Gridiron Gab Week Seventeen Preview: St. Louis at Seattle

After a season full of ups and downs, the fate of the 2010 NFC West all comes down to its final Sunday matchup.

“You can see it in the looks of the players and the coaches that they’re really looking forward to this weekend,” said Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll during his Wednesday press conference from his team’s Renton, Wash. training facilities regarding his team’s regular season finale against the visiting St. Louis Rams for the right to claim the division title and its entry into the playoffs.

“They’re really cranked up about it…it’s all about winning the championship.”

Headed into the Sunday night matchup at Qwest Field, the Rams (7-8) hold a one-game advantage over the Seahawks (6-9). Should St. Louis win, the Rams would be the National Football League’s third team ever to win a division with an 8-8 record. If Seattle wins, a tiebreaker held by the Seahawks would leapfrog the team over St. Louis and into the playoffs.

A Seahawks victory would also make Seattle the NFL’s first team to play a full season and win a division with a losing record.

“This opportunity that comes up after all that’s gone on this season and positions us with a chance to play for our division is a – makes for a lot of excitement, a lot of fun,” said Carroll.

Headlining the decisive game will be two rather inexperienced players who’ve had very different seasons.

Under center for St. Louis will be Sam Bradford. After being taken first overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, the quarterback from Oklahoma has played a big role in turning around a Rams team that finished 1-15 a year ago and went 6-42 from 2007 to 2009.

“What I’ve seen the most is consistency,” said Seattle’s head coach about the Rams’ first-year signal caller. “He’s been the same guy, you know? He’s not been waivered by the challenges, by the buildups, the hype, the matchups.

“He’s handled it beautifully and not very many guys can do this.”

In the span of his first 15 games, the 6-foot-4, 228-pound Bradford has rewritten league record books.

Last Sunday at home against the 49ers, he surpassed Peyton Manning’s 12-year-old record for most completions in a rookie year with 335. He also jumped over Chris Weinke for second all-time in rookie pass attempts with 554 and needs just 22 more to overtake Manning’s 575 for first place. Bradford’s also become the league’s third rookie to pass for at least 3,000 yards and is also in sight of passing Manning’s all-time rookie record for most passing yards of 3,739, needing 382 more yards to do so.

Where Bradford’s excelled recently is in the short-range passing game. In his team’s 25-17 come-from-behind victory over the visiting 49ers last Sunday, the quarterback completed 21 of 24 pass attempts for 133 yards and a three-yard touchdown pass to Laurent Robinson when throwing passes five-yards or fewer from the line of scrimmage.

“He’s just a natural and can get it done,” said Seattle’s Carroll, “and he’s gonna be a big factor in this division for a long time.”

Bradford’s also shown comfort when the St. Louis offense is in the four-wide spread formation – a formation that the rookie flourished with during a collegiate career that included winning the Heisman Trophy.

Like the Rams, the Seahawks are set to trot out a quarterback Sunday night that has less than a year’s worth of game experience in the NFL.

Thanks to a left hip injury suffered by Matt Hasselbeck during a first-quarter one-yard touchdown run in Seattle’s 38-15 road loss last week to Tampa Bay, backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst is set to get his second-ever start as a professional.

“I’m pumped up for Charlie to take this and am anxious to see our team rally around it,” said Carroll.

After Hasselbeck’s injury last week, Whitehurst came off the bench and struggled for more than his first 15 minutes of action, completing less than 38 percent of his passes. Once finding his rhythm, the five-year veteran completed eight fourth-quarter attempts to finish the day 11-for-18 through the air with 66 yards, yet it was too late as the game’s final minutes waned with Seattle trailing by double digits.

“It’s all on him,” said Whitehurst’s head coach regarding the opportunity for the Seahawks to win the NFC West for the first time since 2007.

“We’ve already talked about that – that this is the big opportunity. This is the big challenge. This is the big spotlight. This is all of that for him and it’s nothing that a player doesn’t dream of having.”

Sunday’s kickoff at Qwest Field between the St. Louis Rams and the Seattle Seahawks is set for 8:20 p.m. Eastern and will be televised by NBC.

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