By Tim Booth AP Sports Writer
SEATTLE — Laugh all you want, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks are going to the playoffs as champions of the NFC West.
The Seahawks are the first sub-.500 division champs, taking the division with a 16-6 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday night. Their reward: a home game on Saturday with the defending Super Bowl champion Saints. New Orleans beat the Seahawks 34-19 in Week 11.
Making his second career start, backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst threw a 4-yard TD pass on Seattle’s first possession, Olindo Mare kicked three second-half field goals.
It makes for great jokes from critics, and the situation in the NFC Worst, er, West this season has reignited the debate whether division champs should automatically be granted home playoff games. The New York Giants and Tampa Bay have better records at 10-6, but it’s Seattle that’s playoff bound thanks to a better division record than St. Louis, 4-2 vs. 3-3.
“We didn’t get here the way we all dreamed of getting here, but we got here,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “When it came down to it, the guys played a great football game tonight.”
The Seahawks aren’t apologizing. In his first season as their coach, Carroll was fist-pumping and clapping his way up and down the Seattle sideline in the closing minutes as the Seahawks celebrated their first division title since capping a four-year run of dominance of the division in 2007.
St. Louis (7-9) was kept out of the end zone for the second time this season and rookie Sam Bradford couldn’t complete the Rams’ turnaround from winning just one game a year ago. Bradford finished 19 of 36 for 155 yards, and threw a costly interception midway through the fourth quarter.
“They played better. They won and we lost. I’m proud of the football team for what they accomplished. … The disappointment is all we feel right now,” St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo said.
Now the question for Seattle is who will be the quarterback for its first home playoff game since a January 2008 win over Washington.
Carroll was noncommittal late Sunday night who would start against the Saints. Matt Hasselbeck was active for Sunday night and went through pregame warmups, but Carroll held to his word the Seahawks were preparing for Whitehurst to be their guy after Hasselbeck injured his hip last week at Tampa Bay.
Whitehurst didn’t fail in the second start of his career. He wasn’t spectacular, but he avoided any critical mistakes: no interceptions, no dumb throws, no miscues a team like Seattle couldn’t afford.
“Matt would have been able to play tonight, but it would have put him in a difficult situation,” Carroll said, adding he thought the injury would make Hasselbeck too “vulnerable.”
Whitehurst finished 22 of 36 for 192 yards and his lone touchdown, a 4-yard toss to Mike Williams in the first quarter. Mare connected from 31, 38 and 34 yards in the second half and Seattle spent the final minute with Carroll screaming into the air and players slapping hands with fans in the end zone.
“I’m so proud of him. This was a big deal, big stage for him,” Carroll said of Whitehurst. “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.”
And it helped that Seattle’s defense, maligned for weeks and giving up at least 34 points in four of its last five games, suddenly showed a backbone, making St. Louis’ conservative offensive approach seem even slower.
“It just shows that no matter what happens through an awkward year if a team sticks together they can have a shot at the end to accomplish what they talked about in the beginning,” Seattle safety Lawyer Milloy said. “We know it wasn’t pretty getting here, but what we talked about was right there at the end and we took advantage of it. Nobody can take that away from us.”
Bradford didn’t take his first real shot downfield against the 29th-ranked pass defense until late in the third quarter; all his previous throws were short and safe. Bradford started throwing downfield late, nearly connecting with Danario Alexander on a deep post early in the fourth quarter, only to see the perfect throw go right through Alexander’s hands.
Steven Jackson, the Rams’ best offensive threat, had just 11 carries for 45 yards, continuing a streak of failing to crack 100 yards in his career against the Seahawks. Other than a fumble recovery deep in Seattle’s end that led to Josh Brown’s 27-yard field goal in the third quarter, the Rams failed to cross midfield in the second half until midway through the fourth. That was immediately followed by Bradford’s one big mistake, an interception thrown right at linebacker Will Herring, the first pick of his career.
Seattle then ran off the next 7 minutes, the drive kept alive when the Rams were offside as Mare lined up for a field goal. Jackson sat slumped on the Rams’ bench as Mare finally connected from 34 yards with 1:37 left, ending the Rams’ chance at their first division title since 2003.
It was still a major accomplishment for St. Louis to be in this position a year after going 1-15. It was trying to become the third 8-8 division champ in league history, joining the 1985 Cleveland Browns and 2008 San Diego Chargers.
Whitehurst jogged out to lead the Seahawks on their opening possession, and what a first drive it was.
On his second play, Whitehurst found Ruvell Martin behind a blown coverage for 61 yards to the Rams 13. Five plays later, and after a St. Louis defensive penalty erased a sack, Whitehurst rolled right and threw back left to Williams for a touchdown. It was the fourth time this season Seattle scored a touchdown on its opening drive.Turned out to be all the points the Seahawks needed.