Notebook: Cowboy Up?

The Seahawks will probably play the Cowboys in a wild-card game at Qwest Field. Seattle is seeded fourth in the NFC as the division winner with the worst record. That will not change Sunday.

The Cowboys will visit Seattle as the fifth seed unless they beat the Lions and Philadelphia loses at home to Atlanta. In that case, the Eagles would come to Qwest Field for the first time since 2002.

Dallas visited Seattle in 2004 and 2005, with the Seahawks winning the most recent game in dramatic fashion. Jordan Babineaux picked off Drew Bledsoe in the final minute, returning the ball 25 yards and getting out of bounds with a few ticks left on the clock. Josh Brown ran out onto the field and kicked the game winner as time expired.

Much has changed since that game. The Cowboys have replaced Bledsoe with Tony Romo, a move that paid off handsomely until Romo started struggling more recently. A month ago, Seattle probably would have preferred to face the Eagles. But with Philadelphia getting hot behind Jeff Garcia, the Eagles might be the wrong team at the wrong time.

The Cowboys' defensive personnel and 3-4 scheme has given Seattle problems in the past, but the Seahawks managed to run the ball surprisingly well against the Chargers' more physical 3-4 on Sunday. That experience could help if Dallas is the team that comes to Seattle on Jan. 6 or 7.

In the meantime, the Seahawks face a meaningless game against the Bucs in Week 17. The game will make no difference in the standings, but Seattle would like to build some offensive momentum heading into the playoffs. The ground game has shown signs of life, but the passing game has sputtered amid sacks, interceptions and dropped passes.

"Our record is not what we had hoped," coach Mike Holmgren said after falling to 8-7. "We will continue to improve and work on things we need to work on. I was much more impressed with how we played (Sunday) than the last couple of weeks.

"That is encouraging to me."

Alexander's running gives the offense something to build around. Opponents still have to respect the passing game, which allows Seattle to run from three-receiver sets. That's enough for Seattle to play good teams close, particularly at home, but taking the next step will require more pop from the passing game.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Matt Hasselbeck benefited from the return of slot receiver Bobby Engram last week. What he needs now is for Deion Branch to stop dropping passes. Four drops by Branch might have been the difference in the Seahawks' 20-17 loss to the Chargers on Sunday. Two of the plays could have produced long gains and/or touchdowns.

--RB Shaun Alexander has an outside shot at reaching 1,000 yards for the sixth consecutive season. He needs 196 yards against Tampa Bay's 17th-ranked run defense. Alexander had 140 yards against the Chargers on Sunday. He had 201 yards against Green Bay last month.

--FB Mack Strong's injury situation seems to have stabilized. He had been slowed by a sprained ankle. The team needs to keep him healthy for the playoffs.

--TE Itula Mili missed the San Diego game with a concussion. He is strongly considering retirement for health reasons. This was the most serious concussion of his career. Mili has also missed time during his career with an intestinal blockage.

--TE Jerramy Stevens drew an illegal-contact penalty against the Chargers, but he was otherwise not much of a factor as a receiver. He could re-emerge this week against the Bucs' cover-two defense.

--WR Deion Branch is coming off his worst game as a Seahawk. He dropped four passes against San Diego and blamed the 20-17 loss on himself afterward.

--WR Darrell Jackson grew up in Tampa and would love to play in his hometown Sunday, but a turf-toe injury could make that unlikely. Jackson missed the team's game against San Diego. He was leading the league in touchdown receptions at the time of his injury.

--WR D.J. Hackett has a career-high 41 receptions with one game remaining. His previous high was 28 catches, in 2005. Hackett is getting more opportunities than ever and he is taking advantage of them for the most part.

--LB Julian Peterson has gone three games without a sack. He has one sack in the Seahawks' last seven games after getting six in the previous four. Peterson would get more sacks if the Seattle offense were putting up points. Opponents have been able to keep Seattle honest with the running game.

--SS Jordan Babineaux could see more playing time in passing situations after Michael Boulware allowed the game-winning TD pass against the Chargers. Nothing has been announced by the team, but getting Babineaux on the field seems to make sense.

--CB Marcus Trufant is expected to miss the Tampa Bay game with what is thought to be a high ankle sprain. It's unclear whether Trufant will be able to return for the playoffs. The team released DE Robert Pollard on Tuesday and is expected to sign former Titans CB Rich Gardner for depth heading into the playoffs.


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