(Sports Network) - Both the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers remain in the NFC playoff mix heading into a late-season meeting this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, though neither team has resembled a postseason contender as of late.
The Seahawks have stumbled badly over the course of this season's second half, losing six times in an eight-game span following a promising 4-2 beginning in head coach Pete Carroll's return to the NFL. That awful stretch still hasn't prevented Seattle from harboring legitimate playoff aspirations, however, thanks to the disheveled state of the NFC West.
Seattle is presently tied with 6-8 St. Louis for first place in the division standings and can end a two-year postseason absence by winning its two remaining regular-season games. The Seahawks will host the Rams in Week 17 in what could be a winner-take-all showdown for the NFC West crown.
Carroll's club could still control its own destiny even with a loss to the skidding Buccaneers, but only if the Rams defeat San Francisco on Sunday. A victory by the 49ers, who are one game back of both Seattle and St. Louis at the moment, means the Seahawks would have to win the finale and San Francisco has to lose at home to last-place Arizona next week in order to claim the division.
Seattle's recent play hasn't inspired much faith that a surge into the playoffs is forthcoming, however. The Seahawks have allowed a troubling 32 points per game over their eight-week downturn, and the team's only two positive results during that span have come against Arizona and Carolina, who are a combined 6-23 on the season.
The Seahawks have experienced problems on the offensive end as well lately. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was yanked in the third quarter of last week's 34-18 home setback to NFC front-runner Atlanta after mustering a mere 71 yards on 10-of-17 passing and throwing two interceptions, and Seattle produced just 234 total yards as a group on the afternoon.
Hasselbeck has been picked off 10 times and lost three fumbles over the last four games, though the declining veteran will again be under center for this week's tilt after receiving a vote of confidence from Carroll on Monday.
Despite having a superior overall record than Sunday's opponent, Tampa Bay finds itself in a much tougher spot than the Seahawks in regards to the postseason. The Buccaneers can only get in as a Wild Card and will have to win their last two games plus receive a slew of help to qualify.
Tampa Bay, which ends the regular season at home against contending New Orleans, has hurt its cause by dropping three of its last four contests. The Bucs were upended in overtime by NFC North cellar-dweller Detroit last Sunday, with the Lions kicking a tying field goal on the final play of regulation and then scoring on the only possession of the extra session to rally for a 23-20 decision.
The loss was Tampa Bay's first of the season to an opponent that currently sports a losing record. The Buccaneers are 8-1 against teams below the .500 mark and 0-4 when taking on ones with winning marks.
The Seahawks hold a 7-3 advantage in the overall series with Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers have won the last two meetings between the teams and dealt Seattle a 24-7 loss at Qwest Field during Week 15 of last season. The Bucs also recorded a 20-10 decision over the Seahawks at Raymond James Stadium in 2008, Tampa Bay's only victory in five lifetime games against Seattle on its home turf.
Carroll is 0-1 all-time against the Buccaneers, with that defeat coming in the form of a 27-7 road loss in 1997 while then in charge of the New England Patriots. Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris won his only previous encounter with the Seahawks as a head coach last season and will be opposing Carroll for the first time.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
A lack of a proficient running game and a subpar season from Hasselbeck (2977 passing yards, 12 TD, 17 INT) have been two reasons why Seattle enters Sunday's game ranked just 27th in total offense (304.1 ypg). Turnovers have been a contributing factor as well, with Hasselbeck having given the ball away a whopping 13 times over the past four weeks and throwing two or more interceptions in each of those tests. There have been a few bright spots, however, with the play of wideout Mike Williams (60 receptions, 1 TD) having stood out the most. The former first-round bust in Detroit has emerged as Hasselbeck's go-to guy after spending the previous two years out of football, and with career special-teamer Ben Obomanu (23 receptions, 4 TD) developing into a credible deep threat and sure-handed veteran Brandon Stokley (30 receptions) manning the slot, the wide receiver position has been one of the team's few sources of strength. Running the football has often been a chore, however, with Seattle having averaged an anemic 85.2 yards per game on the ground (31st overall) and 3.7 yards per rush attempt. Justin Forsett (483 rushing yards, 2 TD, 28 receptions) has been the club's most effective back, but lately he's had to play a supporting role to in-season pickup Marshawn Lynch (609 rushing yards, 6 TD, 21 receptions).
Tampa Bay has placed five defensive starters on injured reserve in the past month, and those depletions have taken a toll on a unit that's struggled mightily down the stretch. The Bucs surrendered 181 rushing yards to the Lions last Sunday, one week after Washington's Ryan Torain racked up 172 yards on 24 carries on the defense, and the team has dropped to 29th in the NFL against the run (136.5 ypg) as a result. Season-ending injuries to cornerback Aqib Talib and rookie safety Cody Grimm have also hurt what had been a solid secondary, though veteran corner Ronde Barber (77 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) continues to play at a high level in his 14th NFL season, and the backfield permitted 252 yards to Detroit third-string quarterback Drew Stanton a week ago. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud (104 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and weakside starter Geno Hayes (65 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) have been the leading tacklers on a corps that's allowing a league-worst 4.9 yards per rush attempt, while end Stylez White (35 tackles, 4.5 sacks) is the Buccaneers' best pass rusher.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Look for Tampa Bay to continue to roll with a downhill ground attack that's produced over 150 rushing yards in four of the past six weeks, including 176 yards against the Lions last week. Rookie running back LeGarette Blount (777 rushing yards, 6 TD) has made a big impact since taking over as the primary ball-carrier at midseason, with the 247-pound thumper coming off a 110-yard, one-touchdown display on only 15 carries versus Detroit, and early-year starter Carnell Williams (409 rushing yards, 43 receptions, 3 total TD) has done an admirable job as a change-of-pace option and receiver out of the backfield. Second-year quarterback Josh Freeman (2959 passing yards, 18 TD, 6 INT) has been also efficient as the director of an offense that's only turned the ball over 17 times in 14 games, while a young cast of receivers has really began to gel during the course of the season. Rookie Mike Williams (58 receptions, 880 yards, 8 TD) has been a factor since day one, while fellow first-year wideout Arrelious Benn (24 receptions, 2 TD) has exhibited big-play potential highlighted by a four-catch, 122-yard performance against Washington in Week 14. Oft-injured tight end Kellen Winslow (56 receptions, 3 TD) has been able to remain healthy and provide Freeman, who's thrown just one interception over his last six starts, with another quality target.
The Seahawks have acquitted themselves well against the run as of late, having limited Atlanta standout Michael Turner to a modest 82 yards on 25 attempts last Sunday and holding San Francisco to 95 rushing yards the previous week. Linebackers David Hawthorne (90 tackles, 1 INT) and Aaron Curry (69 tackles, 3.5 sacks) have keyed the team's resurgence in that area, and the return of massive tackle Colin Cole (37 tackles, 1 sack) from a five-game absence due to an ankle sprain made an immediate difference against the Falcons, with the beefy lineman compiling eight tackles to help keep Turner under wraps. Opponents have had an easier time airing it out on a Seattle defense that's permitted the fourth-most passing yards (259.0 ypg) in the league and given up 26 touchdown strikes, including three to the Falcons' Matt Ryan in Week 15. The secondary has some depth concerns as well, with starting corner Marcus Trufant (68 tackles, 1 INT) questionable for Sunday after hurting his back last week and nickel back Roy Lewis (26 tackles, 1 sack) landing on injured reserve Monday with a knee problem. That situation may cause the Seahawks to rely even more upon their excellent pass-rushing tandem of ends Chris Clemons (45 tackles, 10 sacks) and Raheem Brock (24 tackles, 6 sacks), who have combined for half the club's total of 32 sacks.
If there's one player who stands out amongst an overall uninspiring group of fantasy prospects in this game, it's Blount. The rookie has been the focal point of the Tampa offense in recent weeks and has raised himself into must- start territory. The two Mike Williams also rate as good plays here as the top targets on their respective teams, but pass on all other receivers with the possible exception of Winslow at tight end. Hasselbeck should not be used until he shows to be over his turnover tendencies, while Freeman's a lukewarm option at best in a run-first Buccaneers' game plan. Lynch is the Seattle back to own right now and could be a worthwhile selection when factoring in Tampa Bay's problems in stopping the run. Neither defense is recommended, and there are better alternatives at the kicker position than the Seahawks' Olindo Mare and the Bucs' Connor Barth.
The importance of this game is greater than the level of play of the two participants, neither of which breeds much confidence due to how they've performed lately. That's especially been the case with the sinking Seahawks, who have continuously plagued themselves with mistakes and breakdowns and have a history of struggling on the road to boot. The Buccaneers aren't as good as they were earlier in the season due to their rash of injuries, but Freeman's done a far better job of protecting the football than Hasselbeck, which could prove to be a deciding factor in a matchup that will likely come down to a handful of plays.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 24, Seahawks 20