Seahawks stumble into winner-take-all game for NFC West title

Ready or not, the Seahawks have been summoned to the national stage.

They are the playoff guest no one wants, a ragged team stumbling home after one heck of a bender. They have lost five of their past six games, they have the worst rushing offense in franchise history, and they’re preparing to start backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst.

And despite all that, the Seahawks still have one last chance to salvage the season. One last game against St. Louis will decide the division, a winner-take-all opportunity that Seattle won’t be apologizing for.

“That’s what you live for,” linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. “We live to play in games like this.”

Ready or not, the Seahawks and Rams will be featured in prime time, the final act of the NFL’s regular season, an unexpected curtain call. At 7-8, the Rams have won more games than the previous three seasons combined, while the Seahawks are in their first year of an ambitious rebuilding project. The Seahawks have made more than 270 roster moves since Pete Carroll became head coach, they have turned over more than half the roster, and they stand one game away from accomplishing the first goal of any NFL team: winning the division.

“We’re in a championship game — pure and point blank,” safety Lawyer Milloy said.

It isn’t exactly a dream matchup. Neither team has a winning record, and the Seahawks prepared without quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who is questionable because of a strained muscle in his hip and backside. He practiced for the first time Friday.

Should Seattle win, it will become the first NFL division champion with a losing record. No matter. You don’t get to choose which opportunities land in your lap, so the Seahawks will try to make the most of this playoff chance.

Even if the rest of the country is snickering.

“We need these challenges,” Carroll said. “We need these opportunities to see where we are, and to see how far we’ve come.”

Carroll was hired in January to bring direction to a franchise that had won just nine games the previous two seasons — four of them against the Rams. When he was introduced as Seahawks coach, a half-dozen television trucks were on site, antennae up. His news conference was broadcast live, making one thing clear: The Seahawks were relevant again across the country. But while Seattle has returned to the national spotlight, no one should think these Seahawks have arrived.

“This is work in progress,” Carroll said.

It is Year 1 A.C. in Seattle — After Carroll. The Rams, on the other hand, are in their second year under coach Steve Spagnuolo. They have a franchise quarterback in rookie Sam Bradford and two other top-three draft choices from the past three years, the only benefit of finishing at the bottom of the division for three years running.

The Seahawks’ offense is ranked No. 28 in the league in total yards, their defense No. 30. They’ve lost seven of their past nine games, and every one of their defeats this season has been by 15 or more points.

One game won’t erase any of those realities, but it will show how much Carroll’s program has taken root. From the very beginning, he held out winning the division as the team’s first goal.

“We are right exactly on what we had set out to do,” he said. “We talked that it would likely be coming down to a championship opportunity right here at Qwest.”

Seattle is in this position despite last week’s 23-point loss in Tampa, Fla. Even from the ashes of that defeat, Carroll looked ahead to possible redemption against St. Louis.

“We’ll feel very good about ourselves by winning that game,” he said, standing in a hallway outside the Seahawks’ locker room. “We’ll feel very good that we withstood this season with all the issues and concerns and ups and downs of it if we can get that win.

“If we don’t get that done, we’ll be very disappointed. We really had a great shot at it.”

Ready or not, this is one last game to determine whether this season will be remembered as the franchise’s first step forward under Carroll or an opportunity that got away.