Sensing the significance

When the Seahawks began practicing on Wednesday for Sunday’s big game against the Rams, Charlie Whitehurst was at quarterback and his teammates could sense his excitement.

Mike Williams could sense a difference the second he stepped into the huddle.

Not that backup Charlie Whitehurst was quarterbacking the Seahawks offense in practice on Wednesday. That not only was expected, it was obvious to anyone who has been listening to coach Pete Carroll discuss the uncertainty of injured starter Matt Hasselbeck’s status for Sunday night’s winner-takes-the-NFC-West-title matchup with the St. Louis Rams at Qwest Field.

No, the change was in Whitehurst, who could make the second start of his five-season NFL career in such a crucial game.

“Charlie was excited,” Williams, the team’s leading receiver, said after practice. “You can kind of sense that he’s ready to take this challenge on, and take advantage of this stage and this opportunity.”

As for the stage, the situation facing the Seahawks and Rams could be no clearer. The winner of this game is the NFC West champion and will host a first-round playoff game next weekend. The Rams are 7-8; the Seahawks 6-9. A Seahawks’ win would pull them into a tie, but they would advance because of a better division record (4-2 vs. 3-3).

Say what you will about a .500 – or sub-.500 – team not only advancing to the playoffs, but getting a home game in the first round. The Rams and Seahawks don’t want to hear it. The Rams have won six games combined the past three seasons, the Seahawks nine in the past two seasons. So this is an opportunity each franchise has been waiting for. The Rams have not been the postseason since 2004, while the Seahawks’ last appearance was in 2007.

As for the opportunity, Whitehurst also has waited to be in a situation like this. He did not throw a pass in the regular season during his four-year stint with the San Diego Chargers. Since coming to the Seahawks in a March trade, he has started one game – against the New York Giants in Week 9 because Hasselbeck was out with a concussion; and seen spot duty in four others – most recently last Sunday, when Hasselbeck went out with a strained hip in the first quarter of the game against the Buccaneers in Tampa.

That’s why Whitehurst put in extra video study on Tuesday, the players’ “off” day. That’s why he was so excited – and active – during practice on Wednesday.

“After plays, Charlie was coming over to the wide-outs and talking about the routes and the adjustments,” Williams said. “Similar stuff to how Matt is. You could tell Charlie is ready to go. You could tell he’s had his opportunities here and there, and he’s ready to seize the moment.”

There remains hope that Hasselbeck will be ready to play, and it’s Hasselbeck who is fanning the optimism. He watched Wednesday’s practice from behind the line of scrimmage, trying to get his looks down and making mental notes.

“Matt is not going to take this any other way – he’s going to get right for this game,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He thinks he’s going to make it.

“It’s going to be against the odds if he can do that, but he’s willing to go for it and we’ll see what it means later in the week.

What it means now is that the Seahawks are preparing as if Whitehurst will be the starter.

“We’ll know more when we know more. We have to wait a couple days to figure it out,” Carroll said. “But right now I’m pumped for Charlie to take this and I’m anxious to see our team rally around it and go for it in a way that we’re really proud of.”

For their substantial role in this QB-or-not-QB drama, the Rams are preparing for the offense rather than the player that will be directing it. That’s not a novel approach for the Rams, because they played teams with quarterback issues the past two weeks in the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs.

“This will be the third straight week now where there’s a little uncertainty at who’s going to start at quarterback,” Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said Wednesday during a conference-call interview. “But you’ve really got to defend the system.

“We have a tremendous amount of respect for Matt Hasselbeck, but I think when Charlie Whitehurst gets in there he’s every bit as effective as Matt. So what I would say is we defend the system and we find out who’s going to play on game day.”

And that also could be when the Seahawks find out.

If it is Whitehurst, his teammates know they need to help him take advantage of this opportunity.

“Our group and the guys up front, we’ve got to do our part and a little extra,” Williams said. “We’ve got to do a little extra for Charlie to keep him comfortable. The receivers, those 50-50 plays where they can go either way, we’ve got to find a way to make the play.

“As far as Charlie, I think he’s going to control what he can control. That’s knowing what he needs to do, knowing where he needs to go with the ball. Everyone else has to kind of rally around him and play hard.”

But because of his position, and the position he’s in, Whitehurst will be in the limelight. As well as the crosshairs of a Rams defense that has generated 43 sacks – one less than the NFL co-leading Steelers, Giants and Chargers.

What can Carroll possible say to Whitehurst to not put even more on him than is already there?

“Well, it is. It’s all on him,” Carroll said. “We already talked about it. This is the big opportunity. This is the big challenge. This is the big spotlight. This is all of that for him, and it’s nothing that a player doesn’t dream of having. So he’s prepared as well as he could have to this point.

“He knows it’s one of those moments.”