- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

In the midst of what could be its best season in 18 years, Seattle can’t win on the road. The Seahawks, 7-0 at home, have lost five straight road games heading into today’s NFC West showdown at St. Louis, where the Rams have won 12 in a row.

If the Seahawks’ road woes continue today, the Rams will win the division for the third time in five years, meaning that even if Seattle (8-5) makes the playoffs for only the second time since 1988, all its postseason games will be away from Seahawks Stadium.

“Most teams are having a hard time winning on the road,” said quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who had his worst game in three years as the starter in last week’s 34-7 loss at Minnesota. “[But] for an outsider looking in, it’s not looking good for us this week.”

Geography is an easy culprit because the Seahawks fly more miles (nearly 32,000 this year) than any other team, but Seattle was 4-4 on the road last season. So perhaps it’s not as much the site as it is the turnovers. Seattle is 8-0 when winning or tying the turnover battle, 0-5 when losing it. And St. Louis has an NFL-high 40 takeaways, including the fumble recovery that clinched Monday’s 26-20 victory over Cleveland.

The Seahawks can take heart from their 24-23 come-from-behind victory over the Rams in Seattle on Sept.21. But so do the Rams, who can clinch a first-round bye with a victory and losses by Carolina and Minnesota, Dallas or Philadelphia.

“We took a great deal from that game,” said coach Mike Martz, whose 10-3 team has lost once in 10 games since. “We’ve been able to use it in terms of motivation.”

The dynamic St. Louis offense doesn’t need much motivation. Torry Holt leads all receivers with 96 catches and 1,410 yards, and his 10 touchdown catches are second only to Randy Moss’ 13. Quarterback Marc Bulger gambles too much, as his 19 interceptions prove, but his 3,210 passing yards top the NFC. And running back Marshall Faulk has four straight 100-yard games after missing six weeks following injuries sustained in Seattle.

Eagles-Dolphins — Having already assured a playoff spot, Philadelphia (10-3) can clinch its third straight NFC East title with a victory over Miami (8-5) tomorrow night or a loss by Dallas today. The Eagles, who can tie a team record with a ninth straight victory, also can gain a first-round bye if the Vikings and the Panthers or Seahawks lose.

Like his team, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is hot, having completed 64 percent with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions the past seven games. In five of the last six games, McNabb has found eight or more targets.

“Donovan’s doing a very good job of spreading the ball around,” coach Andy Reid said. “Defenses can’t focus in on one or two guys. We can keep them on their heels.”

The Eagles have lost the time of possession battle in nine of 13 games, but they don’t beat themselves. They have three turnovers in the last six games and haven’t fumbled in 380 snaps. And Philadelphia has averaged 30 points the last four weeks.

Despite McNabb’s elusiveness, the Eagles have surrendered 37 sacks, tied for second most in the NFL. That’s great news for Dolphins ends Adewale Ogunyele and Jason Taylor, who have a league-high 21 sacks between them. Miami’s defense has allowed the league’s third-fewest points, but the offense — quarterbacked by gimpy ex-Eagles backup Jay Fiedler — was shut out in snowy New England last week. The Dolphins’ five AFC losses leave them behind Denver in the battle for a wild card berth.

“We’re on the outside looking in,” Fiedler said. “We need to win this week to keep our playoff chances alive. It’s a huge game for us against a very good team.”

Panthers-Cardinals — This game should have been a playoff tuneup for Carolina, but the Panthers (8-5) have lost three in a row. Carolina can still clinch the NFC South with a victory today or losses by both New Orleans and Tampa Bay, but times are tense in Charlotte.

Veteran receiver Muhsin Muhammad allowed cornerback Kevin Mathis to intercept Jake Delhomme’s pass and return it for the winning touchdown in overtime last week in Atlanta. Delhomme threw another interception and fumbled three times (losing one). Stephen Davis averaged 3.4 yards a carry. All this against the NFL’s worst defense.

“[Were] not riding high with confidence, but we lost eight in a row last year and then won four out of five,” Panthers coach John Fox noted.

Even though Arizona is 3-10, coming off a 50-14 drubbing at San Francisco and giving second-year quarterback Josh McCown his first start, Fox is wary, noting that the Cardinals’ 3-3 home mark includes upsets of Green Bay, Cincinnati and the 49ers.

“We’re not in a position to be taking anybody lightly,” said Fox, whose Panthers can tie the 1998 Cardinals’ record with a seventh victory by three or fewer points.

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