Countdown to kickoff

Greetings from a chilly Qwest Field, where the Seahawks will host the 11-2 Atlanta Falcons this afternoon in a matchup of NFC division leaders.

What would it be like if the Seahawks were to win the NFC West and advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2007? A lot like this.

“If we do expect to make the playoffs, it’s going to be a team like this that we match up with,” middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu said after practice Friday.

Whoever wins the NFC West – and the Seahawks are tied with the St. Louis Rams at 6-7 – they will be the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, as the division winner with the worst record. They will host the No. 5 seed in the first round of the playoffs, or the wild-card team with the best record. Right now that would be the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. But the Saints (10-3) still can catch the Falcons in the NFC South, and they meet next Monday night in Atlanta.

So that fifth seed could go to the Falcons, if they don’t take care of business in the final three weeks of the regular season.

Could the Falcons possibly stumble today? They’re making their only cross-country trip of the season. They’re playing the last of three consecutive road games. They could be caught looking ahead to their rematch with the Saints (the Falcons won in New Orleans earlier this season). They could be caught overlooking the Seahawks, who have lost five of their past seven games.

“Nobody’s around here talking and saying, ‘We’ve got to play New Orleans next Monday night,’ ” said wide receiver Roddy White, who leads the Falcons and the league in receptions. “We’re just all about the Seahawks this week. We know we need to come down there and get us a big road won and that’s our focus.”

So, will the Falcons find the same kind of success at Qwest as the last two teams to come in here with winning records? The New York Giants handed the Seahawks a 41-7 loss to open November and the Kansas City Chiefs hung a 42-24 loss on them to close the month.

The Falcons are one formidable foe – “beautifully balanced,” as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll put it this week.

They hold the best record in the conference. They have won seven in a row, the longest current streak in the league. They are 5-2 on the road. They have a quarterback (Matt Ryan) who is playing at a high, and efficient, level. They have a big running back (Michael Turner) who also has speed. They have White and his 99 receptions. They have Tony Gonzalez, one of the most productive tight ends in NFL history. They have an underrated offensive line, which has been intact for the past three seasons. They have a solid defense that features end John Abraham, who has 11 sacks this season and 100 for his career; and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who leads the team in tackles. They have a multitalented special teams standout in Eric Weems, who leads the team in coverage tackles and his third in the league in kickoff-return average.

And, they have incentive, even in a matchup where it appears they shouldn’t.

“We don’t look down the road,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We try to keep it very segmented in the process of our preparation and Seattle is a darn-good football team that’s fighting for a playoff spot.”

That they are. The Rams hold the tiebreaker in the NFC West, because they beat the Seahawks in St. Louis in Week 4. The Rams play the Kansas City Chiefs (8-5) today and the San Francisco 49ers (5-9) next week – both at home – before coming to Qwest for the regular-season finale on Jan. 2. The Seahawks travel to Tampa next week, to face the Bucs (8-5).

So for the Seahawks, the playoffs actually start this afternoon. That’s the approach they need to take. That’s the message Carroll has been hammering home all week.

“You look at this one, this is like a playoff game that you have at home against a really good team coming in if you’re able to win the division,” Carroll said on Friday. “So we have taken a look at it like that, and I don’t know what that’s going to mean to our guys other than the fact that we’ve really focused hard on these guys and we want to have a heckuva game.”

There are some interesting storylines in this game, and here are links to some of them:

The matchup of two former Boston College quarterbacks named Matt – the Seahawks’ Hasselbeck and the Falcons’ Ryan.

The battle of the Babineaux brothers – with Jordan playing for the Seahawks and Jonathan, his younger brother, a D-tackle for the Falcons.

The continuing comeback that is Leon Washington’s impressive story. A year ago, he was recovering from a severely broken leg. Last week, he returned his league-leading third kickoff for a touchdown.

The returns of the Seahawks’ starting wide receivers, after leading receiver Mike Williams and flanker Ben Obomanu sat out last week with injuries.

So settle in for some “playoff” football – good, bad or otherwise. We’ll be back later with the lists of inactive players …

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