No one can deny what's at stake when the Seahawks host the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. With a win, the Seahawks would take over first place in the NFC West. The Rams, meanwhile, could build a two-game lead with three games left in the season if they can leave Seattle with a victory.
It's a big game with big implications no matter how you look at it, but what this game won't be for the Seahawks is one that is any bigger than the ones they have played leading up to it, or than the ones that will follow the rest of the season. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll's "every game is a championship opportunity" mantra rings especially true this time of year when playoff berths and division titles are on the line, but the whole point of preaching that all season long is that his team should be better prepared for a game like Sunday's if coaches and players did spend all season preparing for each game like they will prepare for the Rams Sunday.
"It's really important," Carroll said. "I think it's the process and it's the consistency so the mentality is developed and the discipline that it takes to really see things clearly and see things accurately, and not mistake situations and opportunities in the wrong way that can distract you. We're just working to clear our minds as much as we can to function like we're capable of. You have to deal with the issues, so the discipline that you can create over a long time is really what comes through at the end of the season. Hopefully, here we are in a great finish mode with all of this stuff that's out there to be had. We're going to rely on what's brought us here and see if we can pull it off."
Carroll doesn't preach a treat-every-week-the-same approach because he doesn't want his team to think games like Sunday's are big; he does it because he wants them to understand that they're all important. A loss or a win in Week 2 can make just as big of a difference as one in Week 17, and if a team is going to be its best on gameday, it won't change the way it prepares from week to week just because some games might have more of a spotlight on them.
"If you aren't consistent in your approach then you can sometimes over extend yourself," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "Sometimes you use too much energy. The normal human reaction is, 'It's a big game, you've got to get up for it,' but when it all comes down to it, it's still football. It's still a game. The field is the same size. They are going to throw at you the same coverages that you have seen all year. Nothing really changes, so you can't change. And Pete has always described to us that every game is a championship opportunity, so when we have actual championship opportunities, we are already prepared for it. We have already been practicing. We already have the right mental mindset, so when we go out there, we are still going to be ourselves, and usually that gives us an advantage over our opponent who doesn't necessarily do that."
Center Justin Britt echoed Baldwin's sentiments about how the team feels heading into a game with this much riding on it late in the season.
"You feel prepared, you feel like you've already played this game mentally and emotionally," Britt said. "If you go about it the right way, every game is a championship opportunity and another chance to prove our worth and what we're about. We just go through the week that way, don't make it bigger than what it needs to be—that's what the media is for. We just go about it just like we did in Week 1 and so on, just like it'll be form here on out. Every game we should treat the same."
Over the course of his NFL career, Baldwin has come to realize not every team approaches things the way Carroll's Seahawks do, and that can create advantage if an opponent comes into a big moment trying to do more than they would on any other Sunday.
"They try and do too much," Baldwin said when asked what he has seen from those opponents. "They go outside of their own means. They make things up. We always talk about it in our room or on this team, 'We don't need you to be somebody that you're not, we need you to be you. We need you to be the best you that you can be because that is enough.' If you try to be someone else or you try to be something else, then you are not going to be consistent. You are not going to be able to be somebody else consistently, and so that is what you see with teams who do that. Typically, they are up and down. They have their struggles year in and year out because they don't have an identity. For us here, we have our identity of who we want to be and who we are, game in and game out."
But even if the treat-every-week-the-same version of Carroll is the only one Seahawks players know, he hasn't always had this even approach to a football schedule. As Carroll has mentioned in the past a couple of times, he went over the top making a big deal of his USC team's trip to Notre Dame in 2001. Carroll had former players talk to the team about the significance of that game; he took the team on a campus tour at Notre Dame where they saw Touchdown Jesus and the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes; they toured the College Football Hall of Fame, which at the time was in South Bend; then that Saturday, Carroll watched his team lose 27-16.
"It was so overblown, and we got our butts kicked," Carroll said earlier this year. "… It was a total mistake. Really from that point I've never been the same."
The lessons Carroll learned from that butt-kicking at Notre Dame don't guarantee victory on Sunday or in any other game, but it does help ensure that his team will go into each remaining game this season, all of which will likely have playoff implications, with the right mindset. This week is undoubtedly big, but so too was last week, and so too will be next week's game and the one that follows.
"Every one of them has been the same," Carroll said. "It's the same thing. Every one of those gave us a chance to be in first place. That's the facts, that's the truth. You can look at it differently, but we don't. So we're going to keep going with everything we have to play a great football game, then we'll see what happens next week. Next week will be the exact same thing, regardless of what this outcome is. It doesn't matter, you've got to win next week. Then it'll likely come down to—every once in a while they say, 'OK, you've done this or you've done that'—this season isn't going to be one of those. We're going to have to finish all the way to the end of it, so being in the right mentality and mode is hugely important and valuable to us, so here we go. We'll see what happens."
The Seahawks celebrated the holiday season with the patients and staff of local hospitals for the annual Captains' Blitz. The players got to meet 12s of all ages and give out lots of Seahawks goodies. The Captains' Blitz has been happening annually since 1976.