While recent history has sparked an intense rivalry between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, it's easy to forget that upon the inception of the new NFC West in 2002, it was the Seahawks and St. Louis Rams that really traded blows amid the first few years. Although the Rams fell off for most of the decade, head coach Jeff Fisher has seemingly turned things around and though they can't make the playoffs this year, they seem to be getting closer.
If they can beat the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 17 and finish at .500 for the first time in seven years, it would go a long way towards proving that the Rams have arrived. On the other hand, if the Seahawks win, they'll win the West for the first time since 2010 and be the No. 1 seed for the second time in franchise history.
Neither team will be letting up in this one, with plenty on the line for both. Here is a closer look at this pivotal matchup between two teams in the best division in football.
Meet the Seahawks
It's wild to think that the NFC West could be the best division in the NFL, considering that just three years ago, the Seahawks won the West with a 7-9 record. That was the first year of head coach Pete Carroll and he's since helped turn them around from being the best team in the worst division, to possibly being the best of the best.
But to solidify that, he's going to need his team to play a full four quarters of its best football against the Rams. That didn't really happen in Seattle's Week 16 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, when a win would've made this game meaningless in the standings.
Quarterback Russell Wilson had perhaps his worst game as a professional, completing only 40.7 percent of his passes for barely more than 100 yards and turning the ball over on their final possession with the game on the line. The Seahawks are going to need the passing offense to be a lot more on point if they're going to beat St. Louis, while also hoping that Marshawn Lynch can go "full beast" on the ground.
One thing that doesn't seem to be an issue is the defense.
The Seahawks still boast the top pass defense in the NFL, while ranking second in points allowed and first in total yards allowed. A low-scoring game would come as a surprise to nobody, but it's also exactly what could give the Rams a chance to pull off the upset.
Meet the Rams
When quarterback Sam Bradford went on injured reserve with a torn ACL, it seemed hopeless that St. Louis could finish .500 with Kellen Clemens as the starter for the rest of the season. However, they've actually gone 4-4 with Clemens as the starter, compared to 3-4 when it was Bradford. Why?
Rookie running back Zac Stacy has flourished in the second half of the year, and it seems like the Rams may not miss a beat in their transition from veteran Steven Jackson to Stacy. He's just 42 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season.
However, the biggest star of all for St. Louis this season is on defense, and it might not be the guy that most people would've expected. While former second overall pick Chris Long has played well, it's fellow defensive end Robert Quinn who could be taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors. Quinn has recorded 18 sacks and seven forced fumbles this season and he notched three sacks in his first meeting against Seattle.
If he provides that much disruption to Wilson and the Seahawks offense again, it could be a very upsetting day for Seattle. The Rams have proven to not be intimidated by anyone this year, having already beaten the Arizona Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints. Even in their first loss to Seattle, they only lost by a final score of 14-9 in a game where they won most of the box score except for points scored.
Local Takes: Seattle Seahawks
Danny Kelly of Field Gulls attended Seattle's loss to Arizona, and gave his reactions to a poor offensive performance by the Seahawks:
Ultimately, Wilson finished 11 for 27 for 108 yards passing. I think I looked up in the fourth quarter at one point and he had like 43 yards of passing. I mean.... atrocious.
Again, this is just my primary in-game reaction, but it just felt like Seattle's offense had been distilled down to a two-call playsheet: Deep bomb on play action or run for 2 yards. There really didn't seem to be any intermediate game to speak of... Zach Miller was invisible, they didn't try any screens... they didn't try any bubbles. Just.... two plays. Throw it deep or hand it off.
That's how it seemed from the stands, though I'm sure that's a major oversimplification. Major credit to the Cardinals defense, of course, but we've seen three weeks in a row of really, really sloppy execution by the offense. It's concerning.
Local Takes: St. Louis Rams
Ryan Van Bibber from Turf Show Times takes a look at Quinn's accomplishments on defense this year as he emerges as another elite player from the 2011 draft class:
Quinn's 18 sacks lead the league. Robert Mathis is next on the list with 16.5. If Quinn can hold onto the league lead, he'll win the first ever Deacon Jones Award, created this year to honor the league's leader in sacks. Soon enough, the Rams are going to have to think about a contract extension for Quinn.
He signed a four-year deal with an option for a fifth year after the Rams selected him with the 14th overall pick in 2011. He's not even making $1.5 million this season, and his cap hit is right around $2.3 million. His fifth-year option keeps him in St. Louis through 2015.
Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt and Von Miller have garnered most of the attention from a 2011 draft class loaded with pass rushers. Those three are each dealing with their own struggles this season. Quinn's taken his place with them as one of the best players to come into the league that year.
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As noted earlier, the Seahawks and Rams built a bit of a rivalry in the early 2000s, but Seattle has won 15 of their last 17 meetings. However, St. Louis has beaten the Seahawks as recently as last season, but it hasn't won in Seattle since January of 2005, when the two teams met in the playoffs that year.
Both teams are good again at the moment and the Rams can't be counted out just because they haven't beaten the Seahawks much in the last 10 years. The Cardinals just showed that Wilson isn't invincible at home and St. Louis has given Seattle a run for its money over the last two years, with no game being decided by more than seven points.
Still, the Seahawks just have too much to lose, and it's hard to see them losing two in a row at home after having won 14 straight in Seattle.
Seahawks 17, Rams 13
Seattle is as much as 12-point favorites this week, according to OddsShark.com.
If the Seahawks win, they'll be the No. 1 seed in the NFC and have a bye week in the first week of the playoffs. If they lose and the 49ers beat the Arizona Cardinals, then Seattle will tumble to a wild card and go on the road to face the winner of the NFC North or NFC East.