Risin’ Up To The Challenge Of Our Rivals: The Seahawks Play The Cardinals For The Division Sunday Night

If you can’t get excited for what’s about to happen on Sunday at 5:30pm, I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.

We’re talking about the biggest game since the Super Bowl.  The biggest regular season game since we clinched home field advantage in week 17 last year.  Probably one of the top two or three biggest regular season games in franchise history.  Maybe THE biggest, who knows?  I certainly don’t remember the stakes being any higher, nor against a more formidable opponent.  AND, to top it all off, it’s in front of a national audience, as well as on the road, against a divisional opponent who has more or less cruised into a playoff spot by being one of the best teams in football.  A divisional opponent who’s not only trying to knock us off the mantle of NFC West royalty, but a fanbase looking to dethrone us as the best home field advantage in the game.

Storylines?  We’ve got ’em!

And yet, it’s also a game where everyone is CONVINCED that one team has it in the bag.  The Cardinals are on their third quarterback in Ryan Lindley.  They’re down their top running back, going by committee in his place.  Their defense, while still strong, has been beaten up all year and is missing many key guys.  On top of that, a month ago – when the Cards were ostensibly healthier than they are now, including at quarterback – we crushed them 19-3.  We moved the ball pretty much at will, and even though we had to settle primarily for field goals, it was still enough with the way our defense played.

Not for nothing, but our defense remains intact from that game a month ago.  And they’ve been ROLLING ever since.

The Seahawks delivered Arizona their second defeat of the season the first time we played.  We knew this Sunday’s game was coming up, but we also knew that we needed some help if we hoped to overtake them for the division.  As unlikely as it sounds, that help came in the form of the Atlanta Falcons (and not the two superior teams the Cardinals have beaten since, the Chiefs & the Rams).  With a victory on Sunday, the Seahawks will be tied with Arizona in overall record, but will own the tiebreaker thanks to a 2-0 head-to-head record.  But, you already knew that.

That’s been the refrain:  win out and win the division.  With Green Bay’s loss last week in Buffalo, the stakes go up even more.  Win out and get a first round BYE.  (win out and get a little bit of help:  get the top overall seed).

The drop off from victory to defeat isn’t total annihilation, but it’s less than ideal.  If Arizona wins, they secure the #1 seed in the NFC, no matter what anyone else does, and regardless of whether they beat the 49ers in week 17.  So, essentially, what this means is that the Cards would have two weeks off before they play meaningful football.  AND, it means they’d never have to leave the state of Arizona, all the way to the Super Bowl.

The Seahawks would still very likely secure a playoff spot with a win over the Rams in week 17 (the only way the Seahawks don’t make the playoffs at 11-5 is if Dallas and Philly both finish at 11-5 as well, while the Lions and Packers tie in their week 17 showdown at Lambeau – with both of them finishing 11-4-1 – which is PRETTY unlikely).  But, then again, the Seahawks beating the Rams isn’t a guarantee either.

As a 5th seed, the Seahawks would play the winner of the NFC South (looking like New Orleans, at the moment).  If we were to fall to a 6th seed at 10-6 (assuming the Eagles lose one along the way), we’d go to Dallas to play the Cowboys.

I know it’s early, and it’s something we don’t really want to think about, but there’s a very real possibility the Seahawks lose this weekend and are forced to play on the road throughout the playoffs.  It’d be a shame, but it’s something we should probably brace ourselves for.

It would be ridiculous to expect the Cardinals to put up a bunch of points on offense.  Let’s get real:  have you SEEN our defense?  Have you SEEN Ryan Lindley?  I can almost 100% guarantee we’re holding the Cardinals to under 20 points.  And that’s considering the possibility of their defense and/or special teams doing something remarkable.

The real concern – as it should be – falls squarely on Seattle’s offense.  Specifically, how our offense matches up against their defense.  This game is huge for the Seahawks, but it’s even bigger for the Cardinals.  Until Kurt Warner came to town and almost led them to a Super Bowl victory over the Steelers, the Cardinals as a franchise had a history of being totally inept bumblers.  Not that the Seahawks were any great shakes either, but at least we now have a title.  These are two franchises working to turn national perception around.  And since they still lack a Lombardi Trophy, it’s all the more important for them to get this thing done this year.  Top it all off with Arizona hosting this year’s Super Bowl, and you get the kind of pressure they’re under.

But, they’re at home.  Their rabid defense will be playing in front of some rowdy fans looking to make the 12th Man sound like librarian patrons.  And the Seahawks, for whatever reason, still can’t get out of their own way when it comes to stupid mistakes on offense.  What’s worse, we likely won’t have Okung or Unger back this week, putting all the more pressure on an offensive line that’s shakey at best.

Since Arizona’s run defense is among the best in the game, don’t count on the Seahawks getting their usual elite production.  And, you gotta figure they won’t let Russell Wilson run at will like he did a month ago in Seattle.  Where does that put us?  Squarely on the throwing shoulder of our quarterback.  Fortunately, he seems to shine brightest in the national spotlight.  I’d look for him to make just enough plays to get us over the hump, but it’s going to be a close one.

Taking care of the football will be all important.  More important in this game than in any other.  Playing the field position battle.  Not screwing ourselves out of field goal opportunities either by untimely penalties, or by questionable coaching decisions.  With all else being equal – i.e. the Seahawks not forcing any turnovers, or getting any big special teams plays – then we need to do the same.  Punters:  catch those snaps!  Kickers:  nail those field goals!  If we have to win this game 15-12, so be it.  We’ll win if we just focus on the little things and prevent them from making the big plays.

Of course, we’ll demolish them if WE’RE able to make the big plays.  Sacks and INTs and defensive/special teams touchdowns, and so on and so forth.  I’ll be rooting for that, but that’s neither here nor there.

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