Going into the season, the thought was the Seattle Seahawks-Arizona Cardinals season finale could determine the winner of the NFC West.
The rise of the Los Angeles Rams and the injury problems and other issues that dropped the Seahawks and Cardinals ultimately minimized the impact of Sunday’s game — but for many reasons, this Seahawks-Cardinals matchup offers more than just the diminished billing.
At the moment, it’s still a good rivalry: The Cardinals usually win in Seattle, and the Seahawks seem to control the series in Arizona. The presence of Bruce Arians and some of the things he says adds to the rivalry (he told his players last week that the game in Seattle is like a home game to the Cardinals).
The playoffs are on the line for the Seahawks. If they win and the Atlanta Falcons lose, the Seahawks can sneak into the playoffs as a Wild Card. For the Cardinals, it will be the end of a good run.
Here are five things to watch for Sunday.
The Bruce Arians era. Most people believe Arians will step down as head coach after the game. What a loss; I think Arians ranks among the top six coaches in football. He’s great with quarterbacks. He knows how to get the most out of an offense because he’s defined in what he does.
Arians establishes a good running attack and he follows through with aggressiveness by going for big play-action passes downfield. Arians’ possible departure could push the Cardinals — currently the oldest roster in the conference — into a rebuild. Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer could retire, and the team could move on from offensive lineman Mike Iupati and Jared Veldheer.
I don’t see the Cardinals dropping back as much as the San Francisco 49ers after the departure of Jim Harbaugh, but they need to reload to get back into playoff contention. (And for their own part, the Seahawks will also undergo some major changes because of age and injuries after the season.)
The Rams have risen. The 49ers are getting better with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. The division is changing.
Don’t underestimate this Cardinals team, particularly on defense. After a slow start, the Cardinals have jumped up to the No. 6 on defense. In the past three games, they’ve only allowed 22 points and are among the best stopping the run, allowing only 88.9 yards a game and 3.5 yards per carry.
That’s bad news for the Seahawks, who have barely been able to run the ball this year unless the carrier is Russell Wilson. The Seahawks need to generate yards from the backs. They had only 56 yards from their tailbacks in their Week 10 meeting with Arizona; at the time they were going with Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise. J.D. McKissic helped out five carries for 26 yards. The running options are better now that Mike Davis is starting and McKissic is the passing-down back. Rawls made a little bit of a comeback last week and could be used more Sunday.
What’s worked for the Cardinals defense is age: they’re a bit younger on that side of the ball now. I thought they made themselves vulnerable on defense earlier in the season by replacing defensive starter departures with players in their thirties, but in the second half of the season, they got better with rookies Haason Reddick at linebacker and Budda Baker at safety. It’s also helped that Tyrann Mathieu is getting back to his Pro Bowl level of play.
The return of Drew Stanton at quarterback. What seemed to be a minor injury turned into a major disaster for Stanton, the Cardinals top backup quarterback.
In the Seahawks 22-16 victory in Week 10, Stanton suffered a knee injury. It didn’t keep him out of the game, but the knee injury opened the door for Arians to give Blaine Gabbert the start for the next five weeks. A long stretch of not generating a touchdown drive ended that experiment, though, and Stanton returned as a starter last week.
Stanton has played his best football with Arians, but the one stat that stands out out is his completion percentage: He’s a 52.8 percent passer for his career. He’s at 51.2 this year. Against the Seahawks, he completed 24-of-47 for 273 yards but only one touchdown pass.
The blitz versus Russell Wilson. The Cardinals rank among the most active blitzing teams in football. They are expected to blitz more than 40 percent of the plays. Because of his ability to escape, Wilson ranks fifth in the league with a 100.2 quarterback rating against the blitz. His ability to run around and make plays has been one of the success stories of the season; his quarterback rating outside the pocket is 80.4, tenth-best in the league. The key for Wilson is not making turnovers in this game.
Offensive line problems on both teams. The Seahawks offensive line issues have been around all season. But the Cardinals have had worse problems: Veldheer, Iupati and D.J. Humphries are on the injured reserve list, guard Earl Watford is injured, and center A.Q. Shipley is the only survivor of the season.
Injuries have completely destroyed the Cardinals running attack. They’ve lost David Johnson and Adrian Johnson for the season, and average only 84.7 yards per game rushing.