing” games – at the Niners and home in the Jan. 2 finale against the Rams.

The Rams also have two real uphill challenges – at New Orleans (9-3) this week and Kansas City (8-4) at home – with a home game against the Niners, and then ending at Seattle.

If Seattle and St. Louis beat San Francisco and no others, they’ll bring 7-8 records into the final game at Qwest Field.

But although San Francisco has just four wins, the 49ers are not eliminated yet, and their remaining opponents are a combined 21-27, with only San Diego (6-6) as a non-division opponent.

Wins over the Seahawks, San Diego and St. Louis would put the Niners at 7-8 going into the final game at Arizona, and they would have a tie-breaking advantage of a 4-1 division record under that scenario.

Carroll has stressed to the Seahawks the point that the way a team finishes is more important than how it starts. And the final four games will define this season.

Trailing at halftime against a weak Carolina team on Sunday, Carroll – and everybody else in Qwest Field – sensed the season slipping toward as disappointing end as the prior two had.

He got them turned around with a win pulling away in the second half.

“We’ll take that as an accomplishment and then have to go forward and take it with us,” he said. “That’s the whole point now … to make sure we take it to San Francisco.”

Where they will fight to remain relevant for at least one more week.