Preview – St. Louis (7-8) at Seattle (6-9)

Published on January 1, 2011 by     T.C.

The St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks don’t want to hear about the weak state of the NFC West or the atrocity of a .500 club or below hosting a playoff game. All either team wants to hear at the conclusion of Sunday night is the phrase “division champs.”

The Rams and Seahawks will clash at Qwest Field in primetime this weekend, with the winner claiming the NFC West title and the fourth seed in the conference playoffs.

Both St. Louis and Seattle sport records below .500 heading into this matchup. The Rams lead the division with a 7-8 mark, while the Seahawks are a game back at 6-9 thanks to a three-game losing streak and may be without starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for this game.

However, one of these teams will claim the NFC West crown on Sunday. The Rams do so with a victory or tie, while a Seahawks win will make them the first team in league history in a non-strike season to earn a playoff berth with a losing record.

It is St. Louis that appears to have the momentum, as it snapped a two-game slide with last Sunday’s 25-17 win over visiting San Francisco. The Rams also own a Week 4 home win over the Seahawks that snapped a 10-game series losing streak thanks to a pair of touchdown passes from rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, but they have lost five straight in Seattle and haven’t won there since the 2004 postseason. That was also the last time St. Louis swept its season series with Seattle.

One of the front-runners for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, Bradford had thrown five interceptions without a touchdown pass in his previous three games, but had one scoring throw versus the 49ers without a pick. His 335 completions so far this year broke Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 326 in 1998, and Bradford is 22 pass attempts shy of breaking the four-time MVP’s rookie mark in that category as well.

“I’m excited. When you set out at the beginning of the year you always want to have the opportunity to make the playoffs,” said Bradford of Sunday’s matchup. “Here we are going into our last regular-season game and we control our own destiny. If that doesn’t excite you, I don’t know what does.”

Bradford has helped the Rams put forth a great turnaround, as they had combined for just six wins in the previous three seasons, including a 1-15 mark last year. St. Louis still needs to improve on the road, where it is just 2-5 this season, however.

A clutch victory in Seattle would give St. Louis its first playoff appearance since 2004 and first division title since the previous year. The Seahawks won the next four division titles afterwards, but haven’t made the postseason since 2007 thanks to consecutive third-place finishes.

The Seahawks have lost five of their last six and are yielding 37.3 points per game over their last three losses. In nine defeats this year, they have yielded an average of 34.8 points.

Seattle played most of Sunday’s 38-15 setback in Tampa Bay without Hasselbeck, who left the game with a nagging hip injury following an untouched one-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. While the veteran quarterback hopes to play in this do-or-die game, Seattle is preparing as if backup Charlie Whitehurst will be under the lights this weekend.

The Seahawks failed in all three phases of the game last weekend, and head coach Pete Carroll will try to move his team forward in a hurry.

“As fast as we can put [the Tampa Bay] game behind us, we will do it,” Carroll said. “We have an opportunity in this last week to play for our division, which is what we set out to do from the start. Regardless of what it looks like, what it feels like, that’s the facts.”

This game will feature just one 2010 Pro Bowl selection in Rams running back Steven Jackson. The Seahawks did not have a player named to the roster, which was announced this week.

SERIES HISTORY

The Seahawks hold a 14-10 lead their all-time series with the Rams and as previously mentioned, had bested St. Louis 10 consecutive times prior to a 20-3 loss at the Edward Jones Dome in Week 4. Before that breakthrough win, the Rams hadn’t defeated Seattle since beating their division rivals three times during the 2004 campaign, highlighted by a 27-20 triumph at Qwest Field in a 2004 NFC First-Round Playoff. Since the Seahawks joined the NFC West in 2002, they’ve won seven of eight regular-season games against St. Louis held in Seattle.

The Rams’ victory in the 2004 NFC Playoffs is the only postseason clash between these clubs to date.

Carroll has lost both his career meetings with the Rams, with the first coming while at the helm of the New England Patriots in 1998. St. Louis’ Steve Spagnuolo is 1-2 lifetime against Seattle and won his only previous head-to- head encounter with Carroll.

WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL

There figures to be a lot of pressure resting on the shoulders of Bradford (3357 passing yards, 18 TD, 14 INT) this weekend, but the University of Oklahoma product hopefully showed last weekend that he has yet to hit the rookie wall. The 23-year-old completed 28-of-37 passes and fell eight yards shy of his second career 300-yard passing game. Bradford needs just 84 yards through the air in this one to pass Atlanta’s Matt Ryan for the second-most in a season by a rookie. Getting Jackson (1196 rushing yards, 6 TD) and St. Louis’ 23rd-ranked ground game (102.1 ypg) going would help Bradford immensely. Jackson was limited to just 48 yards on 24 carries versus the 49ers, but did score a one-yard touchdown early in the first quarter. With Jackson getting held in check, Bradford completed multiple passes to seven receivers, with wideout Danny Amendola’s game-high eight catches leading the way. Amendola (83 receptions, 3 TD) finished with 53 yards, while rookie Danario Alexander (17 receptions, 1 TD) hauled in a career-high six catches for 99 yards. Fellow receiver Brandon Gibson (50 receptions, 2 TD) was one of four players to end with three receptions, while Laurent Robinson (32 receptions, 2 TD) hauled in a three-yard scoring throw in the fourth quarter. Kicker Josh Brown hit all three of his field goal tries and Bradford was sacked just once in the game, though he did lose a fumble.

Seattle’s defense struggled mightily versus Tampa Bay, yielding 31 straight points after Hasselbeck’s early touchdown run. Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman completed five scoring passes on the day and rookie running back LeGarrette Blount totaled 164 yards rushing as the Seahawks’ 30th-ranked defense (380.9 ypg) allowed 439 yards total. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu (82 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) led the way with 10 tackles, forced a fumble and had one of Seattle’s two sacks, while fellow linebacker and leading tackler David Hawthorne (99 tackles, 1 INT) finished with eight stops. Like the Rams might try to do, the Buccaneers were able to spread the ball out versus the Seahawks, with 10 different players catching a pass. Seattle’s secondary of corners Marcus Trufant (74 tackles, 1 INT) and Kelly Jennings (39 tackles, 1 INT) and safeties Lawyer Milloy (83 tackles, 4 sacks) and Earl Thomas (74 tackles, 5 INT) need to be ready. Up front, defensive end Chris Clemons (47 tackles) has 10 1/2 sacks in his last 13 games and will try to disrupt Bradford as much as possible, with defensive tackles Brandon Mebane (28 tackles 1 sack) and Colin Cole (41 tackles, 1 sack) clogging the middle.

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

The odds may tilt in the Rams’ favor if Whitehurst (315 passing yards, 1 TD, 3 INT) gets the call in this game, though at least the backup will have a full week of first-team practice reps under his belt. Whitehurst threw a touchdown pass and a pair of picks in his first-ever start back on Nov. 7 and was 11- of-18 passing for 66 yards versus the Buccaneers while getting sacked three times in relief of Hasselbeck (3001 passing yards, 12 TD, 17 INT). Tight end John Carlson (30 receptions, 1 TD) and wide receiver Golden Tate (20 receptions) paced Seattle’s 18th-ranked pass attack with three catches each, while Carlson had a team-high 27 receiving yards. Wideouts Ben Obomanu (25 receptions, 4 TD) and Mike Williams (62 receptions, 1 TD) had a pair of receptions each. Seattle also ranks dead last in the NFL with just 85.5 rushing yards per game and barely went over that mark versus Tampa Bay, managing 90 yards on 28 total carries. Running back Marshawn Lynch (662 rushing yards, 6 TD) got the bulk of the work with 14 carries for 53 yards, while Justin Forsett (495 rushing yards, 2 TD) added 12 yards on eight carries. Leon Washington carried the ball once, a 16-yard score, and he is tied for the NFL lead with a club-record three return touchdowns this season.

The Rams should present a challenge for Whitehurst even though they rank 20th against the pass at 225.7 yards per game allowed. They are allowing just 20.8 points per game, ranking 14th in the league, and are fourth in the NFL with 43 sacks that are just one off the league lead. St. Louis also has 14 total interceptions and is a plus-five in turnover differential. The Rams came through with four sacks versus the 49ers, with defensive end James Hall (48 tackles, 10.5 sacks) getting one in the end zone for a safety. Hall also forced a pair of fumbles to go along with a team-high eight tackles and fellow end Chris Long (28 tackles) came up with a strip-sack that defensive tackle Fred Robbins (26 tackles, 6 sacks) recovered. Long now has eight sacks in his last 10 games, while safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (71 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) came up with an interception against San Francisco. Linebacker James Laurinaitis (105 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) had seven tackles last week and has posted 28 stops, a fumble recovery and a sack in his three career games versus Seattle. With Na’il Diggs (36 tackles) out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, David Vobora (25 tackles, 2 sacks) has made the last three starts at strongside linebacker, while Chris Chamberlain (30 tackles) has been manning the weakside as of late. Corners Ron Bartell (54 tackles) and Bradley Fletcher (71 tackles, 4 INT) will try to capitalize on potential Whitehurst or Hasselbeck mistakes.

FANTASY FOCUS

If your fantasy league’s season stretches into Week 17, Jackson is the only must-start for the Rams. Bradford and the Rams defense may put up decent numbers if you are desperate, but it is tough to pick a No. 1 receiver to play on the St. Louis side. Brown is second in the league with 31 field goals made and has a solid 84 percent conversion rate.

There isn’t much fantasy gold on the Seahawks. Both Hasselbeck and Whitehurst should be avoided, and that makes the club’s receivers a risk as well. Lynch is a flex play at best while the defense isn’t worth a start. Kicker Olindo Mare has a back injury, so he is a risk too.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Neither the Rams nor the Seahawks own anyone an apology that one of them will get into the postseason. Though likely headed for first-round disappointment, stranger things have happened in the NFL and either team would rather take their chances than miss out on the playoffs. That being said, one team still has to get there first, and any edge Seattle has by being the hosting club is canceled out by its quarterback situation. Though neither team has been strong all year, it is the Seahawks who are struggling the most down the stretch as they look for an identity under first-year head coach Carroll. Expect Bradford to draw on some of his big college game experience and lift the Rams to a shocking division title.

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