Here in the NFL’s most remote outpost, a championship will be decided on Sunday night, and if the home team can snap out of a protracted slump and prevail, history will be made as well.
It’s not the kind of history the Seattle Seahawks had in mind when Pete Carroll took over as coach last January, but at this point, they’re in no position to question it.
If the Seahawks defeat the St. Louis Rams at Qwest Field to improve to 7-9, they’ll capture the NFC West and become the first team in a non-strike season to make the playoffs with a losing record. A victory over the Rams (7-8) would allow the ‘Hawks to put on division-champ caps, have a few celebratory cocktails and look forward to a home playoff game, likely against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints (11-4), the following weekend.
And should that happen – no, they won’t be apologizing, in case you’re wondering.
“Of course we won’t,” middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu(notes) said Thursday at the Seahawks’ training facility. “We’ll be proud, just like I’d expect the Rams, if they win, to be proud of it. I mean, it wasn’t easy – obviously.”
Halfback Marshawn Lynch(notes) did a double take when asked the same question.
“Whaaaat? Man, [expletive], who said it was gonna be pretty? It ain’t always gonna be pretty, but none of that matters,” he says. “The only thing that’s gonna matter after the game is we’ve got to get ready for another week. We’ll start over with a new record: zero and zero, just like everybody else.”
Not that Lynch, Tatupu and their teammates aren’t bracing themselves for the backlash that their presence in the postseason would provoke. Seattle, after all, has lost three consecutive games, five of its last six and seven of nine – and none of the defeats has been particularly competitive. Whereas some teams with losing records might point to a convergence of bad calls, unlucky bounces or near-misses as culprits, the Seahawks have been outscored by 15 points or more in each of their nine defeats.
Since Oct. 24, when they followed up an impressive road victory over the Chicago Bears with a home triumph over the Arizona Cardinals to push their record to 4-2, the Seahawks have beaten only the 5-10 Cards and 2-13 Carolina Panthers and have looked increasingly feeble on both sides of the ball.
“From this point on, everybody’s gonna say we’re not legit,” veteran safety Lawyer Milloy(notes) says. “It’s not our fault the way they set up the tourney. At the beginning of the year, everybody in the league has the same goal – to win your division, which is the cleanest way to the playoffs. We have one game to win, in our home stadium. And once you’re in, you have a chance.”
Milloy and his teammates are well aware of recent history: In 2008, the Chargers won the AFC West with an 8-8 record, then defeated the 12-4 Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the playoffs. That same year, the Cardinals won the NFC West with a 9-7 record – suffering a 40-point loss to the Patriots in December along the way. Yet in early February, the Cards were still playing – and almost won a Super Bowl.
“They went in and just worried about themselves, nothing else, and they got a freakin’ catch away from being world champs,” Milloy says. “That’s why you play the game. Trust me, I’d love to go into the playoffs and have everyone overlook us.
“Right now we just have to find a way to win one game, and that’s really an attitude you have to carry on for the rest of the playoffs. If we can learn how to block out all that [expletive] and just worry about us, we can do big things.”
There are plenty of reasons to question whether the Seahawks will have an opportunity to play beyond Sunday night. They are three-point underdogs to a Rams team that defeated them 20-3 in St. Louis on Oct. 3, and backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst(notes) is expected to make his second career start. Veteran Matt Hasselbeck(notes) suffered a muscle injury to his hip/rear area while jogging into the end zone early in last Sunday’s 38-15 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has yet to practice this week.
While some Seahawks have privately expressed surprise about Hasselbeck’s status and wondered about the severity of the injury, quarterback play is hardly the team’s only question mark. Despite some early success after trading a fourth-round draft pick and another conditional pick to the Buffalo Bills to acquire Lynch in early October, Seattle’s running game has been a disappointment: The Seahawks are a game away from completing a season without a single 100-yard rushing performance by an individual for the first time since the strike-shortened 1982 season. The ‘Hawks’ 85.5-rushing-yards-per-game average would be the lowest in franchise history.
The issue goes well beyond Lynch and backfield mate Justin Forsett(notes) – rookie left tackle Russell Okung(notes) has struggled with injuries all season, and the Seahawks haven’t started the same five offensive linemen for more than three consecutive games.
The defense has also struggled. “It’s little things, too,” says defensive lineman Raheem Brock(notes), a member of the Colts’ 2006 team that won the Super Bowl. “Stuff like leaving our gaps unattended. We can do much better. We’ve got it in us.”
Milloy, a key player for the Patriots when they won their first Super Bowl in 2001, understands that the Seahawks have a chance to close the credibility gap and take advantage of this unlikely scenario.
“Even getting to play in a game like this, on prime time, for our younger players – that’s huge,” Milloy says. “No matter how you get there, it’s an opportunity to be a champion. You get that taste, and let it propel you into the tourney, and you have a chance to be a champion of something bigger. It’s a grand opportunity we’ve been handed, given our situation. Who knows why it happened like this? But there it is.”
Milloy says he isn’t bothered by the fallout that might occur from the presence of the NFL’s first 7-9 playoff team, including a possible push to institute rules changes preventing teams with inferior records from hosting first-round games – or even to remove the guaranteed postseason spots for division winners.
“Doesn’t matter to me,” he says, laughing. “It’s not gonna be this year.”
As for the public lampooning that would result from the sight of an under-.500 Seahawks team openly celebrating a division title, complete with NFC West champions T-shirts and headwear?
“Oh yeah, that’ll happen, and that’s fine,” Forsett says. “I’ll handle all that – with my hat on.”