Seattle Seahawks (7-4) at Denver Broncos (7-4) ==================================================
KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET
TV: NBC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer
SERIES: 51st meeting. Denver leads the series, 33-17. That includes a 19-4 record in Denver. The teams were AFC West rivals from 1977 through the 2001 season. Seattle is 0-3 in Denver under coach Mike Holmgren, including 0-1 with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback. Seattle has not won in Denver since 1995.
2006 RANKINGS: Seahawks: offense 19th (13th rush, 20th pass); defense 18th (15th rush, 21st pass). Broncos: offense 22nd (8th rush, 26th pass); defense 16th (11th rush, 23rd pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 20-19
KEYS TO THE GAME: With rookie QB Jay Cutler making his first career start, the Broncos want to get their fledgling running game back on track. RB Tatum Bell is expected to return after missing two games with turf toe issues on both feet, and Denver needs to keep Cutler out of third-and-long situations. The Seahawks have limited the big pass plays that hurt them during the first half of the season and lead the NFC with 37.0 sacks, which is a concern with Denver getting inconsistent play from both tackle spots. Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck is expected to play despite a broken finger on his left (non-throwing) hand. But the key for Seattle's offense could be whether the offensive line can continue to improve with RB Shaun Alexander coming off a 201-yard game.
FAST FACTS: Seahawks: Have allowed an average of 30.0 points in their past four road games. ... Mike Holmgren has joined Don Shula as the only coaches to win at least 70 regular season games with two different teams. Broncos: C Tom Nalen will start his 179th game with the team, second-most in franchise history. ... Are 18-4 at home against the NFC under coach Mike Shanahan.
--QB Matt Hasselbeck participated fully in practice Thursday. His injured left hand is a non-factor at this point. Look for Hasselbeck to start Sunday night at Denver.
--CB Kelly Herndon missed practice Thursday to rest a sore toe. The Seahawks added him to the injury report as probable. Herndon has had some nagging injuries in the past few weeks, but he has played well in coverage most of the time. He picked off Brett Favre on Monday night.
--DT Rocky Bernard missed practice again Thursday. He has a sore foot. Bernard has a good chance to start Sunday night.
--WR Darrell Jackson missed practice again Thursday. He has a sore knee. Jackson is expected to start Sunday night.
--CB Kelly Jennings worked with the starters Thursday because Kelly Herndon was resting a sore toe. Herndon is expected to start Sunday night in Denver.
--OT Erik Pears sprained his ankle and was added to the injury report as probable. Pears struggled against the Chiefs.
--OT Adam Meadows did some drills in practice Thursday but missed the team portion. He has a hamstring injury and still needs to make some progress to be ready for Sunday's game.
--TE Chad Mustard returned to practice Thursday. He has a shoulder injury and is listed as questionable on the injury report but should play.
--RB Tatum Bell practiced again Thursday, and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he would play Sunday. He said Bell has looked good this week.
--CB Darrent Williams hasn't broken a long punt return in a while. The Broncos haven't been very good blocking for their kickoff or punt returners and need to get some big plays on special teams down the stretch.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Matt Hasselbeck's finger dominated headlines early in the week, but it's having little effect on him in practice.
"It is really not a big thing," Hasselbeck said. "Like my dad said: 'It is in your left hand, suck it up.'"
Hasselbeck practiced again Thursday with a glove and padding on his left hand. He has a bruised and cracked bone where the index finger meets the hand. He'll experience some pain taking snaps from center.
"It's sore," coach Mike Holmgren said, "but by the time the game comes around, I don't think that will be an issue."
Hasselbeck tossed three second-half touchdown passes after suffering the injury during the second quarter against Green Bay on Monday night. The strong finish made it easier to forget about a tough first half featuring four Seattle turnovers.
"He played a pretty good game, except for four plays probably," Holmgren said. "The first interception, it's hard to start a game that way. Your crowd's in it. Everyone is excited. All of sudden, boom, something bad happens.
"But that one, he threw the ball, it hit the guy's helmet, popped up in the air. That's a little unlucky. The second one, he missed his read. That's from not playing. That's absolutely from not playing."
Hasselbeck was making his first start since suffering a knee injury more than a month ago. He expects his consistency to return against the Broncos on Sunday night. Seattle hasn't won in Denver since 1995.
"He did settle in (Monday night)," Holmgren said. "He made some great throws. I mean, really great throws. It's good to have your leader back. Having said everything else, it's just good to have the guy back who is your quarterback."
Receiver Rod Smith said he is excited for rookie Jay Cutler, who will take over as the Broncos' starting quarterback this week.
Smith didn't really endorse or criticize the move, but said he thinks Cutler is physically ready to play.
"I really believe he's going to have a good day," Smith said. "I think if the rest of us have a good day, he could have a great day. With his talent, and I've thought this all along, that we could win with him playing quarterback, but at the same time I knew Jake (Plummer) was our quarterback."
Even though Smith respects Cutler's talent, he said he doesn't know yet what to expect from the first-round pick, who hasn't played the entire regular season. He did say that he thinks Cutler has handled the situation well.
Smith also said he found it strange to see Plummer as the backup. Plummer hasn't been demoted to second string in his entire career, and he has taken almost every snap for the Broncos since the middle of the 2003 season.
"It's tough for me to watch him taking snaps on scout team," Smith said. "It's hard for me to watch that because I know what kind of competitor he is. At the same time, he's there for Jay, helping him through his reads and little things like that. He's not showing any bitterness."
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