When: 4:25 pm. ET, Sunday Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle TV: FOX
It all comes down to this for the Seattle Seahawks. They must beat one of the four teams that beat them earlier this season in order to reach all their regular-season goals.
The Seahawks (11-4) play the St. Louis Rams (6-9) on Sunday at CenturyLink Field with everything on the line. A victory will clinch the NFC West title for Seattle and give the Seahawks home-field advantage for the playoffs, barring an unlikely tie between the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions.
But the Rams defeated the Seahawks 28-26 earlier this year, only 48 hours after the shocking trade of Percy Harvin. Now the Rams hope to spoil Seattle’s playoff plans.
Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount take an in-depth look at both teams heading into this important regular-season finale.
Blount: Nick, I guess the most obvious question is what in the world happened to the Rams defense last week? The New York Giants, not exactly an offensive juggernaut, scored 37 points and had over 500 yards of offense.
Wagoner: I'm not sure even the Rams know what hit them on Sunday. What the Rams had done in the previous eight weeks, let alone the previous three was not sustainable, but to see it go from one extreme to the other was shocking. Words like unacceptable, shocking and embarrassing were being used by various members of the defense after the game. On a more X's and O's front, the Rams weren't getting much pass rush, and when they tried to generate it with the blitz, Eli Manning picked them apart. It was strange to see the Rams shut down Peyton Manning only to get picked apart by little brother. I also am of the belief the Rams secondary let Odell Beckham Jr. get in their heads. They were upset when he spun the ball after a touchdown and there were rumors that he'd gotten under their skin with some pregame trash-talking. If that's all it takes to get them off balance, maybe Doug Baldwin should conduct another impromptu news conference with Richard Sherman. I still tend to think this was more of an aberration for the defense, but they should be past having their bad games be that bad at this point in the rebuilding project.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, things are clicking at just the right time. I know the Seahawks have gotten some guys healthy in recent weeks. Is there more to their current run than that? If so, what are a few things that have them rolling right now?
Blount: Certainly getting healthy on defense, especially the return of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, has been a big factor in an amazing defensive run the last five games, when the Seahawks have allowed only 33 total points. But overall, the biggest turnaround moment for the team, on and off the field, was trading Percy Harvin. At first it was a shocker, and they paid the price with the loss at St. Louis, but the long-term effect was getting back to who they were as an offense, a power-running team that feeds the beast in Marshawn Lynch and makes things happen in the passing game off play-action and Russell Wilson's running ability. Just as important is the change in attitude that came after Harvin was sent packing. They eliminated a locker-room disruption and starting believing in each other again, regaining their swagger from a year ago.
I know the Rams were hoping for better this year than a losing record, but things got off to a bad start with quarterback Sam Bradford's injury. Even so, the team still had a chance finish with a winning record before back-to-back losses. What’s gone wrong this season, and where do they go from here?
Wagoner: Looking at it now, there's not any one thing to point to. The quarterback situation certainly hasn't helped, and when Bradford went down it set off a chain of events that made it tougher. But it's been more far-reaching than just quarterback. The defense took about seven weeks to finally jell and become the type of unit that could help them beat anybody. And even after that happened, they still had bad performances like the San Diego and New York games in their back pocket. Meanwhile, the offense has been good enough to beat some bad defenses like Oakland and Washington, but it hasn't been good enough to overcome top defenses consistently (though they have scored just enough to beat a couple). The funny thing is I keep seeing people say the Rams "only" need to find a quarterback to get going next year. And I "only" need to hit the lottery to be able to retire early. Point is, there's truth to the idea that an upgrade at quarterback would make them a contender -- they also need to bolster the offensive line at two, maybe three spots -- but it's obviously not that easy to find a difference-maker at quarterback. For proof, one needs only to look around the league. They'd like to bring Bradford back at a reduced rate and spend a relatively high pick on another quarterback. If they can do that, bolster the line and add a couple of pieces on defense, they could be in the mix. The good news is they don't have as many needs as they've had in past years. The bad news is the needs they do have are difficult ones to fill, especially the most important one of all.
Seattle's defense is firing on all cylinders. Maybe it's unfair to ask this, because I don't want to put you in a prisoner-of-the-moment scenario, but can you put some historical context behind what we're seeing from that group? Between last year and where that group is now, is it fair to start including this group in the conversation with some of the greatest defenses of all time?
Blount: I love this question. Look, I know people get testy when you start saying the "best of all time" and the "greatest defense ever" and that kind of stuff. But I’m telling you, in my 30-plus years of doing this for a living, I’ve never seen anything quite like the dominating force of the Seahawks over the last five weeks. That includes the 1986 Bears defense under Buddy Ryan. That famous “46” defense was led by Mike Singletary in the middle, and this one is by Wagner. The Seahawks aren’t as good at rushing the passer as that defense was, but the Seattle secondary is well on its way to going down as the best in NFL history with Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and cornerback Byron Maxwell, one of the most underrated players in the league.
Nick, the Rams have nothing to play for and the Seahawks have everything on the line, the NFC West title and home-field advantage for the playoffs. It’s similar to the season finale a year ago that Seattle won. The Seahawks got it done that day, but Jeff Fisher has been a thorn in Seattle’s side. Do you sense the Rams will be fired up to be spoilers or has the ship sailed for 2014 and they’ll just go through the motions?
Wagoner: I know Jeff Fisher would disagree with me; heck I know he does disagree with me because he said so last week, but I thought the Rams came out flat against the Giants. To their credit, they did try to fight their way back into that game, but I was surprised to see how they started and some of the silly mistakes a team playing its 15th game shouldn't be making. That said, I expect the Rams to be fired up for this game. One thing Fisher has rarely had trouble doing is getting his team ready and excited to play division foes, even if the results haven't always been great. They love the underdog role and have embraced it enough to beat teams like Denver, San Francisco and Seattle earlier this year when people have written off their chances as a long shot. That's not to say the Rams are going to win, but I tend to doubt they'll just mail it in.
Terry, certainly all signs point to the Super Bowl going back through Seattle and the Seahawks being the favorites to win it all again. That's a tough task for any team but especially one trying to repeat. So what are a couple of things that might prevent them from doing it? Are there any weaknesses significant enough -- other than possible injuries, which can happen to anyone -- that teams can exploit right now?
Blount: There doesn’t appear to be any on defense, but there were plenty of questions about the Seattle offense in recent weeks, until Sunday night at Arizona. It was a real “wow” moment, with the Seahawks setting a franchise record of 596 yards of offense against a good defense in the Cardinals. It was big play after big play -- an 80-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Luke Willson, a 55-yard run by Wilson, a 49-yard pass to Doug Baldwin and a 79-yard touchdown run by Lynch, a Beast Mode special that you had to see to believe. What allowed all that to happen was surprisingly strong play up front by an offensive line that was missing two starters. The offensive line has been the obvious weakness of this team the last two seasons. They were sensational last weekend, but I’m not convinced they can play at that level throughout the playoffs. Pass blocking has been a big issue at times, the one thing that could derail this remarkable run.