Playoff-bound Seahawks will play starters in finale


The Seahawks won't be cruising into the playoffs this time. At least that's the plan of Mike Holmgren right now.

The Seahawks coach welcomed his NFC West champions back from a two-day Christmas break on Wednesday with the message that Seattle's veterans will start Sunday at Atlanta. He said he wants them to play it as if it was Week 2 &

not a meaningless game inside a half-empty dome, with Seattle already locked into the No. — seed for the NFC playoffs.

"We kicked it around a lot," Holmgren said of meetings with his assistants on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, where they weighed maintaining momentum for the postseason versus resting starters to avoid the possibility of injury.

"We're going to play the game just as we've played every game so far this season," he said.

He particularly hopes to continue an improved rushing offense from last Sunday's win over Baltimore.

"We want to go into the playoffs as strong as we can be," he said. "We're going to play the guys hard ... and keep our fingers crossed."

Holmgren said the only players who may not play are already injured. Wide receiver Deion Branch (calf), defensive tackle Rocky Bernard (groin) and Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones (sore shoulder) missed all or part of practice Wednesday.

That practice showed Holmgren's conflict between playing and preservation, as he substituted more liberally than usual with the starting units.

Holmgren also said it's probable quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, now even more important while having a career year for what has become a pass-first offense, would exit the game early in favor of Seneca Wallace if Seattle (10-5) gets a big lead on the Falcons (3-12).

"It will be talked about &

not just with us but a lot of teams &

this week on how to do this," Holmgren said, thinking of the perfect New England Patriots and other playoff teams. "I'm not sure there's a right way to do it.

"I believe in momentum going into the playoffs. At the same time, everyone hold their breath that no one gets hurt. So how do you balance that?"

His players say they want to have business as usual.

"They pay us to play," veteran guard Chris Gray said.

"Any kind of a letdown, though it might be human nature, is not what you can do at this level, especially with the competition that will happen in the playoffs," defensive end Patrick Kerney said.

Kerney holds a half-sack lead on Mario Williams of Houston for the league lead. He is also returning to the city in which he played eight seasons until signing with Seattle last offseason. It is still home to his charitable foundation and many friends he hopes to see Saturday afternoon.

"Certainly don't want to let this week pass by," he said. "It will definitely be a special time for me to get back to Atlanta and play."

Shaun Alexander is a native of Florence, Ky., who played at the University of Alabama. He said "pretty much the whole state of Kentucky is invited, and the whole state of Alabama," to Sunday's game. But the running back, coming off his best game since September, is playing with a wrist that he broke in Week 1.

"It's more important just to make sure that we have everything ready to go for the playoffs," he said. "There are little things that we've got to do. But at the same time, the risk (is) always there."

Holmgren's decision may prove to be similar to the one he made two years ago entering the finale at Green Bay. Those Seahawks had already wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Holmgren rested only nicked-up starters, including Jones and cornerback Marcus Trufant. He then pulled the first-team offense at halftime, after Alexander scored his league-record 28th touchdown.

He said it was the only time in his 16 seasons as an NFL head coach he's done that. Seattle lost to Green Bay &

then went on to its first Super Bowl.

Yet Holmgren still doesn't like that he made "wholesale changes" for a meaningless game.

"We were able to keep guys healthy, but that particular Sunday wasn't much fun," Holmgren said. "I'm going to push them hard, just like I always do. And I'm going to go at the game hard and try to set an example that way."

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