Hasselbeck, Branch expected to start in key matchup against Cardinals

Updated: November 14, 2008, 8:20 PM ET
Associated Press

RENTON, Wash. -- Finally, Matt Hasselbeck and Deion Branch are facing a challenge the Seahawks are thrilled to be dealing with: rust.

Seattle's three-time Pro Bowl passer and former Super Bowl MVP receiver worked with the first-team offense for the entire practice Friday. So each is ready to start for the first time in six weeks Sunday against first-place Arizona.

They're back for what coach Mike Holmgren says is a must-win game to save Seattle's season. The four-time defending division champions are 2-7 and trail the Cardinals by four games in the NFC West with seven games remaining.

"We can label it. It's about time we label one," Holmgren said, laughing. "I've always said that, until mathematically you can't do it anymore, you have hope. So, we're getting to that point right now. This is a must-win game."

Hasselbeck's return from a nerve problem in his right leg caused by a bulging disk in his back is a huge boost to a passing offense ranked 31st in the league.

"I think he's had a wonderful week. He's clearly excited about being back," Holmgren said. "He had a little spring in his step. He threw the ball well. I think everyone enjoyed the fact that he was back practicing again."

Hasselbeck didn't even do that from Oct. 4 until Nov. 7 while twice visiting a back surgeon in Los Angeles and doggedly following a rehabilitation plan to strengthen the core muscles in his back. Wednesday was the first day he ran the first-team offense in more than five weeks. Sunday will be his first game since he felt his back stiffen and he hyperextended his weakened right knee during a loss at the New York Giants on Oct. 5.

Quarterback coach Bill Lazor thinks Hasselbeck may show some rust against an active, tricky Cardinals defense.

"Matt has been in the offense a long time with coach Holmgren calling the plays, so if anyone can do it, he can," Lazor said of Seattle's starter since 2002. "I would hope he could hit the ground running, but we'll see."

Hasselbeck had said Wednesday he still needed to be cleared by a team physician before he could play. When asked Friday if Hasselbeck still needed to be cleared, Holmgren sounded like someone who has spent three months constantly being disappointed at not getting back injured starters when he expected.

"Well, I've got my fingers crossed, but no, he's playing -- unless all of a sudden he can't get out of bed in the morning," the coach said.

Branch will try to play his first full game since January following reconstructive knee surgery and a bruised heel. He will start with Bobby Engram and, when Seattle goes to three wide receivers, Koren Robinson. So the Seahawks will finally have the receivers they've been wanting to use together since mid-September.

Branch may not be in shape to play the entire game, and Seattle has promoted opening-game starter Courtney Taylor from the practice squad this week to spell him. Branch said his conditioning is not as good as it was back on Oct. 5 when, he said, "I was in better shape than anyone in this whole locker room." That was from months of workouts he likened to that of a long-distance runner to strengthen his knee.

Then he lasted only two quarters before bruising his heel while running a route against the Giants.

Holmgren said fullback Leonard Weaver, listed as questionable, will be a game-time decision. He has bruised ribs. If Weaver can't play, rookie Owen Schmitt will start.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press