SEATTLE – Somebody had to win it, so it might as well be the place that spawned Temple of the Dog.
Viva the NFC West, a division so weak and mediocre -- if we were in a holiday hangover mood we'd call it just plain awful – it's sending a sub-.500 team to next Saturday's slaughterhouse. The Seattle Seahawks, by virtue of a 16-6 win over the St. Louis Rams here Sunday night, will play host to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Wild Card, and really, isn't that pretty much the exact scenario Pete Carroll had in mind when he brought his coaching talents to the Pacific Northwest?
Sure, Carroll didn't predict it happening quite like this, but the first-year Seattle coach is hardly bothered his 7-9 team is the first with a losing record to make the playoffs in the modern era. He began the season on such a high, firing up the fan base with a 4-2 start, but then came the maddening free-fall, the Seahawks losing seven of nine games, blowouts everywhere. A recent poll had more Seattle fans hoping the Seahawks would lose their final game so the team would get a higher draft pick, rather than beating the Rams and prolonging the inevitable face slap.
Embarrassing, slipping so ignobly into the playoffs? Tell that to the New York Giants, who'd love to be this embarrassed. Or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who wouldn't mind such a slip.
"We didn't get here the way we all dreamed of getting here, but we got here," Carroll said. "We really came together on this night and played really good ball. A complete win for us and I'm really fired up about that."
Now Carroll gets a cozy reunion with Reggie Bush, just one of the spicy sidebars to a postseason game few expected. Some other twists to ponder: Will Charlie Whitehurst, so inspiring and mistake-free in just his second NFL start, get the call at quarterback against the Saints, or will Carroll go with old-reliable Matt Hasselbeck, whose injuries should be mostly healed? Can the Seattle defense do to Drew Brees what it did to St. Louis rookie quarterback Sam Bradford? Were those pod people posing as Seahawks rushers? Is it possible for Qwest Field to get any louder, or should fans just assume hearing loss is part of the pain?
"I'm so proud of him. This was a big deal, big stage for him," Carroll said of Whitehurst, while dodging the question of which QB gets the next, most important start. "So proud of Matt for trying to get back tonight. It was great we didn't have to play him. Charlie had his chance, stepped up and did it."
There's irony in Carroll going to the postseason while his former team, USC, can't because of naughty behavior under Carroll's watch. Lately his "Win Forever" motivational mantra has seemed more like a punch line around here, but imagine if Carroll can get these Seahawks to knock off the defending Super Bowl champions. The Saints are beat up, they've played their share of mediocre ball, and instead of the comfy familiarity of their dome they have to survive the eardrum-destroying 12th man of Qwest. New Orleans has never won a road playoff game, one of those NFL quirks that makes Saturday all the more compelling.
"I hear that this has never happened before. I think that's kind of cool," Carroll said. "If you've ever followed my track record and thought about the systems that you've played in, where it's college and the BCS or here in the NFL system, this is the system. I don't give a crap about that. We just played it out and this is what happened."
Few would argue the obvious: this Seattle team is the worst to host a playoff game in the vast and storied history of the NFL. But what's the league to do? Change the rules in January, just so next Saturday doesn't look so preposterous? Carroll kept referring to Sunday against the Rams as "championship night," but his gushing hyperbole didn't make it true. The Seahawks are a losing team, bouncing into a second season meant to be reserved for winners. Pardon them if they pretend not to see the eye rolls.
"It was just nuts out there," Seattle safety Lawyer Milloy was saying in a jubilant locker room, a scene he knew well during all those giddy seasons with the New England Patriots. "None of what we did this season was pretty, we know that. It doesn't matter. Once you're in the dance anything can happen."
A pitiful sight, seeing the divisional banner flying above Qwest Field? Tell that to the Arizona Cardinals, who'd love to have such a pitiful banner waving in the wind.
The Rams had the worst record across the past three seasons, but they were one win away from the playoffs and might be entertaining Brees and Co., if it weren't for Seattle's resurrected defense, so maligned after allowing at least 34 points in five of its last six games. St. Louis had more punts than points, as the Seahawks' front seven hurried Bradford, tipping his passes and forcing him to throw into thick coverage. For the second time this season, St. Louis (7-9) never sniffed the end zone.
For just a rookie, Bradford has quite the resume: Heisman winner as a sophomore out of Oklahoma, overall first round pick, franchise QB who hadn't missed a snap all season while pulling St. Louis from a league-worst 1-15 season in 2009. But Sunday, Bradford's night went from tough to terrible. His offense ended the first half with a series that included a false start, a sack, two timeouts, a punt and plenty of hearing loss due to recreational noise exposure. Bradford was never a big threat, his passes dropping like rain drops through receivers' hands. Two missed opportunities in the fourth were especially brutal: a third and 9 on the St. Louis 11 that Daniel Fells couldn't corral, and a perfectly thrown ball on second and 7, the Rams forced back to the 27, that slipped right through the arms of Danario Alexander.
When Bradford threw directly into the chest of Seattle's Will Herring, allowing the Seahawks to take over on their 37 with 8:42 left, it was time to cue the grunge and trust Whitehurst and the Seattle running game.
That's right. The Seattle running game, the dregs of the NFL.
Maybe it was the competition, or maybe the Seahawks are late bloomers. After doing not much in the first half – "when you never thought we'd get an inch," Carroll said -- they ripped it up for 141 yards on the ground, Marshawn Lynch picking up 75 of them. The Seahawks call him the Beast Mode, and he sure fit the nickname on the team's last drive, after Herring's interception. The Beast carried the ball nine times, setting up Olindo Mare's 34-yard field goal. (He'd already nailed two from 31 and 38 yards.)
"Marshawn was awesome," said Whitehurst, using the same word to describe Seattle's defense, the coach who trusted him and the line that protected him. "It was just an awesome night all around."
During four years with the San Diego Chargers, Whitehurst didn't throw a pass in the regular season. He started one game for the Seahawks since being traded to Seattle in March, but when Hasselbeck strained his hip last Sunday, the son of former Green Bay quarterback David Whitehurst figured his time had come.
They called Carroll "big balls Pete" at USC for a reason. He had Whitehurst come out attacking, leading Seattle to a quick 7-0 lead on the game's first series, before the 12th man had sufficiently warmed the vocal chords. It was something, Whitehurst's 5 of 5 for 85 yards on the opening drive, including a 61-yard pass to Ruvell Martin behind blown coverage that gave the Seahawks a first down at the Rams' 13. Whitehurst hit four different receivers in that drive, capping it with a 4-yard TD pass to Mike Williams.
"All of us did what we were asked to do, what we were expected to do," said Whitehurst, who finished 22 of 36 for 192 yards, who didn't take your breath away but capably managed the game and avoided making any mistakes. He was simply, exactly, what the Seahawks needed – reliable efficiency.
Hasselbeck was active for Sunday night's game and went through early warm-ups, but Carroll said he didn't want to put him "in a difficult situation" with limited mobility due to an injury that would make Hasselbeck "vulnerable." Six weeks ago, Hasselbeck played one of his best games against New Orleans, completing 72.7 percent of his passes for 366 yards and a 104.9 passer rating in the Superdome. Seattle still lost, 34-19.
A joke that the Seahawks, of all teams, would have a quarterback controversy? Tell that to the San Francisco 49ers, who'd love to face such a dilemma this late in the season.
Carroll, the coach who has found his way back to the NFL at, apparently, just the right time, spent the closing minutes at Qwest Field running up and down the sideline, pumping his fist and clapping and getting drowned out by the madness. Laugh all you want at the Seahawks, 7-9 and playoff-bound. Carroll's laughing right with you.
Before the game, Milloy, no stranger to the postseason, warmed up his defense by screaming: "That carrot's dangling right in front of your face! It doesn't matter how we got here, we're here! You better get that carrot! You better eat that carrot! Be the rabbit!"
After the game, after the Seahawks had done something no other NFL team had done, Milloy said, "Yep, we got the carrot. Who's laughing now?"
Watch highlights from Sunday's games: