The first-place Seahawks head to the desert this weekend to face the Arizona Cardinals, the team that last season ended Seattle's two-year reign atop the division, and if the Seahawks are going to add further separation between themselves and the Cardinals, they'll have to beat an opponent that appears to be finding its way following a 1-3 start.
Since their slow start, the Cardinals have outscored their last two opponents by 37 points in a pair of victories, and again look like a team poised to challenge the Seahawks for the top spot in the division. With the talent both teams have on both sides of the ball, there are numerous matchups that could decide the outcome; here are three that could make the difference on Sunday night:
1. Cardinals running back David Johnson vs. Seahawks front seven.
For the second straight week, the Seahawks face an opponent that counts on a running back to make big plays running the ball and receiving. Arizona's David Johnson leads the NFL with 833 all-purpose yards and 8 touchdowns, and like Atlanta's two-back attack of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Johnson can beat teams as a pass-catcher and a runner.
"He looks good, so we know that as linebackers, we've got to stop this guy," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "They throw it to him out of the backfield as well, so it'll be a good matchup."
Added linebacker Bobby Wagner: "(Stopping the run) is my job No. 1. He had, what, a hundred-something yards last game? They're featuring him a little bit more each game, so he's kind of the engine that gets the offense going, so we can't let him get on a roll."
The good news for the Seahawks is that they have been a very good team against the run all season, ranking third in the NFL with 74.6 rushing-yards-per-game allowed. Last week Atlanta managed just 52 yards on 18 carries, and they held Coleman and Freeman to a total of 17 receiving yards a week after Coleman had 132 in a win at Denver.
But the Seahawks know that their past success against the run won't mean much if they're not on top of their game against a player who in his second season is developing into one of the league's top backs.
"Johnson is really good, he's better than he was last year," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's more experienced, and I think they're spotting him in more pointedly to utilize him, to make plays and do things. He's the most explosive player on their team right now. He's got a bunch of explosive plays already, he's averaging 5 yards a carry and has eight touchdowns, he's out there. He's having a phenomenal year.
"There's no question he can do everything. He does everything, and they know that, so they use him. You have to really be tuned in. He can get down the field, can get outside and run routes, all that stuff. He's the most effective guy that we're seeing, in terms of catches and numbers and all that stuff."
2. Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin vs. Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson and company
Tight end Jimmy Graham has been Seattle's most productive pass-catcher of late, piling up 302 yards and 18 catches over the past three games, but while there's no reason to think that Graham won't again be a big part of Seattle's passing attack, he might not be the player Arizona's defense needs to concern itself with the most on Sunday.
In his last three games against the Cardinals, Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin has caught 19 passes for 293 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers would be impressive enough on their own considering the talent in Arizona's secondary, but they really stand out when you consider that, because of the lopsided score in last year's Week 17 win at Arizona, Baldwin only had one catch in the second half of that game, meaning he did almost all of that damage in six quarters.
Opposing Baldwin and the rest of Seattle's passing game is a talented secondary, led by cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu, both first-team All-Pros last season, as well as a front seven that, as Carroll put it, is "rushing the passer as well as anyone in the league right now."
Peterson in particular has been dominant this season, allowing just 12 receptions for 157 yards in six games this season, according to ProFootballReference.com.
"Their secondary has tons of talented players," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said. "Honey Badger (Mathieu), he's as good as it gets. Tons of respect for him and how he plays the game. He's been able to fight back over his injury and come back at a high level, so you notice that. Then obviously Patrick Peterson, there's so many guys I could go through, but Patrick Peterson is one of the better guys too, one of the best corners in the game; he can fly around and make a lot of plays. You've always go to know where he is. It's a great group and it's going to be a great matchup. This is what football is all about, two great teams going after it."
3. Cardinals team hitting its stride vs. recent trends that favor the Seahawks.
While the Cardinals and Seahawks both feel good about the way they are playing right now, the Cardinals are battling some recent history that favors the Seahawks. Carroll would be the first to say that past results don't mean a thing in relation to Sunday's game, but for those of us observing from the outside, there's no harm in checking out the trends, and there are a few interesting ones in play this weekend.
For starters, the Seahawks are 15-3 in primetime games under Carroll, a very impressive record to be sure, but one of those three losses did come their most recent appearance on Sunday Night Football, Seattle's Week 10 loss to the Cardinals. The Seahawks have also won three straight in Arizona, all by double-digit margins, outscoring Arizona 105-34 in those games, while Arizona has won two of its last three at CenturyLink Field.
Perhaps most relevant is that the Seahawks have become a very good road team in recent years under Carroll, particularly going back to last year when they ended the season on a five-game road winning streak, which stretched to six games in the postseason before a loss in Carolina.
"That's years ago now, I don't even know what year it would be," Carroll said of his team playing well away from home. "Probably back like 2013, maybe in there somewhere. We started to find our confidence a little bit. We just started to develop our style and the way we would go about our travel and the expectations and the preparation and how that worked. Guys just got comfortable with it, and we've done alright. We can always get better, but we've done alright."