Prior to the season, this Week 16 matchup between the Seahawks and Cardinals looked to have huge NFC West ramifications, but this has been a disappointing season for the Cardinals, who are just 5-8-1 and out of the playoff picture a year after winning the division and reaching the NFC championship game. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have clinched the division, but at 9-4-1, this game still has a lot of meaning for them as they pursue the No. 2 seed in the NFC and the first-round bye that comes with it.
Even if these teams have gone in different directions this season, both teams are expecting a very competitive game, and considering that the previous meeting between the two this season resulted in the first tie in Seahawks history, it's not unreasonable to expect another close contest on Christmas Eve.
If the Seahawks are going to come out on top, and in doing so finish the season with a perfect 8-0 record at CenturyLink Field, these are three key matchups that could make the difference:
1. Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett vs. the Cardinals secondary and special teams coverage.
Tyler Lockett posted a career-high 130 receiving yards on seven catches in last week’s win over the Rams, showing not only that he is fully over the knee injury that bothered him earlier this season, but also that he is increasingly becoming a focal point in Seattle's passing game.
The reasons for the Seahawks to be excited about Lockett—and for Arizona to have to worry about him—are pretty clear. Lockett has elite speed, but beyond that he's a polished route-runner, a sure-handed catcher, and he has the kind of elusiveness in the open field to be a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. Of Lockett's 10-career touchdowns, six were 40 yards or longer, including a 57-yard catch last week. With a 75-yard touchdown run against Carolina earlier this month, Lockett owns the Seahawks' longest touchdown run and catch this season.
"He's so fast, so electric, he runs great routes," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said. "You see him on special teams, all the things he can do, he's great on third down, he just does the right thing. He brings a certain energy to the game."
As Wilson pointed out, Lockett is dangerous on special teams as well, and few teams know that as well as the Cardinals, who last year saw Lockett gain a whopping 139 yards on four punt returns in Seattle's Week 17 game at Arizona. Lockett has also gained 230 of this season's 578 kick return yards in the past three games, including a 46-yard return against Carolina.
2. Arizona DE Calais Campbell vs. the left side of Seattle's O-line.
As Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell began discussing Arizona's defense this week, his thoughts immediately turned to one player, Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell.
"One guy to mention is Calais Campbell," Bevell said. "I think he's playing about as well as anybody is playing right now. He's a beast, he's big, he's strong, he's playing really well so we have to make sure we can handle him."
Campbell, a Pro-Bowl selection in 2014 and 2015, is having another big season in his ninth year with the Cardinals, recording six sacks, six passes defensed, one interception and two forced fumbles. Last week against New Orleans, Campbell had two sacks and returned a fumble recovery 53 yards for the first touchdown of his career.
Stopping Campbell will be a group effort, but two players who figure to see the most of him are left tackle George Fant and left guard Mark Glowinski. Fant, who saw his first significant playing time this year against Arizona, is coming off of what offensive line coach Tom Cable called his best game, and he has grown a lot since taking over the starting role midway through the year.
"He's done remarkably better, he really has," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Fant, who only started playing football during his final year at Western Kentucky following an all-conference basketball career. "He has so much more understanding of what's going on and his communication is much better, his confidence is better. It only makes sense; he has played more. He has taken a step back at times with situations, new things that continue to happen for the first time, he doesn't always see them properly and there's nothing much we can do about it. He should have seen that as a sophomore in college or something like that. We just have to grow with him, but he's done a remarkable job. I think he's going to be a really good player going down the road."
3. Cardinals RB David Johnson vs. Seattle's front seven.
When it comes to Arizona's offense, there's no question about who is the focal point.
"Thirty-one, that what stands out about them," Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said, referring to the jersey number of running back David Johnson. "He's doing great, having a hell of a year… He's running the ball, he's catching the ball, they've got screens for him. He has really been the focal point of their offense, so we definitely have to keep an eye on him."
While it has been somewhat overshadowed by his team's struggles, Johnson is having a phenomenal season with 1,138 rushing yards, 800 receiving yards and 17 total touchdown. Johnson has at least 100 yards from scrimmage in all 14 games this season, one shy of Barry Sanders' single-season record. If Johnson can gain 200 receiving yards over his next two games, he would be only the third player in NFL history with 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in one season, joining Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig.
"David Johnson in the backfield is a phenomenal football player," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "He can do everything well. Run the ball, catch the ball, he's a route-runner… It's his consistency. He's the epitome of consistency which you absolutely have to have the most respect for. From first play to last, he's a hard runner, big, strong, fast, good forward body lean, always going forward."
The last time the Seahawks played Arizona, Johnson had a season-high 33 carries for 113 yards and caught eight passes for 58 yards, so the Seahawks know that slowing down Arizona's offense begins with slowing down Johnson.
"We have a really terrific running back coming up that we're going to play in David Johnson, and we have to make sure we're tackling really well," Carroll said.