- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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SEATTLE -- Red zone success often comes down to confidence. The Seahawks have it. The Rams don't.
Success in the red zone is the reason the Seahawks have taken the NFC West away from the Rams, the high-scoring offensive team that had dominated them most of the four years they've been division rivals. When the Seahawks approach the end zone, they expect to score. During Sunday's 31-16 domination of the Rams, the Seahawks scored touchdowns on three of five trips inside the Rams 20-yard line. The Rams went one for five, but that one was in the fourth quarter when they were down by 15.
"We've matured," halfback Shaun Alexander said of the Seahawks' red zone success. "We expect to score. Maturity does a lot. We have confidence."
Through 89 games of his career, Alexander has become a touchdown machine. He's manufactured 89 touchdowns, topped only by Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith in that time frame. Against the Rams on Sunday, he scored three times.
His performance gave him 17 rushing touchdowns for the season. More importantly, the Seahawks played Sunday's NFC West divisional race as though it was the red zone. They were determined to win it. At 7-2, the Seahawks have opened an almost insurmountable three-game lead over the Rams with seven games left and could wrap up the division by early December. With the sweep of the Rams this year, it's almost as though the Seahawks have a four-game lead.
"We probably have the greatest red zone weapon in the league, No. 37 [Alexander]," wide receiver Joe Jurevicius said. "The biggest thing is when we are given an opportunity, we take advantage of it."
Conversely, the Rams, a team that once scored 500 points a season for three consecutive years, have become a middle of the conference red zone team. One of the issues has been health. Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Marc Bulger returned to the lineup Sunday after each missed at least three games. In part because of their absence, the Rams have scored touchdowns on only 16 of 32 trips to the red zone. The Seahawks have touchdowns on 23 of 35 trips.
The differences between the two teams were determined early. Bulger, coming back after missing two games because of a shoulder injury, drove the Rams' offense to the Seahawks 15 after getting the opening kickoff. Clearly, the Seahawks were a little off balance as they were going through personnel adjustments. They were missing their best run-stopping defensive tackle (Marcus Tubbs) and their most experienced first- and second-down linebacker (Jamie Sharper).
Mike Holmgren was trying to make due with two undersized three-technique defensive tackles -- Chartic Darby and Rocky Bernard -- and two rookie linebackers -- Lofa Tatupu and LeRoy Hill. The Seahawks' defense huddled to the ball to stop Steven Jackson on first down for a 1-yard loss and after a 3-yard gain on a pass. Bulger missed Kevin Curtis on third down with a pass and the Rams settled for a 31-yard field goal.
The difference on the next possession was how the Seahawks handled failure. Matt Hasselbeck drove the Seahawks to the Rams 15 and watched the drive falter when a miscommunication between Hasselbeck and tight end Jerramy Stevens resulted in an interception. The difference was the Seahawks didn't settle for failure.
"Matt is a leader, and in the huddle, he does a great job verbalizing what he's thinking," Jurevicius said. "I think early on, we missed a few opportunities because of miscommunications but Matt was able to rebound and make the right calls. It's a matter of him getting in the huddle and grabbing somebody, looking in their eyes and say, 'We need a block here or we need one yard there.' I call it a friendly challenge."
By the second quarter, Hasselbeck had a stranglehold on his offensive subjects, and the Rams gave the Seahawks the opportunity to take control of the game. Bulger drove the Rams to the Seahawks 11, but only got a 3-yard completion to Curtis, setting up a fourth-and-3 at the Seahawks' 8. The Rams led, 3-0, and Joe Vitt sent the Rams' offense out to try to draw an offsides on fourth down. When the Seahawks' defense didn't react, Vitt sent in the field goal unit, and made the game-turning call of the game.
He called for a fake field goal, holder Dane Looker pitching to kicker Jeff Wilkins, who was suddenly now the quarterback. Cornerback Marcus Trufant sacked Wilkins, and the red zone opportunity turned into the dead zone.
"I wanted to get points," Vitt said. "Anytime you're playing a good football team like the Seahawks, when you get in the red zone, you have to come away with points. The first call was mine with the fake field goal. We left a fumble down there. Another time, we had a touchdown called back. When you play a good football team, you have to come away with some points."
Said Bulger of the Rams' red zone woes: "That was the difference in the game. We were able to move the ball all the way down to their 10-yard line, then we couldn't get it in. If we had gotten in half of the times we got down there, it's a different game."
Hasselbeck made the Rams pay. He drove the Seahawks 88 yards in five plays, the last being a handoff to Alexander after a 47-yard completion to D.J. Hackett at the Rams 6. Alexander scored his first touchdown.
A field goal before the half gave the Seahawks a 10-3 lead, but the Seahawks came back to open the half with two touchdown drives to put the game almost out of reach at 24-6.
Alexander credits the Seahawks' red zone success -- of which he's mostly the individual beneficiary -- to great offensive line blocking and great coaching schemes. Unlike some teams, the Seahawks will mix in more three- and four-receiver sets as they approach the end zone.
"Our coaches do a great job of mixing personnel and we do things different every week," Seahawks receiver Bobby Engram said. "We just attack. We don't try to dink and dunk in the red zone. We attack. The three-receiver sets put pressure on the defense, and we have a pretty good group of receivers who don't mind blocking. Plus, we have No. 37 back there."
Alexander is a master of turning weak-side runs into cutbacks for touchdowns. Against the Rams, he had 165 yards on 33 carries and scored on touchdown runs of 6, 4 and 17 yards. Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson said he looked like Larry Csonka running Sunday.
"We kind of know the plays he is going to run, but he's a guy that if you have one assignment missed or don't get into your gap, he is a guy who can break it into the second level very quickly," Hutchinson said.
Alexander is getting so used to scoring, he's coming up with touchdown celebrations and even lobbying for touchdown plays with Holmgren.
"He came over and he had a 'guaranteed touchdown' play for me," Holmgren said. "He said, 'listen, I know you don't like me to do this, but if we do this and you hand me the ball here, I know it's going to work.' I don't usually but he was having such a great game, so I called it. We lost one yard on the play, and I said, 'Shaun, I'll handle the play-calling from now on.' "
But, in the final two minutes, Alexander turned what was supposed to be a run for a first down into a 17-yard touchdown to ice the game. With football in hand, Alexander reeled in another touchdown celebration and perhaps the NFC West title.
"We have been saying this whole year that our backs are against the wall more than anybody else and that every game -- especially playing the Rams -- is always huge," Alexander said. "It was one of those things that every great thing that we did up to this point would really be washed away if we lost this game and that's how we looked at it. We wouldn't accept anything less than a win."
Their next mission is to approach home-field advantage in the playoffs as if it's the goal line. Figure Alexander to get that handoff. After all, he leads the NFL with 1,114 yards and 17 touchdowns in nine games. The red zone is turning into Seahawks colors.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
As they have all season long, the Seahawks made a habit of cashing in once they reached the red zone on Sunday.