The Arizona Cardinals know that they could go 11-5 and miss the playoffs. They'd have a legitimate argument against the NFL's current division-favored postseason seeding if that happened, especially considering that they've been one of the league's hottest teams over the last two months.
The Seattle Seahawks knew that if they beat the Cardinals in their home stadium on Sunday, they'd wrap up the NFC West and take the conference's No. 1 overall seed. That would have been their reward for their status as the league's hottest team throughout the season.
But in Arizona's 17-10 win over Seattle at CenturyLink Field, the Cardinals were able to play Seattle-style defense better than the Seahawks from start to finish. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles put together a masterful plan that had his defensive backs covering Seattle's receivers so well, his linemen and linebackers could go after Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson with impunity. Wilson was harassed perhaps more than he's ever been in two NFL seasons, and the result was Seattle's first loss at home with Wilson at quarterback. Wilson finished with just 11 completions in 27 attempts for a career-low 108 yards, one touchdown and an interception near the end of the game that was the subject of some debate. What was not open for debate was the extent to which Arizona's defense affected what Wilson wanted to do.
This was an especially impressive effort for a Cardinals team that, under different management in 2012, lost 58-0 in this same stadium.
"I guess we are 65 points better than we were last year," head coach Bruce Arians quipped.
Well, on defense they certainly were. On offense, Carson Palmer became the second quarterback in the last three seasons -- Philly's Michael Vick was the other -- to throw four interceptions and still log a win on the road. As much as Arizona's defense perplexed Wilson, Seattle's secondary had Palmer on lock for most of the game. Even the game-deciding touchdown pass to Michael Floyd with 2:13 left in the game saw Palmer put up a high fade to the left side of the end zone, where Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell had near-perfect coverage on Floyd. The second-year receiver simply made the better play, which was the theme of the entire game. Seattle, perhaps the NFL's most physically impressive team on a week-to-week basis, was outmanned by its own methodology.
"The Cardinals did a nice job," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. "They hung with their approach and got it done and put together a really good win. They played really well on defense -- they were harder and tougher than we wanted them to be. You've got to give them credit. This is seven out of eight now, and it's no surprise. We went in with great respect with what they're doing, so I don't have any problem with that.
"It was a slugfest today, and they won out."
The Seahawks went three-and-out on seven of their drives, and Arizona did the same on six of theirs. Arizona averaged 4.4 net yards per play to Seattle's 3.8, and there were only 26 first downs in the entire game. Six of those first downs for the Cardinals came via Seattle penalties, a major deciding factor in the game. Seattle came into the game as the league leader in penalties, and the Seahawks proved that when "out-physicaled," their chippy style is not of optimal benefit. They were flagged nine times for 106 yards, and as the Cardinals kept the ball with consistency (Arizona won the time of possession battle, 37:26 to 22:36), Seattle started to run out of air.
Some will argue that the one interception Wilson threw should not have been called as such -- the ball thrown from Wilson to Doug Baldwin with 2:06 left in regulation appeared to hit the ground before it bounced into the air and into the hands of linebacker Karlos Dansby. That ended a Seattle drive that could have changed things in the last few seconds, but it wasn't the difference -- Wilson threw at least three other passes that could easily have been picked.
In the end, it was a serious statement by a Cards team that has won seven of its last eight games, and dropped that one loss by three points. Whether they make the playoffs or not, Arians' team has established that it's going to be around for the long haul.