The division getting the most attention in the NFC has been the East. The West hasn’t been the focus because it’s been pretty clear the Seattle Seahawks were going to win it.
That could become a reality this week with Seattle hoping to clinch its second straight division title while preventing the New York Giants from keeping sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
Though the NFC West crown, and a third straight playoff berth, is within the Seahawks’ grasp, the owners of the best record in the conference have loftier goals in mind.
“Anybody can be good, but only the great teams are Super Bowl champs,” said Seattle’s Shaun Alexander, the NFL rushing leader with 1,229 yards and 19 touchdowns.
“A good team just gets into the playoffs, the great teams are what do it every week and get in there and win a lot of games.”
Seattle’s current six-game winning streak is its longest since an eight-game run in 1984, the last time this franchise won a playoff game. With a four-game lead on second-place St. Louis, the Seahawks will wrap up the NFC West with a win Sunday and a loss by the Rams.
Seattle should know around game time if it can clinch, with St. Louis, which is 1-4 on the road, visiting Houston earlier in the day.
New York took over sole possession of the NFC East lead on Thanksgiving when Dallas lost 24-21 in overtime to Denver. That defeat dropped the Cowboys a half-game below the Giants, who are coming off a 27-17 victory over Philadelphia.
One of the NFL’s best division races has often been a backdrop to the Eagles’ turmoil, mainly the Terrell Owens saga and Donovan McNabb’s injury woes. However, now that the season is likely over for Owens and McNabb, the fight to replace Philadelphia as NFC East champ should garner more attention.
New York is two games ahead of Washington and three better than Philadelphia.
“It’s right back where it was ‘X’ amount of years ago when week in and week out, everybody’s scratching, fighting and biting just to try and get ahead of the other guy,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “In a sense, it’s great to have this kind of competitiveness, but I’ll tell you—week in and week out, it’s tough duty.”
No matchup will be tougher than this trip to Seattle, which has won seven straight at home. The Giants have yet to beat a playoff contender on the road, and have only one win this season against a team that currently has a winning record.
“On the road, against Seattle, obviously a great test for us,” Coughlin said. “We look forward to that opportunity. But what we will learn is, how good are we.”
The Seahawks boast the NFL’s top-rated offense, averaging league highs of 389.2 yards per game and 6.1 per play. They’ve outrushed opponents 1,053-564 during the six-game win streak, with a 15-2 edge in touchdown runs.
Alexander is the reason for that advantage. He’s averaged 130.2 rushing yards and scored 12 rushing touchdowns in five home games this year, though he’s had only one 100-yard rushing effort in 12 career games against NFC East opponents.
New York has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in four consecutive weeks, limiting the opposition to 2.4 yards per carry.
Alexander has overshadowed a solid season from Matt Hasselbeck, the NFC’s third-rated passer despite missing top receiver Darrell Jackson for most of the season. Jackson, recovering from knee surgery, could return next week.
“Part of what we’ve done well this season is be very critical of the film, very critical of ourselves,” Hasselbeck said. “If we want to accomplish the goals we set this year, we have to improve.”
Barber rushed for 112 yards against Philadelphia. He needs 33 more for his fifth career 1,000-yard season, which would tie Rodney Hampton for the franchise record.
Manning may have broken out of his mini-slump last week by going 17-of-26 for 218 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s thrown a touchdown pass in 11 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL.
Now the second-year quarterback is counting on a banged-up offensive line— the status of left tackle Luke Petitgout (knee) and center Shaun O’Hara (ankle) is uncertain—to protect him against a Seattle defense which leads the NFL with 34 sacks.
“They are playing really good football right now so we just have to go out there and play smart,” Manning said. “We can’t make mistakes and when we have opportunities we have to take advantage of them.”