Cardinals Larry Foote (50), Frostee Rucker (98) and Tommy Kelly (95) crunch Lions running back Joique Bell last week.
SEATTLE -- The Cardinals realize what it's like to have their back against the wall, having been permanently pinned there through the final stretch of 2013.
They went to Seattle on Dec. 22 of last year knowing full well that a loss could drop them from playoff contention. It was a determined effort that day, as not even four interceptions could sidetrack the 17-10 victory.
Strangely, maybe incredibly, it is the Seahawks who enter Sunday's showdown at CenturyLink Field as the team badly in need of a win. The defending Super Bowl champions are 6-4 this season and on the outside of the playoff picture, while the Cardinals sit in the catbird
seat at an NFL-best 9-1, three games ahead of both Seattle and San Francisco in the NFC West.
Even though Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and quarterback Russell Wilson were unwilling to put any extra emphasis on this matchup in a mid-week conference call, the stakes are plain as day. A victory by Arizona wouldn't mathematically eliminate Seattle from winning the division, but it would begin the countdown to the inevitable.
"We know we're going to get their best shot, period," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "These guys, they want to try to embarrass you each and every opportunity that they get. That's just their mentality and that's the way they play football. We have to make sure that we go out there and play our technique, play sound football, mistake-free football. Make sure we go out there and match their intensity, because we know these guys are going to come out there on fire."
The Cardinals have navigated a tough schedule to ascend to the top of the standings, and while it wasn't obvious by the final 14-6 margin, their win over the Lions last Sunday may have been the most complete victory of the season. The Cardinals never trailed, moved the ball well through the air – quarterback Drew Stanton threw for 306 yards and completed 65.6 percent of his passes against the NFL's top-ranked defense -- and the defense put pressure on Matt Stafford and shut down a talented passing attack.
Seattle, meanwhile, hasn't had a good air attack since the midseason trade of Percy Harvin – it has more rushing yards (993) than passing (988) in the five games since -- and hasn't resembled the dominant team of 2013 since an impressive opener against the Packers.
Despite the results up to this point, the Seahawks enter the game as a touchdown favorite. Some of it has to do with the location, as
the Cardinals' 2013 upset was the first of only two losses Seattle has suffered in 23 home games with Wilson under center. The Seahawks are also unquestionably talented, with the league's top ground attack and a menacing defense, while Stanton plays in only his second game since assuming full control of the offense.
Many of the Cardinals said they don't care who's favored. Others understand why it's the Seahawks.
"I wouldn't say we've flipped roles," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "They're still the Super Bowl champs. Nobody's dethroned them yet."
The Cardinals' biggest challenge defensively will be to corral running back Marshawn Lynch. He missed the first two days of practice this week with a back injury but will play. He is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards with 813 and is averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
"He can really take over a game any time he wants to," Campbell said. "Him getting fined ($100,000 for not speaking with the media), I hope he's not too mad right now because it will make our job a little harder."
Wilson averages the third-fewest yards per game passing among starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but is dangerous on the run. Linebacker Daryl Washington's speed was an integral part of spying Wilson in last year's upset, and that responsibility could fall on speedy but still inexperienced rookie Deone Bucannon.
Stanton has performed much better at home than on the road this year, but if the running game can't get on track after two down weeks, the responsibility will be on him to keep the offense moving. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's availability is in doubt with a knee injury, which could add another hurdle.
"We know it's going to be difficult," Stanton said. "We're not trying to pretend that it's not, but at the same time, we have to stick with our keys and what we think we can do to be successful."
If the Cardinals win a seventh consecutive game on Sunday, their grip will be nearly vice-like on the NFC West. Furthermore, they'd become the clear favorite to claim the top seed in the NFC for the playoffs.
It won't be easy against a desperate Seahawks team, but coach Bruce Arians said the Cardinals will have the same sense of urgency as last year. That one was an instant classic. A victory Sunday would mean even more.
"Those guys have a lot on the line with playoff implications, and we have a lot on the line as well," safety Rashad Johnson said. "We know we're going to get their best shot, and we're going to make sure they get our best shot. It's going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight.
"It's exciting just to talk about it."