SEATTLE – The 11-3 Atlanta Falcons are playing for pride today. Nothing on the line, no reason to fret a Week 16 loss.
The Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers, both 11-3 as well, will go toe-to-toe in a battle of AFC heavyweights that has absolutely no postseason implications.
Yet when the 5-9 Arizona Cardinals take the field for a game against the 7-7 Seattle Seahawks, an NFC West title will be on the line.
Welcome to the parity-driven world of the 2004 National Football League.
“You can talk about parity, but this year there have been so many teams up and down, so many injuries, so much back and forth,” Seahawks receiver Bobby Engram said. “You’d like to see your team with 11 or 12 wins, but the reality of the situation is that it’s not going to happen in our division.
“I’ll be just as happy winning our division with eight or nine wins as I would with 12 or 13.”
Despite a .500 record, the Seahawks are leading the NFC West. As mind-blowing as that is, Arizona’s situation is even harder to believe.
The Cardinals can win the division with a 7-9 record if they beat Seattle and Tampa Bay, have the Seahawks lose to Atlanta next week, and get St. Louis to lose its final two games. Arizona doesn’t exactly control its own destiny, but there is hope.
Considering the fact that the Rams face a pair of squads with a combined 23-5 record, and Seattle’s finale is against the NFC South-leading Falcons, it’s not a one-in-a-million chance, either.
“I think everybody in the West feels a little odd that we are still in it,” Arizona quarterback Josh McCown said. “The bottom line is that we are still in it, and at least for the fans involved with all the teams, it makes it exciting.”
Asked how he expects outsiders to react if the Cardinals win the division with a 7-9 record, McCown said: “To be honest with you, I really don’t care. The Cardinals have made the playoffs one time since they have been in existence.”
Seattle’s path to a division title is slightly less confusing, if only because the Seahawks control their own destiny. If they win today, they clinch a playoff spot. If they win the following week, they take the NFC West and host a postseason game.
Any combination of one Seattle win and one St. Louis loss will clinch the division for the Seahawks. So if they win today, they’ll certainly be gathered around the television on Monday night for the Rams-Philadelphia Eagles game.
“There’s nothing wrong with first place,” Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander said. “It doesn’t matter where you are, when you look up and you’re in first place, you’re going to be happy. Of course, there are many things we wish we could have done different. But in the end, we want to be standing there in first place.”
Only one team – the 1985 Cleveland Browns – has won a division with an 8-8 record. Seattle or St. Louis could be the second, while any one of three NFC West teams could still win the division with a 7-9 mark.
It’s got to be a hard pill to swallow for some past Seahawks teams. The 1984 squad went 12-4 yet entered the playoffs as an AFC wild card because Denver went 13-3 and won the West. The 1986 Seahawks won 10 games, including their last five, yet didn’t qualify for the playoffs at all.
“I believe it’s destiny,” Seahawks receiver Jerry Rice said. “It was meant to be this way, and it’s how we deal with it. We’ve got to go out this weekend and try to get in (the playoffs). You get in it, who knows?
“I think everyone would prefer for it to be different, but this is the hand we’ve been dealt. And now we have to go out and try to win this weekend and try to get in.”
Partly due to the mediocrity in the West, a bunch of NFC teams with no business thinking about the postseason are still alive.
The 6-8 Rams, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints remain in the hunt. Six teams with 5-9 records are also clinging to hope: Arizona, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants.
Compared to that group, the Seahawks look like the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
OK, maybe not. But at least they’re still in the hunt.
“We’ve got a chance to win our division or get in the playoffs,” left tackle Walter Jones said. “It’s win or go home. That’s basically what we’ve got to do, try to win and get into the tournament.”