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The Seattle Seahawks have overcome a slow start to become division champions once again.
They’ll try for their sixth straight win on Sunday when they visiting the struggling Carolina Panthers.
A five-game winning streak capped with a 42-21 win last Sunday over Arizona gave the Seahawks (9-4) their fourth straight NFC West title. The winning streak is Seattle’s longest since a team-record 11-game run two seasons ago that helped them reach their first Super Bowl, where they lost to Pittsburgh.
Of course, Seattle hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as the two teams ahead of it in the conference, Dallas and Green Bay. That also doesn’t come as much of a surprise to coach Mike Holmgren.
“We are kind of far away. Heck, we’re in Alaska almost,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on.”
Still, the Seahawks’ run has likely earned them the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and a home game in the first round. Seattle is two games ahead of Tampa Bay and owns a tiebreaker against the Buccaneers.
The Seahawks trail the Packers by two games and the Cowboys by three, and neither has a particularly strong schedule. Holmgren, though, isn’t quite convinced that a No. 3 seed is inevitable.
“I will absolutely talk to them, because I think we have three games left in the regular season, to keep our momentum going,” Holmgren told the Seahawks’ official Web site. “And to really try and achieve, maybe a little bit more, a little bit better positioning for the playoffs, that’s a real goal.”
Seattle’s surge has coincided with Holmgren’s decision to depend more on quarterback Matt Hasselbeck’s arm. Hasselbeck has responded, completing 63.0 percent (119-of-189) of his passes during Seattle’s winning streak with 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
“He is doing everything I have asked him to do - and probably a little more,” Holmgren said of Hasselbeck, who threw a season-high four touchdown passes and no interceptions against the Cardinals.
In 2005, when the Seahawks beat Carolina 34-14 in the NFC title game, they largely relied on running back Shaun Alexander as he rushed for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns en route to MVP honors. This season, Alexander has become almost an afterthought in Seattle’s offense, running for just 595 yards and three touchdowns.
The Panthers (5-8) have done little on offense since quarterback Jake Delhomme was lost to a season-ending elbow injury three weeks into the season. They have failed to score more than one touchdown in six of their last eight losses and have been outscored 184-87 while losing six of their last seven.
Carolina is coming off perhaps its most miserable offensive showing of the season, a 37-6 loss at Jacksonville last Sunday. The Panthers failed to build off momentum created in an encouraging 31-14 win against lowly San Francisco the week before by finishing with a season-low 149 yards of offense against the Jaguars.
“They’re a good football team, but let’s be honest, that was garbage,” Carolina guard Mike Wahle said after the loss. “We had turnovers, three-and-outs, not efficient. I can go on and on about it. We’re not playing very well.”
Vinny Testaverde threw a pair of touchdown passes against the 49ers. Against the Jaguars, however, the 44-year-old was 13-of-28 for 84 yards with an interception that was returned for a touchdown before being replaced by Matt Moore in the fourth quarter.
Coach John Fox has not named a starting quarterback for this game. Moore was 3-of-10 for 21 yards after taking over for Testaverde, while offseason pickup David Carr has dropped to third on the team’s depth chart.
Over the last 10 games, the Panthers have just eight touchdown passes - the same number Delhomme threw in his three games.
“We weren’t as consistent throwing the ball as we needed to be,” Fox said. “When we have been, we’ve been in games. When we haven’t been, we’ve not.”
Whoever starts for the Panthers likely won’t have it easy against an opportunistic defense. Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant had three interceptions against the Cardinals, the second straight week one Seattle player intercepted three passes as linebacker Lofa Tatupu had three on Dec. 2 in a 28-24 win over Philadelphia.
Trufant has seven picks this season - two fewer than he had in his first four seasons combined.
Defensive end Patrick Kearney, meanwhile, had three sacks for the third time in four games. He leads the NFL with a career-high 13 1/2 this season.
Making things even more daunting for the Panthers is their remaining schedule. After this contest, they close against division leaders Dallas and Tampa Bay, and will likely have to run the table to keep any hope of a playoff berth alive.
“With adversity like this, that’s when we’ve got to come together,” safety Deke Cooper said. “We can’t let a loss separate us. We’ve got three games left. Who knows what’s going to happen in the playoff race? We’ve got to play every game like we’re still in the playoffs.”