SEATTLE — Laugh all you want, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks are going to the playoffs as champions of the NFC West.
The Seahawks are the first sub-.500 division champs, taking the division with a 16-6 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday night. Their reward: a home game on Saturday with the defending Super Bowl champion Saints. New Orleans beat the Seahawks 34-19 in Week 11.
Making his second career start, backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst threw a 4-yard TD pass on Seattle's first possession, Olindo Mare kicked three second-half field goals.
It makes for great jokes from critics, and the situation in the NFC Worst, er, West this season has reignited the debate whether division champs should automatically be granted home playoff games. The New York Giants and Tampa Bay have better records at 10-6, but it's Seattle that's playoff bound.
"We didn't get here the way we all dreamed of getting here, but we got here," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "When it came down to it, the guys played a great football game tonight."
The Seahawks aren't apologizing. In his first season as their coach, Carroll was fist-pumping and clapping his way up and down the Seattle sideline in the closing minutes as the Seahawks celebrated their first division title since capping a four-year run of dominance of the division in 2007.
St. Louis (7-9) was kept out of the end zone for the second time this season and rookie Sam Bradford couldn't complete the Rams' turnaround from winning just one game a year ago. Bradford finished 19 of 36 for 155 yards, and threw a costly interception midway through the fourth quarter.
Now the question for Seattle is who will be the quarterback for its first home playoff game since a January 2008 win over Washington.
Starter Matt Hasselbeck was active for Sunday night and went through pregame warmups, but Carroll held to his word the Seahawks were preparing for Whitehurst to be their guy after Hasselbeck injured his hip last week at Tampa Bay.
Whitehurst didn't fail in the second start of his career. He wasn't spectacular, but he avoided any critical mistakes: no interceptions, no dumb throws, no miscues a team like Seattle couldn't afford.
He finished 22 of 36 for 192 yards and his lone touchdown, a 4-yard toss to Mike Williams in the first quarter. Mare connected from 31, 38 and 34 yards in the second half and Seattle spent the final minute with Carroll screaming into the air and players slapping hands with fans in the end zone.
"I'm so proud of him. This was a big deal, big stage for him," Carroll said. "So proud of Matt for trying to get back tonight. It was great we didn't have to play him. Charlie had his chance, stepped up and did it."
And it helped that Seattle's defense, maligned for weeks and giving up at least 34 points in four of its last five games, suddenly showed a backbone, making St. Louis' conservative offensive approach seem even slower.
Bradford didn't take his first real shot downfield against the 29th-ranked pass defense until late in the third quarter; all his previous throws were short and safe. Bradford started throwing downfield late, nearly connecting with Danario Alexander on a deep post early in the fourth quarter, only to see the perfect throw go right through Alexander's hands.
Steven Jackson, the Rams' best offensive threat, had just 11 carries for 45 yards, continuing a streak of failing to crack 100 yards in his career against the Seahawks. Other than a fumble recovery deep in Seattle's end that led to Josh Brown's 27-yard field goal in the third quarter, the Rams failed to cross midfield in the second half until midway through the fourth period. That was immediately followed by Bradford's one big mistake, an interception thrown right at linebacker Will Herring, the first pick of his career.