Rams, Seahawks headed for epic finish in NFC West race

The Rams haven’t sniffed the NFC West title since the Seahawks stole it from under their noses in 2010. Neither team will be limping to what should be a spectacular finish to the divsion race in 2017.

Seven years ago, however, both teams had only seven wins. This time, with Los Angeles leading at 8-3 and Seattle right behind at 7-4, a good team will end up with the title, while the other might be left at home in January with no playoff berth at all.

Both the Rams and Seahawks got much-needed rebound victories in Week 12 after tough losses to fellow NFC contenders. Although the difference remains only one game, the Rams have moved up to the No. 3 seed in the playoff picture, while the Seahawks are stuck at No. 7.

MORE: Updated NFL playoff picture

The division will be decided in the next five weeks, with the teams’ head-to-head rematch coming in Week 15. Here’s a look at how it will play out.

Rams: Will their defense keep it up?

Offensive rankings: 2nd in scoring, 4th in yardage, 6th in passing, 9th in rushing

Defensive rankings: 7th in scoring, 16th in yardage, 9th in passing, 27th in rushing

Turnover margin: plus-5 (tied for 9th)

Schedule: at Cardinals, vs. Eagles, at Seahawks, at Titans, vs. 49ers

Los Angeles keeps lighting up teams with Jared Goff going off in the passing game, no matter who’s out there with him. Sean McVay keeps pushing the right buttons and can always lean on a big-play running game, too, with Todd Gurley. Even without top wide receiver Robert Woods for a few games, the Rams are loaded with versatile playmakers and still have two dangerous game-breakers in Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp.

The key to slowing them down — much like the old Greatest Show on Turf Rams teams in St. Louis with Marshall Faulk — is containing Gurley as both a rusher and a receiver. Minnesota did it in Week 11, and Seattle was capable of doing it in Week 5. Going forward, Philadelphia, Seattle and Tennessee — L.A.’s opponents in Weeks 14 through 16 — have the personnel against the run to do that.

Those represent the three toughest games of the Rams’ last five. What can help there is the defense is keeping up its stifling play. After some early breakdowns, everything has started to jell for Wade Phillips’ unit, especially against the pass. Aaron Donald leads the pressure push up front, while safety Lamarcus Joyner has been the glue guy in coverage.

The Rams won at the line and on the back end against Drew Brees and the Saints, and that needs to happen against Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson and Marcus Mariota. All three of those QBs are loaded with more reliable targets than Brees is, however, and also bring the wrinkle of their running ability.

As good as those teams have been up front, their secondaries have been vulnerable for injuries or other reasons. Goff will need to keep bringing out his best to out-duel those counterparts in critical matchups. Much like Dak Prescott last year, Goff’s confidence grows with each veteran QB he outplays.

If LA’s defense plays as well as it did against New Orleans to complement the offense, the Rams can win the West in continued high-scoring fashion.

Seahawks: Will their offense carry them?

Offensive rankings: 10th in scoring, 8th in yardage, 7th in passing, 20th in rushing

Defensive rankings: 9th in scoring, 8th in yardage, 10th in passing, 9th in rushing

Turnover margin: plus-5 (tied for 9th)

Remaining schedule: vs. Eagles, at Jaguars, vs. Rams, at Cowboys, vs. Cardinals

Seattle is a two-trick team at the moment. Offensively, it’s all on Russell Wilson and the passing game. Defensively, it’s mostly on Bobby Wagner and the run defense.

With more offensive line issues and still no reliable power back, Wilson is by far the Seahawks’ best, most consistent rushing threat. With no Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor on defense, they don’t intimidate nearly as much on the back end against teams with multiple big-play receivers.

So the key for the Seahawks is rendering Wilson’s counterpart as one-dimensional as he is. After shutting down Gurley in the first matchup against the Rams, the Seahawks were able to tee off on Goff, producing three sacks and pressuring him into three giveaways.

Wilson is as great as any QB one could have to win shootouts. That will certainly be the case vs. Philadelphia, as Seattle tries to finish what it couldn’t against Atlanta in its previous high-scoring home affair. He’ll also need to rise above the high degree of difficulty against Jacksonville’s top-ranked pass defense before being up to the task vs. Goff and Phillips again.

The Seahawks also won’t catch a break in Week 16 at Dallas, as Dak Prescott will be back to getting Ezekiel Elliott’s support in that game. Overall, there’s no doubt the Seahawks have a harder schedule than that of the Rams.

Seattle saw Arizona rise recently with Carson Palmer under Bruce Arians, and before then, Colin Kaepernick under Jim Harbaugh had been their toughest threat in West. But with Goff and McVay here to stay together for longer than those pairings have, Wilson and Pete Carroll — with a coaching counterpart now less than half his age — face a legitimate contender to take their five-year division dominance away from them.

While his Seahawks are shorthanded elsewhere, Wilson needs to be his explosive and efficient best to lift both sides off the ball. Carroll can’t afford the few lapses he had in the Falcons and Redskins losses. Wilson gives them a chance in every game, and he probably will deserve a lot more MVP consideration if the Seahawks finish 11-5 and win the division.

Goff has a lot more balance and support, both offensively and defensively, and the big win over the Saints was key to having an extra cushion for the final five games.

The fair projection is that the Rams and Seahawks will split the four games in which they don’t play each other. That means the division appropriately will come down to their Week 15 matchup. It shoudn’t disappoint as one of the best games of the season with everything on the line. With the way the NFC South is going, there may be no wild-card on which the NFC West runner-up can fall back.

The Seahawks no longer have The Legion of Boom as we know it, and they’re no longer invincible on their home field. The Rams are no longer as bad defensively, and they haven’t proved to be intimidated on the road.

It will be either more next-level stuff for Wilson or Goff’s latest breakthrough in becoming a second-year QB as special as Wilson once was. Seattle will and should be favored in the epic battle, but it’s a chance for Los Angeles to force a change of the guard in the West.