This is the same as the previous regular-season finale for the Seahawks: a game on the road against a division opponent that isn’t playing for anything.
Sunday’s game at the miserable San Francisco 49ers (2-13) is so different in every other way for the Seahawks (9-5-1). So this really is a new year.
Unlike last Jan. 3 at Arizona, Seattle doesn’t have its place set in the NFC playoffs. Last January, the Seahawks knew they were a wild card and heading on the road the following week, in what turned out to be a Minnesota ice box.
These Seahawks need a sixth consecutive win over San Francisco, which won last week for the first time in 3 1/2 months, 22-21 at Los Angeles. And the Seahawks need New Orleans (7-8) to upset the NFC South champion Falcons in Atlanta in a game that kicks off at the same time (1:25 p.m.) as Seattle does.
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If that happens, the Seahawks will steal back the second seed in the NFC, which they lost by blowing their home game against eliminated Arizona on Christmas Eve. That would mean next weekend off during the wild-card round and a second-round game at home.
Barring a Saints upset of the NFL’s highest-scoring team, the Seahawks’ fate will also hinge on the New York Giants’ game at Washington, also a 1:25 p.m. kickoff, and on the NFC North division title game in Detroit between the Lions and Packers starting at 5:25 p.m.
An expected Atlanta win, a Washington victory and Seattle win would mean the third-seeded Seahawks would host sixth-seeded wild card Washington next weekend.
A Packers win over the Lions in that scenario would put the Packers as the fourth seed on the other side of the conference’s playoff bracket from Seattle. They couldn’t meet until the NFC title game. That can’t be bad for the Seahawks, considering they lost at Green Bay, 38-10, on Dec. 11. It was the most lopsided loss for Seattle in six years.
A Giants win would eliminate Washington and put the loser of Detroit-Green Bay in the sixth spot. If Seattle is the third seed, which will happen if chalk occurs (Atlanta and the Seahawks win Sunday), the Lions-Packers loser would play in Seattle next week.
But if the Saints win? It’s all chill for Seattle until Jan. 14 or 15, and the Seahawks would improbably be one home playoff win from the conference title game.
Got all that?
Coach Pete Carroll claims not to.
Bay Area media members asked the Seahawks coach this past week on a midweek conference call whether he was going to have someone updating him on the sidelines Sunday on how the Saints-Falcons game was going.
“I don’t care about that. I really don’t,” Carroll said. “I’ll get in the locker room, and there will be plenty of time to figure that out or somebody will throw it on the board. I don’t care.
“We have to go play football the way we want to play and take care of our business. It isn’t really about the other stuff. That just comes to you when the time is right.”
Seattle’s time will be a lot more right if it can get Thomas Rawls right. That, in turn, would go a long way to getting the inconsistent offense right.
Rawls has missed most or all of 13 games, including both of the playoff games last season, in his two years with the Seahawks. His bruised shoulder that cost him the final two quarters of last weekend’s loss to Arizona did not keep him out of practice this week.
It was his third injury in 12 1/2 months. The broken ankle that ended his standout rookie season kept him limited into September. Early in the second game of this season, he cracked his fibula and missed the next two months.
Has he been frustrated by the injuries as the offense has sputtered through three games without scoring a touchdown and struggled inside the 10 begin the Christmas Eve loss?
“Not at all,” Rawls said.
“I mean, I think the most frustrating injury probably was when I broke my ankle. It was broken. But these little nicks and injuries, I’ve been playing through stuff since I was little. I’ve got the right mentality and toughness to be in this offense. That’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
Now he gets a prime chance to get right. Among San Francisco’s many problems is the bottom-ranked total defense and run defense in the NFL.
Seattle’s defense is still stinging from giving up 34 points at home to Arizona, including the winning field goal on the final play after the Cardinals passed their way from their own 25 to the Seahawks’ 25 in 57 seconds.
That’s no way to advance in the playoffs.
“We just have to do a better job. We have to take pride when we’re in those positions,” Pro Bowl middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “The game on the line and we have to stop it. That’s on us, nobody else.”
The Seahawks smacked San Francisco in the previous meeting, a 37-18 win at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 25. It was a 37-3 game with 12 minutes left. Wagner intercepted the 49ers’ Blaine Gabbert, who completed 14 of 25 throws for 119 yards. That remains the fewest net passing yards allowed by Seattle this season.
This time, Gabbert will be on the sideline watching Colin Kaepernick make his 11th consecutive start. He has completed a career-low 57 percent of his throws but has 15 touchdowns against four interceptions.
This might be Kaepernick’s last game with the Niners. The former archenemy of the Seahawks signed a renegotiated contract the day after he took the job back from Gabbert in October. It includes more guaranteed money and a clause that can make him a free agent this coming spring.
“For me, once again, my focus this week is making sure I’m prepared for Seattle,” Kaepernick said during the past week, “because we’re going to have our hands full there. My focus is solely on that.”
The Seahawks are also annoyed that the loss to Arizona last weekend almost assuredly ended their chance to lead the NFL in fewest points allowed for a fifth consecutive season. Last season, Seattle became the first team to lead the league in scoring defense four consecutive years since the Cleveland Browns did it for five years in a row from 1953-57.
AFC-leading New England, which plays at Miami on Sunday, has allowed 33 fewer points than Seattle entering Sunday.
“There’s still a chance,” Wagner said, smiling.
“It means a lot. We pride ourselves on not putting points on the board and not being scored on. That shows the consistency of doing that over the years. We still have one more game, and hopefully something crazy happens.”
Like finally resembling the previous four Seahawks teams entering the playoffs, perhaps?
“We want to try to finish this thing off right,” Carroll said. “There’s a lot going on this weekend in the league and things can happen and all of that. We need to take care of our business and play a good football game.
“It’s really on us to play well. We want to do things the way we want to do them and look right, knowing next week is coming up — and whatever happens after that.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (9-5-1) AT SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (2-13)
1:25 p.m. Sunday, Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
The series: The Seahawks have won five consecutive regular-season meetings and seven of their last eight against their NFC West rivals. San Francisco last beat Seattle on Dec. 8, 2013 — 19-17, at the now-demolished Candlestick Park. A loss by the 49ers here would tie the most consecutive defeats in the all-time series. Seattle leads it 20-15, not including its 23-17 home win in the NFC championship game on Jan. 19, 2014.
Line: Seahawks by 9 1/2.
Get Rawls rolling: His first carry Sunday will be the latest he’s ever rushed in any football season, going all the way back to when he was at Northern High School in Flint, Michigan. Last week, he missed the second half of the loss to Arizona with a bruised shoulder, but he practiced full all this past week. He’s had three injuries in the last 12 1/2 months, and what offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell rightly called a “Rolodex of runners” has been a large reason Seattle is 22nd in the NFL in rushing. Getting Rawls going against the league’s worst run defense is job one for the Seahawks’ inconsistent offense before the playoffs begin.
Look and feel like a playoff team: The champions of the weak NFC West looked and played last week like they were closer to the offseason than the postseason. This is no time to be coasting, not with a first-round game possibly looming next weekend. Russell Wilson cited the need to have requisite “tenacity” from the very start of games. If they don’t get tenacity right away, they could be one and done in the playoffs. “In terms of finding the tenacity in every game, I think it’s just within,” Wilson said. “I think it’s communication, execution, I think it’s continuing to be engaged and continuing to find the importance in every single play, every single detail.” If they can’t be tenacious against the league’s worst defense, they aren’t nearly as good as they think they are.
Fix the issues in the secondary: Colin Kaepernick isn’t likely to do what Arizona’s Carson Palmer did last weekend to Steven Terrell at free safety: Fool Terrell with his eyes to get him out of the middle of the field. The Cardinals got an 80-yard touchdown out of that. But Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan and most other quarterbacks Seattle could see in the playoffs sure will try that. Earl Thomas’ absence at free safety showed up large last week for the first time since he broke his tibia Dec. 4. Terrell — or potential replacements Jaron Johnson or Kelcie McCray — need to be sharper quickly.
If ever Seattle had a game in which the opponent doesn’t matter, it’s this one. The Seahawks get Rawls running and feel at least somewhat better about starting the playoffs — probably next week. Seahawks 21, 49ers 6.
15 — Jermaine Kearse, WR (6-1, 209, fifth season): Back to No. 2 receiver with Lockett out for year, weeks after demotion. Wilson still trusts him in key spots.
23 — Steven Terrell, FS (5-10, 197, fourth season): Arizona’s Carson Palmer exposed him with eye tricks last week. Will Earl Thomas’ absence end up being lethal?
34 — Thomas Rawls, RB (5-9, 215, second season): Seahawks won’t go far in playoffs if he doesn’t get going, starting now.
7 — Colin Kaepernick, QB (6-4, 230, sixth season): Making his 11th consecutive start. Missed first meeting, Seattle’s blowout win in September. Could be his last game for 49ers.
32 — DuJuan Harris, RB (5-7, 206, third season): A Seahawk for a month last season, he is injured Carlos Hyde’s replacement as lead runner.
55 — Ahmad Brooks, LB (6-3, 259, 11th season): Veteran has six sacks in his past five games against Russell Wilson.
Gregg Bell: firstname.lastname@example.org