RENTON, Wash. -- Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll doesn't buy into the idea of big games, or at least he doesn't want his team thinking that way. Carroll's constant messaging to his players is to treat each game like a "championship opportunity." That way their effort, preparation and intensity remain consistent as opposed to ebbing and flowing from week to week.
So you wouldn't expect Carroll to answer any differently than he did when asked if he could remember a regular-season game meaning as much as Sunday's NFC West showdown with the division-leading Los Angeles Rams (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox).
"Yeah, last week and the week before and every one of them have been the same," Carroll said. "It's the same thing. Every one of those gave us a chance to be in first place."
He's actually right, sort of.
The Seahawks (8-5) and Rams (9-4) have both gone 2-2 over their past four games, winning and losing in the same weeks. It means that had Seahawks won their games against Atlanta in Week 11 or at Jacksonville last Sunday, they would have pulled even with the Rams, since L.A. lost those weeks as well. The games the Seahawks won during that stretch -- at San Francisco and versus Philadelphia -- would have done the same thing had Los Angeles lost.
So indeed, the top spot in the division -- or at least a tie for the top spot -- has been on the line for the past month.
But it might as well be on the line for good Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
A Seahawks victory would give the teams the same record, but that would mean a sweep of the season series for Seattle. The Seahawks would control first place in the division by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. Winning their final two games would then assure the Seahawks of finishing in first place.
A loss to the Rams, meanwhile, would put Seattle two games behind with two to go. The Seahawks would need to win out and the Rams would need to lose out for Seattle to win the NFC West (by virtue of a division-record tiebreaker). The Seahawks could be favored in Week 16 at Dallas and probably will be favored in their regular-season finale at home against Arizona. But the Rams' half of that equation is much less likely, given that Los Angeles hosts the 3-10 49ers in Week 17 after playing at Tennessee.
If that scenario doesn't sound improbable enough, consider these numbers from ESPN's Football Power Index. As it stands now, FPI gives the Seahawks a 47 percent chance to win the division. That would increase to 69 percent with a win Sunday but would drop all the way down to 3 percent with a loss. Seattle's chances of making the playoffs -- currently at 64 percent, per FPI -- would be 83 percent with a win and 27 percent with a loss.
Here are three keys for the Seahawks:
Backup LBs stepping up. The Seahawks felt they upgraded their linebacker depth over the offseason by signing veterans Michael Wilhoite and Terence Garvin, and acquiring D.J. Alexander in a trade. They're about to find out just how good that depth is. Those were the three linebackers who finished Sunday's loss at Jacksonville when Bobby Wagner (hamstring) and K.J. Wright (concussion) left in the second half. Wright is not expected to play, and Wagner is going to be a game-time decision. Alexander will start for Wright on the weak side. If Wagner can't play, Wilhoite will move from the strong side to the middle, and Garvin will take over on the strong side. Wagner and Wright are Pro Bowl players and Seattle's leading tacklers. Wagner is a candidate for defensive player of the year. The Seahawks will be missing quite a bit, in other words -- particularly in this matchup given how much the Rams use Todd Gurley as a receiver out of the backfield in addition to a runner. The Seahawks need their backup linebackers to step up in a big way.
More pressure on Jared Goff. Seattle's pass rush has run hot and cold this season. It was decidedly cold in Week 14 as the Seahawks managed zero sacks and all of one official quarterback hit on Blake Bortles. Needless to say, they'll need more pressure to have a chance against a Rams offense that ranks second in points per game at 30.5. Two of the four turnovers the Seahawks forced on defense in the first meeting against the Rams were a direct result of pressure on Goff. One was a strip-sack by Frank Clark. The other was an errant throw Earl Thomas picked off after Seattle collapsed the pocket in Goff's face. More plays like that will help Seattle's defense make up for what it's missing in personnel.
Faster start on offense. The Seahawks are tied for 18th in first-quarter scoring this season with 49 points. By comparison, the Rams lead the league with twice that amount, 98 points. The Seahawks' 809 yards in the first quarter this season is 30th. You get the point; they've been notoriously slow starters on offense. While they'd be better served starting faster in any game, that would be particularly helpful Sunday. The Seahawks can't count on holding the Rams to only 10 points as they did in the first meeting. That's not realistic given all the starters Seattle is and could be missing on defense. The Seahawks also can't continue to count on Russell Wilson rallying them back in the fourth quarter. The Jacksonville loss was a reminder of that as Wilson threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes but couldn't come up with a third. The Seahawks haven't scored a touchdown on their opening drive in 26 consecutive regular-season games. Sunday would be a good time to end that streak.
It takes a particularly bad matchup to pick against the Seahawks in a December home game, but that's what they're facing. The Rams might be the NFL's most complete team. They're also much healthier than the Seahawks. Yes, the Seahawks held them to 10 points in the first meeting, but they needed five takeaways and a dropped pass in the end zone to do it. And that was with a defense that was still mostly intact. Seattle is already without Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. Not having Wright and possibly Wagner will be lot to overcome against an excellent offense, even at home. Rams 24, Seahawks 21.