Laugh all you want; the Seahawks are going to the playoffs as NFC West champions - at 7-9.

The Seahawks became the first sub-.500 division champs when they earned a 16-6 victory over the visiting St. Louis Rams last night. Their reward: a first-round matchup with the defending Super Bowl champion Saints (11-5) on Saturday - in Seattle.

Making his second career start, backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst threw a 4-yard TD pass to Mike Williams on Seattle's first possession and Olindo Mare kicked three second-half field goals to beat the Rams (7-9).

It makes for great jokes from critics. The situation in the NFC Worst, er, West has reignited the debate about whether division champs should automatically be granted home playoff games. The Giants and Buccaneers have much better records at 10-6, but they'll be watching Seattle on TV from their couches next weekend.

"We didn't get here the way we all dreamed of getting here, but we got here," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. "When it came down to it, the guys played a great football game tonight."

The Seahawks aren't apologizing. In his first season as their coach, Carroll was fist-pumping and clapping his way up and down the sideline in the closing minutes as the Seahawks celebrated their first division title since capping a four-year run of dominance of the division in 2007.

Now the question is who will quarterback Seattle in its first home playoff game since a January 2008 win over Washington. Starter Matt Hasselbeck was active last night and went through pregame warmups,

"I'm so proud of him. This was a big deal, big stage for him," Carroll said of Whitehurst. "So proud of Matt for trying to get back tonight. It was great we didn't have to play him. Charlie had his chance, stepped up and did it."

Falcons 31, Panthers 10

Atlanta, No. 1 in the NFC, embraced home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Carolina, No. 1 in the NFL draft, said goodbye to its coach.

The host Falcons (13-3) earned their first division title since 2004 and first No. 1 seeding in 30 years. Team owner Arthur Blank took a bath afterward as players dumped a cooler of liquid on him.

"We're very relevant," coach Mike Smith said. "We've worked very hard to attain this position."

Carolina (2-14) had a weak finish to an awful season under John Fox, who will not return.

"It's been a heck of a run," Fox said. "A lot of good memories. I know I didn't finish like anybody wanted. I would have never expected to have a nine-year run. If I was given the chance to do it all over again, I would."

Buccaneers 23, Saints 13

Josh Freeman passed for two touchdowns for visiting Tampa Bay (10-6). Reggie Bush had 70 yards rushing and 55 yards receiving for New Orleans (11-5). - AP

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