Behind enemy lines: Seattle

The Seattle Seahawks have reached the make-or-break point of their season. Incredibly, at 4-4, they still retain a one-game lead in the NFC West as they head into Monday night's nationally-televised game against the struggling 49ers.

"We are not going to apologize for that," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.

Clearly, it is not going to take an overly superb season to win the division, particularly with St. Louis already out of it, San Francisco sporting the league's worst offense and the Arizona Cardinals relying on the creaky arm of Kurt Warner.

But the Seahawks can't keep doing the one-step-forward-two-steps-back dance they have executed all season if they want to win a fourth consecutive division crown.

And that starts Monday when they play host to the Niners at Qwest Field in Seattle.

The game starts a stretch of five in a row in which the Seahawks face teams with losing records. Combined, the Niners, Bears, Rams, Eagles and Cardinals have an 11-29 record. Four of the five teams have offenses that are ranked 19th or worse, with San Francisco the absolute bottom of the league.

Take it a step further and none of the teams remaining on the Seahawks' schedule even have a winning record. Carolina and Baltimore are each 4-4 and Atlanta is not a bad team to finish the season against if the Seahawks need a win.

They are hoping it doesn't come down to that.

The Seahawks already have defeated the Niners, 23-3, this season, and the Rams 33-6. They dropped a 23-20 decision to the Cardinals in Glendale when Hasselbeck and running back Shaun Alexander botched an exchange in the closing minutes.

If the Seahawks, newly devoted to the passing game, can just get wins over their division rivals during the next five weeks, it should be enough to clinch their sixth consecutive playoff berth.

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Coach Mike Holmgren confirmed this week that he is going to start throwing the ball more.

Tired of fighting to maintain a balanced offense, and frustrated with an offensive line that continues to blow assignments and fails to produce, Holmgren said when the Seahawks host the 49ers on Monday that he is going to rely more on the arm of Hasselbeck.

"Instead of striving for balance, maybe we have to tip the scales just a little bit to be at our most productive," Holmgren said. "It puts a lot on Matt's shoulders, clearly, but in the long haul it might help our running game."

With a run offense in the bottom third of the NFL, and with Hasselbeck putting together a solid season that includes an 88.7 passer rating, it was only a matter of time before Holmgren was forced to make the decision.

On top of that, Alexander injured his left leg in Sunday's loss to Cleveland and is questionable for Monday's game. Holmgren said Alexander is not likely to practice all week, though he expects him to play.

The Seahawks should bolster their passing game by getting back starting flanker Deion Branch, who has missed the last three games with a sprained foot, and starting tight end Marcus Pollard, who had arthroscopic surgery on his knee two weeks ago.

Though Bobby Engram is the team's leading receiver, and he had 14 receptions on Sunday for 139 yards, Holmgren said Branch will step back into the starting lineup.

As for Hasselbeck, he said he is not overly affected by Holmgren's announcement that he wants to pass more.

"He can do whatever he wants to do," Hasselbeck said. "He has the call sheet and he gets to call the plays. He's going to do whatever he thinks is the best for the football team. He could just be saying that and be planning on running the ball. I don't know. Either way, we all have to be ready and we have to be responsible for whatever he calls, whatever he decides to do."

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One of the things that has plagued the Seahawks this season, and one of their focuses when they play the 49ers, has been their ineffectiveness in the red zone.

The Seahawks are 23rd in the league inside the 20-yard line, converting only 43.5 percent of their opportunities into touchdowns. They have been inside the red zone 23 times and have gotten only 10 touchdowns from it.

"It hasn't been as good as we would like," Holmgren said. "We have had to kick a lot of field goals."

Kicker Josh Brown is 16 of 17 on field-goal attempts, 10 of which have come when the Seahawks get inside the 20.

Part of Seattle's problems have stemmed from their change in tight end. Stevens was a prominent part of the red-zone offense, and because of Stevens' legal problems, the team allowed him to leave via free agency.

He was replaced by Pollard, but Pollard has been injured for most of the season and has not been a large part of the team's passing offense.

"That has changed our thinking a little bit, or at least our productivity," Holmgren said.

But the other problem is that Seattle's running game has been virtually non-existent -- to the point that Holmgren said this week he is focusing more on the team's passing game.

Alexander has only two touchdowns this entire season, and has not scored in six weeks.

When Alexander was the 2005 MVP, he had 27 rushing touchdowns, a league record at the time.

Holmgren said that in 2005, teams would play a soft defense -- a picket fence -- and prevent the Seahawks from passing the ball deep into their seams.

They would combat that strategy by handing the ball to Alexander against a looser defense and Alexander would regularly gain big yards, even touchdowns.

But this year, with Alexander unable to gain any meaningful yardage, the teams are playing the softer defense and not having to pay for the strategy.

"We are not getting any of that," Holmgren said. "We have to figure out a way to do that."

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Linebacker Julian Peterson was especially pumped the last time he played his former team, recording three sacks. He said that has not quenched his thirst to play well against the Niners again.

"There's always motivation for me," Peterson said. "But I think it will be motivating overall for our team just because of the situation we are in right now. This is a divisional opponent and we really need to get this win right now."

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Former Seahawks receiver Darrell Jackson returns to Seattle for the first time since he was traded in the offseason for a fourth-round pick.

"I really don't know what the reaction will be," Matt Hasselbeck said. "I don't really care, either, to be honest with you. I'll say hi to him and then I've got to go play their defense."

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DT Rocky Bernard knocked QB Alex Smith out of the game on the third play of the game the last time the teams played, sacking him and landing on him hard enough to separate his shoulder.

"No hard feelings," Smith said. "It's a physical game."

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KR Nate Burleson became the first player in NFL history to return three punts for 90-plus yards.

"I guess that means he caught three balls that he should have let go (into the end zone)," Seahawks special teams coach Bruce DeHaven said.

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CB Marcus Trufant has three interceptions in his last five games, including two against San Francisco the last time the teams met.

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Holmgren is 11-8 all-time on Monday nights and is 4-3 with Seattle.

"In the National Football League, I think Sunday and Monday nights are special nights for the cities of the teams and it's an excitement there," Holmgren said.

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Holmgren said he has a meeting every Thursday night with his offensive coaches and rewards them if they come up with a play-call that is successful during the game.

"I try and make it a little fun for them so we have a little bit of a competition in there. I see the little kids in all of them at that particular point," Holmgren said.



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