The Seahawks head to Arizona for their final game of the regular season with a playoff berth already secured, but with plenty to play for nonetheless. Perhaps most significantly, the Seahawks just want to get back to playing up to their potential after being, as head coach Pete Carroll put it, "So unlike what we have been," in their loss to St. Louis. "The consistency that we have come to really appreciate wasn't there."
If the Seahawks are going to get back to playing like they're capable of against arguably the best team in the NFL this season, here are three matchups they'll need to win:
1. The Seahawks pass rush vs. Carson Palmer's pocket movement.
The Cardinals are the highest-scoring team in the NFL thanks in large part to the Carson Palmer-led passing game. And while Palmer's many weapons against Seattle's secondary is the more obvious matchup, and one we covered earlier this week, an equally important element of slowing Arizona's passing game will take place in the trenches.
The Seahawks did a good job creating pressure when they faced Arizona in Week 10, but Palmer, while not known as a mobile quarterback, was very good at moving around within the pocket to avoid pressure long enough to get passes off before being hit. Seattle hit Palmer 13 times, but sacked him only three times, and the result of that discrepancy between getting pressure and getting there on time is what allowed Palmer to throw for 363 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's got great savvy," said Carroll, who coached Palmer at USC. "He's been playing quarterback as long as anybody can play to his age. He's been playing since he was a little kid. He gets the game, it makes sense to him. His legs are good, better than they've been in past years, and can handle the movement and stuff. He did a very good job of just sliding and moving, and slipping around, to give himself a second shot when we did pressure him, and he played a fantastic football game. You don't see that a lot on film. He's basically getting rid of the football. They protect him well, and he's on rhythm for the most part. He's not going to take off running a whole bunch, but he does have the knack that really good, experienced players have, to make the right choice, to step up in the pocket, to slide to one side or the other, and he had a very good game in that regard against us."
Defensive end Cliff Avril said the key to dealing with a quarterback with Palmer's pocket savvy is for all the rushers to be on the same page, so if Palmer is able to avoid one pass rusher, another will be there to clean up. Of course, that's easier said than done against Palmer and the Cardinals.
"He's very smart," Avril said. "His pocket awareness is pretty impressive. He has a good feel for guys who rush too high, guys who come in front of them, he knows how to get around it. He's a veteran quarterback, so you expect that."
2. Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin vs. Cardinals defensive backs.
The Seahawks lost to the Cardinals in Week 10, but they did start to find their offensive rhythm in the second half of that game, and that included the connection between Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin that has seen those two produce at historic levels since that game. In the second half of that loss, Baldwin caught five passes for 115 yards and a touchdown, and hasn't cooled off ever since, piling up 11 touchdown since that game to match the league lead with 14 touchdown receptions this season, a franchise record. Baldwin also became the first Seahawk since 2007 to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season with his 118-yard performance last week.
"It's fantastic," Carroll said of Baldwin's big season. "His best season ever, which is great, after he's been here for a number of years. I think it's an indication of his dedication and his toughness, and his ability, and all of that, to continue to get better. I love that about him. He's a great competitor and he demonstrates that. Another big game, that's pretty special. So we're really fired up about it and happy for him."
3. Seahawks vs. themselves.
As their record and their stats would indicate, the Cardinals present all kinds of matchup problems, from their explosive passing game to rookie running back David Johnson to their aggressive defensive front and their ball-hawking secondary. But as we saw last week in Seattle's loss to the St. Louis Rams, what can be even harder to overcome than talented opposition are the self-inflicted wounds that kept showing up in Week 16.
Carroll described Sunday's performance as "A game that we didn't like at all, didn't play the way we thought we would play or the way we were capable of playing. We saw a great example of when you turn the football over, how difficult it is to win and all of the other things that went along with that."
The Seahawks fumbled five times against the Rams, losing two of them, they had two bad snaps go for big losses, they committed penalty-killing drives, and the offensive line that had been functioning at such a high level for more than a month made uncharacteristic mistakes.
"We missed some stuff," Carroll said. "Things that we had done in practice and things that we had did later in the game, calls and fitting together that are technique things. It just wasn't clean. The first five runs, we made a mistake on every one of them. That's just uncommon for us. It was really out of the norm."