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Sunday, October 31, 2010
Seahawks, NFC West limping right along

By Mike Sando

Matt Hasselbeck
Matt Hasselbeck was sacked eight times Sunday in the Seahawks' loss to the Raiders.
OAKLAND, Calif. -- The team most proficient with crutches, walking boots and athletic tape might win the NFC West race.

You can throw out the records -- come to think of it, please do -- but not the X-rays when this division rubs on the Icy Hot.

Consider this scene from Seattle's locker room Sunday following the Seahawks' 33-3 compound fracture of a defeat to the Oakland Raiders:
Chester Pitts, having just gutted out most of the game at left guard and left tackle in his return from career-threatening knee surgery, wore a tight wrap on his knee and was not bending it much, if at all, when he walked. Pitts had not played an NFL game in 404 days and he wasn't supposed to play much in this one.

The man Pitts replaced early in the game at left guard, Ben Hamilton, wasn't around after suffering a concussion. The man Pitts later replaced at left tackle, Tyler Polumbus, wore a massive walking boot on his injured ankle. The man Polumbus replaced, Russell Okung, wasn't even active while recovering from a high-ankle sprain.

The man those offensive linemen protect, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, took eight sacks and suffered a head injury. The Seahawks canceled his usual postgame interview session as a precaution. Hasselbeck was in the locker room after the game, as usual, but the team determined he wasn't quite right.

The Seahawks entered this game minus four injured starters and one of those starter's replacements. Three more starters couldn't finish the game after suffering injuries. Polumbus returned, but he was clearly hurting. Another starter, No. 1 receiver Mike Williams, returned at less than full strength after suffering a bruised knee.

And these are your NFC West division leaders at 4-3.

They've got company in the training room.

The St. Louis Rams made it to their bye week at 4-4 without suffering any more season-altering injuries, but they're dangerously low on wide receivers. Steven Jackson is playing with a broken finger. Right tackle Jason Smith's concussion issues remain a concern as the Rams prepare to play four of their next five games on the road. The secondary is hurting.

In Arizona, the Cardinals wasted one of their all-time great comebacks in falling to 3-4. Running back Beanie Wells didn't finish the game after suffering a back injury he said wasn't serious. The Cardinals' best special-teams player, LaRod Stephens-Howling, suffered injured ribs. Injuries affected receivers Steve Breaston and Early Doucet, but both returned.

The San Francisco 49ers improved to 2-6 Sunday with former third-stringer Troy Smith under center and with injured Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis on the sideline.

Think you've got a feel for how this division race is going to play out? Think again. It's week to week in the NFC West.

As poorly as the 49ers have performed to this point in the season, they've got only two fewer victories than the division-leading Seahawks. They've got a bye week and five of their six division games yet to play.

The Seahawks had so much to gain against the Raiders and they trailed only 13-0 midway through the third quarter. But they ran out of players and weren't good enough, anyway. The Raiders amassed 545 yards while holding Seattle to 162. The Seahawks converted only once in 16 third-down chances.

"There was no mystery to us, what happened today," coach Pete Carroll said. "We got whipped at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball."

This was the second time in franchise history and the 16th time in the NFL since 1940 that a team allowed at least 545 yards while gaining no more than 162, according to Pro Football Reference.

"The best thing we can do is get out of here," Carroll said.

The Seahawks' defense, ranked No. 2 against the run in recent weeks, struggled against the Raiders' speed and misdirection plays.

When Seahawks safety Lawyer Milloy appeared ready to pick off a fourth-and-1 pass, linebacker David Hawthorne inadvertently took him out, colliding in slapstick fashion and clearing the way for fullback Marcel Reece to turn a quick slant into a 30-yard touchdown.

I can't remember a team dialing up a 30-yard touchdown with a fullback slant on fourth down, but the Raiders had everything working in this one. Quarterback Jason Campbell bounced one pass off receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford, only to have running back Michael Bush catch it in stride for a 55-yard gain.

Another time, Seahawks receiver Deon Butler laid out for a pass, nearly catching it on second effort, only to have Raiders safety Tyvon Branch run past and pick off the ball.

"Things like at happened for them all day," Milloy said. "They had a Franco Harris catch, got bobbled around. Sometimes the ball just tumbles that way. Our hats off to them. They are a good, young team finding their identity, just like we are trying to find ours."

The Seahawks' overall incompetence and bad luck with injuries recalled dark days from recent Seattle seasons' past. Carroll could have leaned on the injuries, but he did not. He told the team this one was on him all the way.

In the locker room, veteran players said it was critical for their younger teammates to respond appropriately.

"I don't like talking about injuries," Milloy said. "It's a collision sport and luckily we built our team through competition. It's a game of opportunity."

Milloy has the right mindset, but there's no ignoring the talent drop-off from, say, Okung, to a second- or third-string left tackle. That will become even clearer against Osi Umenyiora and the New York Giants in Week 9 if Okung's ankle keeps him out or diminishes his ability to protect the passer.

"My job is to make the guys that are coming in, make them believe," Milloy said.

All Milloy needs to do is point to the standings.

The NFC West race is as open as a flesh wound.