SEATTLE – It's not difficult for Matt Hasselbeck to remember his NFC West infancy, when the St. Louis Rams were ringing up points like a pinball machine, and the talents of Terrell Owens were still flaunted by the San Francisco 49ers.
The difficulties of that NFC West initiation were short-lived, coming after five seasons when owner Paul Allen's billions could buy seemingly anything but a playoff win. But turn back the clock to 2002 when Seattle's postseason hopes died hard, Hasselbeck's standing as a franchise quarterback was a barstool debate, and coach Mike Holmgren had yet to shape a championship-claiber roster without the hands of Ron Wolf.
"I can remember when this NFC West was formed," Hasselbeck said Sunday, after Seattle's 42-21 throttling of the Arizona Cardinals. "San Francisco was really good. They had T.O. and Jeff Garcia. The St. Louis Rams were coming off of Super Bowl after Super Bowl. It felt impossible to get a win at St. Louis at that time. Slowly but surely, we had enough guys helping us believe that hey, maybe we could get (a division title) someday. And here we are."
Indeed, here the Seahawks are, clinching the NFC West's crown for the fourth straight season with Sunday's win, once again testifying to the steady style of their underrated quarterback. That the franchise captured yet another division title against Arizona is certainly apropos. In a league of change, the outside world has been waiting for this franchise and its quarterback to fall off. And if the deed wasn't going to be accomplished by the 49ers, pundits pointed to the Cardinals as the NFC West's next division power.
"All that talk (about Green Bay and Dallas) gets sorted out in the playoffs," offensive tackle Walter Jones said "And now we know that's where we'll be."
Postseason fate is hardly the only fact Seattle has established over the last several weeks. The defense remains one of the most aggressive in the NFC, notching 41 sacks through 13 games. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu has regained his form from the team's 2005 Super Bowl run, and cornerback Marcus Trufant – who intercepted three passes Sunday – is playing more consistent than ever. But no one is playing better than defensive end Patrick Kerney, who has accounted for 13½ of those sacks, making him arguably the best defensive free agent pickup of last offseason.
Ultimately though, this is still a team cranked by an offense that is only now finding its rhythm. Since committing to a pass-first mentality last month, Holmgren has lit a fuse under a sputtering offense. With running back Shaun Alexander looking like he's lost the step that made him the NFL's MVP in 2005, the Seahawks have turned to Hasselbeck to pave the way. He's responded with 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions during Seattle's five-game winning streak, breathing to life a largely nondescript set of wideouts.
Whether it's Bobby Engram, Deion Branch, Nate Burleson or D.J. Hackett, Seattle has found an ideal rotation of seemingly interchangeable parts. When healthy (and Hackett may not be until the playoffs), Seattle might have the most talented four-wideout look in the NFL, particularly now that Engram has developed into such a reliable weapon.
"Bobby Engram is having a career year," Hasselbeck said. "Nate (Burleson) is coming around, playing good for us. Deion (Branch) is dependable. (Tight end) Marcus Pollard – I still want to get him going more. The backs are catching the ball well. The pass protection has been good. If those guys are doing that, I've got no choice but to play well."
Barring injuries, Seattle should boast a passing offense to rival those commandeered by Dallas' Tony Romo and Green Bay's Brett Favre. While that duo has dominated the NFC's spotlight, Hasselbeck has been on pace to throw a career-high 30 touchdown passes.
He's played few games better than Sunday, when he completed 22 of 33 passes and four touchdowns to four different receivers.
"I don't even know what to say about him, except that he's looking as good as I can remember," Engram said. "He's fitting the ball into tight spots, doing exactly what he needs to do to keep us moving."
It couldn't come at a better time, with Alexander averaging 3.3 yards per carry and looking like a shadow of his former self. Already looking like he was on the decline while playing without guard Steve Hutchinson last season, Alexander has fallen to new depths without fullback Mack Strong, who was forced into retirement after suffering a neck injury in Week 4.
Alexander hasn't rushed for more than 65 yards in a game since Strong's exit, and has actually appeared to bog down the pace of the offense more than Seattle's alternative at the spot, Maurice Morris. If anything, that inconsistency – along with a record stacked up against sub-par teams – is the question mark that will linger over this franchise into the playoffs. But it's also a question the franchise began to deal with five weeks ago, after a crushing overtime loss to the Cleveland Browns left Seattle sitting at 4-4. The answer was to shift more of the burden on the passing game, forcing teams into an up-tempo scoring pace that leaves them vulnerable to Kerney and the Seahawks pass rush.
"I definitely think offensively we're finding our identity a little bit more," Hasselbeck said. "I can remember saying that we were OK at a lot of stuff but not really good at anything. I don't feel that way anymore. I feel like there are some things we can hang our hat on. If we need plays, we've got guys we can count on.
"I knew it would happen. I just hoped it would happen in time. (Sitting at 4-4) it had to happen quick."