NFL Preview - Arizona (9-5) at Seattle (12-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Arizona Cardinals are putting together one of their better seasons since moving to the desert, but the real test to just how far the club has come now awaits.
The Cardinals visit a Seattle Seahawks team on Sunday that has not lost at home since drafting quarterback Russell Wilson and has a chance to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Cards are the next club that will try to halt Seattle's club-record 14- game winning streak at home, one that began in Week 2 of last season following a season-opening road loss in Arizona that also includes a 58-0 thumping of the visiting Cardinals on Dec. 9 of last year.
Seattle has won three straight at home over Arizona and five of the last seven meetings overall, including a 34-22 road victory on Oct. 17 that saw Wilson throw three touchdown passes and the defense record seven sacks on Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer.
Arizona has won six of seven since, including two straight, to remain in the hunt for a wild card spot. At 9-5, the Cardinals are a game back of San Francisco and Carolina for the extra playoff spots in the NFC.
Seattle, meanwhile, is tops in the conference with a 12-2 mark and has already clinched a spot in the postseason. The Seahawks can secure their second division title in coach Pete Carroll's four seasons and home-field advantage in the postseason with a victory over the Cardinals or a loss by the 49ers to the hosting Atlanta Falcons on Monday night.
The Seahawks' top-ranked defense dominated the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium last Sunday en route to a 23-0 win. Seattle intercepted Giants quarterback Eli Manning five times and limited New York to 181 yards in total.
"You have to say something about the defense giving up less than 160 (passing) yards on the day against a quarterback like that and those receivers," said Carroll. "A lot of it happened up front, but our guys on the back end came through again with the matchups that we had and played great coverage all day long."
Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell both had two picks and safety Earl Thomas also had an interception.
Wilson threw for 206 yards with a touchdown and interception while adding 50 yards rushing. Marshawn Lynch was held to just 47 yards on the ground, but did score and added six catches for a game-high 73 yards as Seattle flashed the form that could see them return to MetLife Stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2.
"It's a beautiful place," Sherman remarked. "We'd love to be back."
The Cardinals would love for a chance to make a splash in the postseason, but it won't be easy. In addition to this tough road game in Seattle, Arizona finishes the regular season next Sunday at home versus San Francisco.
Arizona's 37-34 overtime victory over Tennessee last weekend secured the Cardinals' first winning season since 2009. The franchise went 10-6 that year, its best ever regular-season finish since relocating from St. Louis ahead of the 1988 campaign.
Bruce Arians is the first Cards coach since Norm Barry in 1925 to record at least nine wins in his first season with the club, but knows it won't mean much if it doesn't result in a playoff berth.
"It's still grind it out every day and see if we can win 10," said Arians. "Ten has kind of been the benchmark since the team moved to Arizona. ... Those would be nice, but they don't mean anything if you don't get to the dance."
Arizona nearly suffered a fatal setback to the Titans on Sunday after blowing a 17-point lead, but cornerback Antoine Cason's second interception of the game set up Jay Feely's 41-yard field goal with 10:18 left on the clock in overtime.
Cason's 20-yard INT return for a score with 6:13 to play in the fourth quarter seemed to wrap things up, but Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a pair of touchdown passes around a 24-yard field goal by Rob Bironas to tie the game. His second score went eight yards to Michael Preston with 10 seconds left.
"We never got down after Tennessee tied the game," Cason said. "We kept believing we were going to win."
Carson Palmer finished 20-of-30 passing for 231 yards and a touchdown pass, though he did suffer a low-grand ankle sprain. Running back Andre Ellington ran for 71 yards and added four catches for 87 yards before exiting with a thigh bruise.
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, though, suffered a concussion after taking a hard hit on Tennessee's second onside kick try. He will have to pass the league's concussion protocol to play this weekend.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The possible loss of Fitzgerald is the last thing that Arizona wants going up against a defense that leads the league in allowing just 279.5 yards and 14.6 points per game.
Fitzgerald leads Arizona with 73 catches and 10 touchdowns, while wide receiver Michael Floyd is second with 58 receptions and four scores. He does top the Cardinals with 919 receiving yards and all 24 of his receptions over the past six games have gone for first downs.
Andre Roberts (38 receptions) would likely see a bigger role if Fitzgerald can't play, though Palmer and Arians have the option of giving a bigger workload to backs Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall.
Mendenhall has five rushing touchdowns in his last five games, while Ellington is averaging 5.9 yards per carry and another 10.3 yards per catch. The rookie out of Clemson is filling the role of a dual-threat and said he is just trying to bring a spark to the offense.
"The guys that we have on this offense are capable of doing the same things that I am doing," said Ellington. "Coach is calling the right plays at the right times and I am taking advantage of it."
Maxwell has taken advantage of his chance, stepping in with Brandon Browner having missed the past four games with a groin injury and Walter Thurmond sitting out the last three while serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's drug policy.
The 25-year-old Maxwell has three interceptions in the last two weeks and eight passes defended over the previous three.
"Well he's been very productive and very consistent as we had hoped he would do. We'd hoped that he would jump in there and just take off like he has been," said Carroll of Maxwell.
Maxwell's play could soften the blow of Browner's suspension, which was handed out on Wednesday and covers an indefinite period after the cornerback lost his appeal for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.
Carroll would also like to get Lynch going ahead of the playoffs as his back owns just three 100-yard rushing games on the year. He has been held under 100 yards in four straight and seven of the last nine and faces off this weekend against an Arizona defense that is giving up an NFL-low 83.2 yards per game on the ground.
"We're not changing depending on the team that we're playing. So we're going to come out running the ball and try to get our running game going," said Carroll.
Arizona has put together a great season despite adding a number of new pieces this offseason and this weekend will gage just how far the club has come.
"It's extremely tough. The noise, they play extremely well there. It's a great barometer to see how far you've come in our division," said Arians of playing in Seattle.
Things didn't go well for the Cardinals the last time they visited CenturyLink Field, with Seattle outgaining Arizona 493-154. Lynch ran for three touchdowns and had 128 of the club's 284 yards on the ground.
This isn't the same Arizona team, not by a long shot with Palmer in the mix and the defense having improved, but picking against Seattle at home would be a fool's move at this point.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 33, Cardinals 17
12/19 15:44:31 ET