The Seahawks head to Arizona to close out the regular season, needing a win (and some help) to keep their playoff chances alive. Standing in Seattle's way is a Cardinals squad that is playing better than their 4-12 record would indicate, as is evident in last week's comeback win at Philadelphia.
Here are five things to watch when the Seahawks close out the regular season on Sunday:
1. Can the Seahawks keep their eye on the prize and take care of business on their end?
In order to make the playoffs for the 11th time in 14 seasons under Pete Carroll and John Schneider, the Seahawks need not only to win on Sunday, but to also have the Bears beat the Packers at Lambeau Field in a game that also kicks off at 1:25 p.m. PT. There are also some more complicated scenarios involving ties, but that is by far the most realistic path to a playoff berth.
But while the Seahawks need the Bears to come through, much like the Lions did last year for the Seahawks in Week 18, they know they can't worry about that before or during the game, because if they don't take care of their own business, what happens in Green Bay won't matter.
"Everybody wants to talk about looking at the scores and all that, we're not even talking about that, it means nothing to us right now," Carroll said. "We've got a game we've got to play, and we've got to get focused to do it right."
Said quarterback Geno Smith, "For us, we have to win the game first. Guys might peek at the scoreboard. I don't think that matters much, you still have to go out there and execute and do your job. That shouldn't factor into the way that you play, you should play hard regardless of what the situation is."
2. Does the run defense and tackling improve against a tough opponent?
The Seahawks had a solid two-game stretch on defense in back-to-back wins over the Eagles and Titans, limiting big plays in large part because they were tackling well. By the team's count, the Seahawks missed a total of 13 tackles in those two games, defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said, but in last week's loss to Pittsburgh, Hurtt counted 19 missed tackles as the Steelers piled up a season-high 468 yards, including 202 on the ground.
"It did take a step back," Hurtt said of the tackling. "… A lot of it is guys making sure fundamentals of tackling. Not tackling so high, obviously being low, wrapping the legs, getting guys on the ground, the numbers of the ball, swarming the football with multiple bodies. Those elements of the fundamentals of tackling were lacking in the last game, obviously."
The Cardinals, no doubt, will try to attack Seattle's run defense, not just because Seattle struggled to stop the Steelers, but also because that's what Arizona has done well of late, rushing for more than 200 yards in two of their last three games.
"We happen to be going against a running back that I think is leading the NFL in yards after contact, so the challenge with James Conner is big as it can get," Carroll said. "We have to do a great job."
Said Hurtt, "There's no question, that's the focus. It's a copycat league. When you show these issues going into games, obviously teams are going to replicate that within their own system their own way, so you have to be prepared accordingly. You have to answer to the response, the challenge that comes up every week. Arizona is going to do that. We have a lot of respect for James Conner, and all their backs are really good players."
3. Can Kenneth Walker III and the Seahawks rushing attack have another good game against Arizona?
The Seahawks haven't run the ball as consistently or as often as they'd have liked this season, eclipsing 100 yards in only six of 16 games this season, and only once in the last seven games. They've run the ball well in some of those games with low totals, including last week, but in those cases, other factors, be it the number of total plays Seattle has run, or the situation of the game, have led to low numbers in terms of attempts. That's something Carroll would like to see change.
"Just more," Carroll said when asked about the running game. "We were efficient. We had a good average. We had the line of scrimmage moving like we liked, we just need more. We need to use our opportunities, we need to use the conversions, and I keep going back to that. We need to keep moving the sticks so that we get more chances, because we ran the ball well and Kenny (Walker III) looked really good. Zach (Charbonnet) hit a couple, but Kenny was really on it in this game. Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off."
If the Seahawks are going to get the running game going, this could be a good week to do it. Walker's only 100-yard game this season came against Arizona (105 yards on 26 carries), and the Cardinals rank last in the NFL in run defense, allowing 143.5 yards per game.
4. Does a productive Seahawks pass rush have another strong outing, and can Boye Mafe get to double-digit sacks?
The Seahawks are tied first in the NFC with 46 sacks this season, four of which came in the previous meeting with the Cardinals. A big difference this time around is that Kyler Murray, one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the league, is back from the knee injury that kept him out of the first half of the season, but no matter who is under center, keeping that pressure up could be big for Seattle's defense.
One player the Seahawks will count on to get the job done is second-year outside linebacker, Boye Mafe, who had one of his team-leading 9.0 sacks against Arizona earlier this season. If Mafe can add one more sack, he would be the first Seahawk with a double-digit sack season since Frank Clark Sr. (13.0) and Jarran Reed (10.5) both did it in 2018.
5. Will Leonard Williams continue to shine in his 18th game of the season?
A bright spot for Seattle's defense in the second half of the season has been the play of defensive end Leonard Williams, who arrived in a midseason trade with the Giants. Since arriving in Seattle, Williams has 4.0 sacks 34 tackles, 8 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hits in nine games, with three of those sacks coming in the last five games.
And in an odd bit of NFL trivia, Williams can also make some history Sunday in addition to trying to help the Seahawks earn a big win. Because the Seahawks had an early bye this season and the Giants was later in the year, Williams missed both teams' bye weeks, meaning Sunday's game will be his 18th of the season. Given that the 17-game schedule is a relatively new development, Williams will be the first player in the modern era to play 18 regular season games, and the first to do so since 1930 when both Cookie Tackwell and Tony Kostos each played 18 games for the Frankford Yellow Jackets and Minneapolis Red Jackets.
Seahawks practice at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton, Wash. on Jan. 4, 2024.