SEATTLE — Congratulations, you are the best of the worst.
Sounds like quite the prize, huh?
That’ll be the honour bestowed upon either St. Louis or Seattle come Sunday night after the two meet to decide the NFC West division title, a primetime showcase of two teams fighting for one final playoff spot.
It was the kind of finale the league hoped for when it introduced its flex scheduling program. Except this matchup has become the source of ridicule for critics, wrapping up a woeful season for the entire division that has renewed the debate over whether division champions should automatically receive playoff berths and home games.
A win by the Rams (7-8) would send St. Louis to the post-season a year after winning just one game, and as the third 8-8 division champion in league history.
A Seattle victory would bring about an even more dubious accomplishment: the first playoff team since the merger — sans the strike-shortened 1982 season — with a losing record, and the league’s first sub-.500 division champ. The Seahawks (6-9) may be playing for the title, and a footnote in NFL history, with backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst under centre, though there’s a chance veteran starter Matt Hasselbeck could return from a hip injury in time for Sunday night.
Either way the game goes seems about right to settle this pillow fight of a division where the quartet of clubs has been outscored by a combined 322 points this season.
NFC teams with better records like Tampa Bay, Green Bay and the New York Giants could find themselves done after Sunday as the Seahawks-Rams winner plays on. Add in the fact a potential 11- or 12-win wild-card — most likely New Orleans — could be forced to play at St. Louis or Seattle in the first round of the playoffs and pundits have plenty of material to lob at the NFC Worst … er, West.
It doesn’t matter, says Seattle safety Lawyer Milloy. The bottom line is “this is a playoff game right here.”
In essence, that’s right. Just don’t expect them to send the game films to Canton.
Seattle hasn’t lost by less than 15 points all season and has beaten just two teams with a winning record — Chicago and San Diego. St. Louis isn’t much better, with the Chargers the only above-.500 team they’ve beaten. At least the Rams were competitive, losing four times by four points or less.
Only twice before has a division champ slid into the playoffs with an 8-8 record — the 1985 Cleveland Browns and 2008 San Diego Chargers. And while it might seem dubious for the Rams to potentially become the third member of that club, being in this position is a remarkable accomplishment.
Just a year ago, the Rams were closing out the worst season in franchise history, a 1-15 campaign of woe that eventually landed St. Louis the opportunity to snatch Sam Bradford with the No. 1 pick of last April’s draft. And while Bradford’s production has slowed as the season has progressed, a win Sunday will likely make him the first quarterback selected No. 1 overall to ever start a playoff game in his rookie season.
“I think every situation you get in there with him you see more and more of the competitive nature. He is a fierce competitor,” Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “I think the players have rallied around him. They have confidence in him. That’s what you need in your football team.”
While Bradford is the catalyst for St. Louis’ turnaround, the reversal goes beyond its QB. Running back Steven Jackson has rushed for almost 1,200 yards. A ragtag group of mostly journeymen receivers have made Bradford look great at times, and the Rams defence is starting to show the type of bite expected when defensive guru Spagnuolo took over as head coach before the 2009 season.
So no matter what happens Sunday, or the overall mediocrity of what St. Louis accomplished compared to the rest of the NFC, the general belief is the Rams are on the uptick, despite losing two of three entering the finale.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride. You try to embrace what’s going on, you want to be happy but you don’t want to celebrate too much,” Jackson said. “I kind of feel like I’m shell-shocked. But what we’re doing, what we’re coaching around here . . . I’m really happy.”
So if the Rams are believed to be ascending, then the Seahawks are impossible to decipher. Pete Carroll’s crew started 4-2 and followed by losing seven of nine, showing their vulnerability through key injuries that taxed the Seahawks lack of depth.
Most troubling is Seattle’s inability to be competitive in all of its losses. With the exception of the third quarter on Dec. 5 against Carolina, there might not be a team playing worse over the last month of season than the Seahawks.
And yet, they enter the final week with a chance at their first division title since 2007, after winning just nine combined games the previous two seasons and undergoing a massive overhaul last January when Jim Mora was dismissed and Carroll was hired.