A critical battle within the NFC West is on tap for NBC's "Sunday Night Football" this week, as the Seattle Seahawks will look to close the gap on the Arizona Cardinals at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Both teams should be well rested coming off their respective bye weeks and based on what the odds makers are saying, this game should come down to the last possession.
The Seahawks (4-4) outlasted the Dallas Cowboys 13-12 in AT&T Stadium back in Week 8 in a game that had plenty of drama. There was the Jeff Heath hit on Seattle special teams member Ricardo Lockette, which resulted in a serious neck injury and spawned plenty of controversy in more ways than one.
Offensively, the inability to punch in touchdowns against the Cowboys in the red zone nearly came back to bite Pete Carroll and the Seahawks, while Russell Wilson’s accuracy at times was not the best effort that he has had this season. This accuracy issue should be a bit of a concern as the offensive line actually did a good job of giving Wilson time to throw the football.
Arizona (6-2) should be chomping at the bit to get after Seattle as the Cardinals have a healthy Carson Palmer at their disposal for the trip to face the 12s. They also know full well the golden opportunity that they have to basically eliminate the Seahawks from the NFC West race if they can take care of business and beat Seattle to push the Seahawks to three games back in the standings with seven to play.
Arizona at Seattle
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Seattle -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Seahawks' passing game thrive against Arizona's secondary?
In order for Seattle to go on an extended winning streak the passing game has to get better. However, it won't be easy as the Cardinals' secondary has done an excellent job so far this season as a unit. The return of Seahawks wide receiver Paul Richardson to full health will hopefully provide a spark with his speed. Also, the offensive line needs to protect Russell Wilson just enough so he can use Jimmy Graham, Doug Baldwin, and Tyler Lockett more effectively, especially in the red zone.
2. Can the Seahawks' defense harass Carson Palmer?
Palmer's presence in this game can't be underestimated, as the Seahawks' defense will face a considerably stiffer test than it did against Matt Cassel two weeks ago in Arlington, Texas. It is going to be up to the front four, led by Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, to constantly make Palmer uncomfortable and force turnovers. It is not necessarily going to be about sacks against Palmer but a constant sea of pressure will be critical for the Seattle defense.
3. Arizona running game
When Arizona knocked off Seattle 17-10 back on Dec. 22, 2013 the Cardinals generated just enough of a running game (139 yards on 43 attempts) to put them in a position to win on the road. The ability to grind out drives even if they don't result in points will be a huge key for the Cardinals if they are going to improve to 7-2 and maintain at least a two-game lead in the division. Chris Johnson comes into this contest with 676 yards rushing and is having a bit of resurgent season. Look for head coach Bruce Arians to try and send a message to the home team right out of the gate, as Arizona will try to impose its will on the ground to see if Seattle's defense will push back or roll over.
We are going to find out a lot more about these two teams Sunday night. Seattle needs the game more than Arizona, as the defending NFC West champions have zero excuse to not play with a huge sense of urgency. The Cardinals currently have a two-game lead in the division and also will host the Seahawks in the regular-season finale (Week 17). Turnovers are going to be a game-changer as the weather could be a factor at CenturyLink Field with a forecast that includes a mix of wind and rain that always complicates the passing game.
Even if Marshawn Lynch does not play or is not at 100 percent it is going to be the Seattle passing game and Russell Wilson with his legs that is going to have to win this game for the Seahawks. In the end the country should be treated to a tightly contested, down-to-the-wire battle with Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka adding another late game-winning field goal to his resume to send the Seahawks to 5-4 on the season.
Prediction: Seahawks 23, Cardinals 21
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and also writes for College Sports Madness, covering college football, basketball, softball and baseball. Follow him on Twitter @smwhittum.