You know the well-worn Pete Carroll homily, every week is a championship opportunity? The one intended to level out the importance of each game, and equalize the attention each gets from his players?
Sunday’s showdown between Seattle (8-5) and the first-place Los Angeles Rams (9-4) at CenturyLink Field is the biggest regular-season game in years for the Seahawks.
And Seahawks players know it.
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"I mean this is a big-time game," strong safety Bradley McDougald said, discarding the coach speak and getting real. "A lot of our season falls into this one game.
"So I mean, it’s pressure. And what are you going to do with that?... This is, we are controlling our own destiny right now and that is the beauty of it and I think guys love it.
"I love it. We control what we do. We win, we know what happens. We lose, we know what happens. I think that is where everybody’s mindset is at."
With a win, the Seahawks would seize first place in the division with two games remaining in the regular season, plus the third or fourth spot in the NFC’s race for six playoff berths. They would have the inside track to at least one postseason home game early next month. They would own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Rams. All, if they can slow down the league’s second-ranked offense and win on Sunday.
If Seattle loses for the third time in four home games Sunday it will be two games behind Los Angeles with two games remaining. The Seahawks would have six defeats and fall further behind Atlanta (8-5) for the last playoff spot in the NFC, where at least one 10-6 team seems destined to miss the playoffs. Seattle cannot end the regular-season tied with the Falcons for the final playoff spot and still qualify, because Atlanta owns the tiebreaker from winning at CenturyLink Field last month.
The statistical website FiveThirtyEight.com says if the Seahawks beat the Rams Sunday they will have a 79-percent chance to make the playoffs. If the Seahawks lose to L.A. its playoff probability drops to 19 percent.
So, yeah, this is gigantic.
Even Russell Wilson, who at times uses the same words and even the same voice inflections as Carroll to stay in lock-step with his coach, knows it.
The Seahawks’ two-time Super Bowl starting quarterback said with a wry smile when asked about the importance of this one: "I’ve been in some big games before."
Wilson is coming off the fourth game of his career with at least three interceptions. Those offset three touchdown passes in last week’s 30-24 loss at Jacksonville that squandered Seattle’s chance to already be tied for the division lead. The loss and the mistakes cooled national talk of Wilson becoming the league’s most valuable player for creating more than 80 percent of his team’s yards, with his passing arm and running legs.
Two of Wilson’s interceptions were uncharacteristic 50-50 jump balls deep down the field into the NFL’s best secondary. The Rams’ secondary has not been as dominant as the Jaguars’ top-ranked pass defense. The strength of Los Angeles’ defense is in the front seven that for years has made games miserable slogs for Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense.
The strength of the Rams’ defensive front is from rush end Robert Quinn, running, thumping safety-turned-linebacker Mark Barron and dominant, three-technique defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
"When I think about Aaron Donald, he’s probably, in my opinion, the best defensive player I’ve ever played against," Wilson said.
"That’s a pretty big statement. I’ve played against some really good guys."
Donald plays between the opposing guard and center, and most often on the right side of the Rams’ defense next to the speed and length of Quinn on right end. They will be opposite the strength of Seattle’s iffy offensive line, 10-year left tackle Duane Brown, who was holding out with the Houston Texans the last time the Seahawks played the Rams, and fellow veteran left guard Luke Joeckel.
Donald and Quinn versus Joeckel and Brown is Sunday’s key matchup along the line of scrimmage. The winner of it could become the winner of the division.
The Seahawks’ play caller, and will steer Seattle’s offense accordingly.
"Aaron Donald, that guy can make plays in any scheme," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "He’s a guy to be reckoned with, and we have to make sure that we take care of him and account for him all the time.
"Obviously, Robert Quinn as well. Both of those two guys can really wreck a game."
Or, in the case of how mammoth this game is, an entire season.
The Seahawks are likely to try to establish a running game its lacked all season, against the Rams’ rushing defense that curiously is ranked 28th in the league despite all the talent and speed in their front seven. Mike Davis, a forgotten practice-squad player for the first 10 weeks of this season, bulled for 49 yards on four consecutive carries at the end of the first half at Jacksonville last week. He gained 66 yards and seemed on his way to more before he got a rib injury in the second half.
Davis practiced all week. He appears ready in Seattle’s latest attempt to absolve Wilson from his season-long burden of having to be brilliant in every way for the Seahawks to win.
Davis and Brown, acquired in a trade with Houston at the end of October, are two ways the Seahawks’ offense is different than the one that beat the Rams 16-10 in week five. Another is that was the last game Joeckel played before he got needed surgery to clean out his knee and relieve pain. And Jimmy Graham hadn’t joined the Seahawks’ season yet in early October.
Wilson’s nine touchdown passes to Jimmy Graham in the last nine games are all of Graham’s scores this season, and they’ve all come in the red zone on one-on-one mismatches in Seattle’s favor.
But last week in Jacksonville targeted Graham just three times, two on throws that bounced off his hands incomplete and one underthrown ball that Graham made no effort back to and got intercepted.
"We have come a long way," Bevell said. "That’s a long time ago, that (first Rams) game. We’ve evolved in a lot of ways passing game-wise. We’ve also been trying to find the running game, and you can see it kind of starting to come together…in the continuity that we have.
"I like the direction that’s heading in."
The Seahawks’ defense has changed since the one that throttled the Rams more than two months ago—for the worse. Five players who have a combined 13 Pro Bowl selections are injured are out for the season. Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril played in that Oct. 8 game in which the Rams scored 20 fewer points than their season average. All are out for the year with major injuries.
All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is questionable to play because of a strained hamstring, and will be a game-time decision Sunday, Carroll said.
Pro Bowl outside linebacker K.J. Wright entered the weekend still in the league’s concussion protocol after a head-to-head hit last weekend at Jacksonville. Wright is doubtful to play.
That makes Rams dynamic running back Todd Gurley even more dangerous. Los Angeles coach Sean McVay said multiple times this week he wants to give Gurley more carries in Seattle than the 13 he got—for 96 yards—in the Rams’ 43-35 home loss to Philadelphia last weekend. No team has throttled Gurley in his three-year career more than Seattle. But that was with Wagner and Wright healthy and stopping him.
Knowing Wagner’s hyper-competitiveness and his mega-importance to the entire defense, the signal caller and traffic cop, the Seahawks’ elite pass defender, run stopper and blitzer is likely to try to play.
This game is too important for their most important defender to miss.
Even Carroll can acknowledge some of that.
"Alright, here it is. It’s coming up to a great ballgame in the division," he said.
"I know the place is going to be crazy and wild for it, and we’re going to be the same way. It can’t come soon enough. We’re ready to go."