The Seahawks host the Cardinals in their regular season finale on Sunday in what head coach Pete Carroll called "a big opportunity for us. Last game, lot at stake, lot going on." How much is at stake? Lose and the season is over, but win and, with a little help from Carolina, the Seahawks can make the postseason for a sixth straight season.
If the Seahawks are going to beat the Cardinals and secure a sixth straight season with at least 10 wins, these are three key matchups that could make the difference Sunday afternoon:
1. Protecting home field.
Heading into the season, the Seahawks had lost only six games at home over the past six seasons, but three of those losses came against Arizona, which is 3-1 at CenturyLink Field since 2013. On the flip side of that, the Seahawks are 4-0-1 in Arizona since 2013, including a Week 10 victory in Glendale this season. If the Seahawks are going to keep their playoff hopes alive, they need to end that trend of road team success in this rivalry.
"Obviously, playing at home means a lot to us," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said. "We want to be able to end the season on a positive note at home, and hopefully get a chance to continue on."
Asked on a conference call this week about his team's success in Seattle, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said, "It's always a tough game. They've beaten us here and we've beaten them up there, so it's kind of funny how that has worked out. The big play that Russell made this year (in Arizona), J.J. Nelson made a couple of big plays in (the 2016 game at Seattle). It seems like that game up there always comes down to three or four plays; if you make them, you win and if you don't make them, whether it's in any phase of the game, you don't win. You never know when they're going to happen, but that game especially, just a play or two changes it."
Seahawks players have said they're aware of Arians' postgame comments to his team last week that CenturyLink Field was their "home field" but don't see it as a big deal heading into the game.
"It has always been one of those battles that goes back and forth," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "It's always tough whenever we play those guys. I saw what their coach said, it's kind of funny, but it's going to be a good game I'm sure. They put up a shutout against New York, which is not easy to do in this league, so it's not going to be easy, even though they are out of the playoffs. They still want to come in here and try to get a win, so it's going to be a battle."
2. The Cardinals pass rush vs. Seattle's pass protection.
The Cardinals have had one of the league's top defenses in the second half of the season, and a big reason for that is an aggressive pass rush led by Chandler Jones, who has 15.0 sacks and 25 tackles for loss this season, both totals being NFL highs.
"He's got all of the right tools," Carroll said. "He's so tall and long and he's sudden. He's got a really good motor, which is always a big factor for the pass rushers—he just keeps bringing it. He's creative with his rushes and it really comes down to he's just such a long guy and he's just really effective. He's got a real variety of things that he does in this pass rush package that makes him difficult."
And it's not just Jones the Seahawks need to worry about; they also have to properly identify and deal with pressure from a defense that loves to send extra rushers.
"Their defense is stellar, they can really fly around, and they call a bunch of blitzes and everything else," Wilson said. "We've picked them up a lot of the times pretty well, and then sometimes not. We want to make sure that we pick them up all the time if we can, and like I have always said, there is a lot of green grass behind it if you do. We have to make those plays and I think we're going to be prepared for everything that they have. They have a lot of different things that they do, so we have tons of studying and tons of preparation. That's really where you make or break the game right there; is the preparation and everything that you do to study and get ready, and finally go execute it on Sunday."
But while the Cardinals have a strong pass rush, one that sacked Wilson five times in last month's meeting between these teams, the Seahawks do have reason to believe they'll handle things better this time around. Left tackle Duane Brown missed the second half of that game because of an ankle injury, and not only is he back and healthy, the Seahawks also have a level of continuity on their line that wasn't there in Week 10. Since Luke Joeckel returned from a five-game absence, the Seahawks have started the same line for five straight games, meaning that unit should function a lot better this time around.
3. The turnover battle.
Want to know why Carroll harps on turnovers so much? Because they frequently do indeed decide the outcome of a game. The Seahawks have had five games this season in which they did not commit a turnover, including their Week 10 win in Arizona, and they are 4-1 in those games. And that one loss was at Tennessee, the only game this season in which the Seahawks did not cause at least one turnover.
Overall this season, the Seahawks are 6-0 when winning the turnover battle, 3-2 when even, and 0-4 when losing in that all-important category. That could be particularly relevant this week because the Cardinals have been both creating and giving up turnovers at a relatively high rate of late. Over the last six games, the Cardinals have turned the ball over twice in five of those games, but they also have 13 takeaways in that same six-game stretch, including three in last week's shutout win over the New York Giants.
"It's everything," Carroll said of turnovers. "Really, it's everything. You just go out and do your homework and look at when we are in the plus what has happened the last couple years. It's just such an impacting stat, and that's why it's the number one thing we focus on."
Added offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, "Overall their defense is playing outstanding right now. Whether it's the run game, whether it's the pass game, the last few weeks, I think they are probably one of the tops in the league at doing it and taking the ball away, so it's a huge challenge for us."