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Game of Week: Rams-Seahawks

chris-long.jpg breaks down Sunday's St. Louis at Seattle game (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

The playoffs begin a week early as the Rams (7-8) visit the Seahawks (6-9) in a do-or-die showdown for the NFC West crown. The winner goes on to the postseason. The loser goes on to ponder what might have been. So sad.

1. Steve Spagnuolo's squad is doing it with defense. St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft back in April, so he's generated plenty of attention in his rookie season.

That attention has been magnified by the fact that the Rams were the worst team in football in 2009 (1-15) and have turned into a playoff contender here in 2010.

But the secret to St. Louis' success lies not with the promising young quarterback but with second-year head coach Steve Spagnuolo's defense. Consider these dramatic improvements between the 2009 and 2010 Rams.

2009: No. 31 in scoring defense (27.2 PPG)2010: No. 14 in scoring defense (20.8 PPG)

2009: No. 32 on the Defensive Hog Index2010: No. 8 on the Defensive Hog Index

The improvement along the defensive front should send shivers of joy through the spines of recently suffering Rams fans.

After all, the DHI has proven a critical measure of success. Teams that are better than their opponent on the Defensive Hog Index are 25-8 in postseason play since we introduced the indicator in 2007. More importantly, the No. 1 team has twice won the Super Bowl over the past three seasons.

The St. Louis defensive front is full of players -- young and otherwise -- who appear to be coming into their own under Spagnuolo's tutelage. Defensive end Chris Long has improved dramatically in 2009, with 8.5 sacks. (He produced a total of 9.0 sacks in his first two seasons.) And opposite Long, 11-year veteran defensive end James Hall is having a career season, with 10.5 sacks.

Here's the most exciting part for St. Louis fans: Nobody knows more about the importance of building a team around the Defensive Hogs than Spagnuolo. After all, when he was the Giants' defensive coordinator in 2007, it was his No. 1-ranked D-Hogs who carried Big Blue to a shocking upset victory over the mighty Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

After just two short years, Spagnuolo has made great strides trying to replicate that Super Bowl-winning model in St. Louis.

2. Pete Carroll's Seahawks are a lot more pumped and jacked at home than they are on the road. Seattle's Qwest Field is considered one of the best homefield advantages in the NFL.

Coach Carroll's first season in the Emerald City has provided further evidence -- and should provide an edge of confidence for the Seahawks on Sunday.

Seattle is 4-3 at home this year, and a dismal 2-6 on the road.

But the record doesn't tell the whole story. The Seahawks score 22.9 PPG at home; they score just 16.8 PPG on the road. They surrender 23.9 PPG at home; they get torched for 29.3 PPG on the road.

The Seattle offense struggled badly during a Week 4 loss at St. Louis (a 20-3 defeat). It was tied for the team's lowest scoring output since a 21-0 loss to Pittsburgh back in October 2007.

But whether home or away, Seattle is backing into the playoffs. They've lost three straight, five of their last six and have gone just 2-7 since Oct. 24. Their lone win in the last six games was at home over the lowly Panthers.

The fact that a team that's won two games in November and December still has a shot to host a playoff game is a discredit to the NFL's current playoff format.

3. The Rams enjoy a rare advantage with the more experienced quarterback. It's not often that a team with a rookie quarterback reaches the playoffs. It's even more rare that it enters what's essentially a playoff game with an advantage at the most important position in North American sports.

But that's the case Sunday, as the Rams take the field with Bradford (the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft). The Seahawks counter at quarterback with Charlie Whitehurst, a third-round draft pick by the Chargers in 2006 who has virtually zero NFL experience. The Clemson product is expected to play in the place of injured Matt Hasselbeck

Bradford has acquitted himself quite well this year by the generally low standards of rookie signal-callers. In fact, compare his rookie season in key efficiency indicators to that of the great Peyton Manning:

Bradford: 60.5 percent completions, 18 TD, 14 INT, 6.1 YPA and a 78.0 passer rating. Manning: 56.7 percent completions, 26 TD, 28 INT, 6.5 YPA and a 71.2 passer rating.

Bradford also boasts 335 completions, a rookie record, and with 3,357 passing yards, he's just 84 shy of Matt Ryan's mark for second-most by a rookie. (Manning set the record in 1998 with 3,739.) Pretty good company. Most importantly, he's generally avoided the critical mistakes that plague rookie passers. Ten passers, including some of the game's biggest names, have thrown more INTs this season, including Super Bowl champs Eli Manning (24), Drew Brees (21), Brett Favre (19) and Peyton Manning (17).

Bottom line: The future looks rosy for Bradford and the Rams. Whitehurst, meanwhile, made a couple token appearances with the Chargers as a rookie in 2006 -- he did rush for one touchdown -- before not seeing the field the past three years. He made four appearances this year for the Seahawks, none of which gave much cause for hope: He completed 35-of-63 passes for 315 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT and a lowly 54.7 passer rating, for those of you keeping score at home. Now Seattle's hopes sit on his inexperienced shoulders, while St. Louis counts on one of the game's bright young stars.

The NFL is all about winning the passing wars. And St. Louis owns a huge advantage in the all-important Passer Rating Differential category (No. 14 vs. No. 30 for Seattle). This indicator simply measures the difference between a team's Offensive Passer Rating and its Defensive Passer Rating. It tells us which teams are most efficient overall in both sides of the passing game.

The Rams are competitive at -1.19 in Passer Rating Differential. The Seahawks are abysmal at -20.98, better than only the Cardinals and Panthers. Teams that are poor in the passing wars are almost always -- like the 2010 Seahawks -- poor teams.

That margin should only be magnified by the fact that Seattle is forced to go with Charlie Whitehurst (63 attempts, 54.7 rating) at QB due to Matt Hasselbeck's hip injury.

St. Louis is the better defensive club, surrendering just 20.8 PPG (14th) to a dismal 26.7 PPG (29th) for Seattle and has simply played better ball in recent weeks. Meanwhile, it's tough to side with a club that's won just two football games since Halloween and that's playing with its backup quarterback.

St. Louis 23, Seattle 17