The NFC Championship Game has had at least one NFC West team in it for six straight seasons and many pundits expected that steak to continue this year given the strength of both the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks. Through the first third of 2016, Seattle has held up its end of things and looked like a potential conference winner but it’s only been in the last two weeks that the Cardinals have flashed the same potential.
After an embarrassing opener against the Patriots and remarkably slow start, head coach Bruce Arians has rallied to get his team back to .500 and moving in the right direction. Sure the competition level had something to do with those two straight wins, but the defense has progressed each passing week and the offense is starting to hit a groove thanks to MVP candidate David Johnson. The tailback is third in the league in rushing but provides a multi-dimensional threat thanks to his ability to contribute in the passing game.
The Cardinals will be tested by their division rivals on Sunday night however, as the Seahawks are coming off a very nice win over the Falcons and have continued to gel on offense despite some protection issues. Quarterback Russell Wilson has been banged up but enters the game at close to full health after dealing with leg injuries and should enjoy the challenge of facing a speedy secondary with all the weapons at his disposal. On the other side of the ball for Seattle, Richard Sherman and the defense once again lead the NFL in most defensive categories and are looking forward to facing the aging Carson Palmer on the road.
This series has produced several classic battles over the past few years as each franchise has become double-digit winners with some consistency — one reason it’s tied at 17 wins apiece. Seattle has won five of the last seven overall but it has been the road team that has had the upper hand lately. The Seahawks have won the last three at University of Phoenix Stadium, each by at least two scores.
Seattle at Arizona
Kickoff: Sunday, October 23, 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Cardinals -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Palmer Step Up?
It seems like forever ago that Carson Palmer, now 36, was the No. 1 overall pick after playing for now-Seahawks coach Pete Carroll at USC. The two Trojans will reunite once again this week and you have to wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the two squaring off against each other. Palmer had a career year last season but things ended on a bad note in the playoffs and he’s been hampered by injuries this year (both a concussion and a hamstring). If he plays like he did in early 2015, Arizona certainly has a chance to pull within a half game in the division. If he looks like a QB on the wrong side of 30, things could get dicey for the Cardinals against that active Seattle defense.
2. Getting Going on the Ground
There’s been no sophomore slump for David Johnson this season and he’s been a big part of why Bruce Arians’ offense is back to looking like a Bruce Arians offense. As he showed on that big 58-yard touchdown run on Monday night, he’s got home-run ability on every play and his pass catching has really allowed him to enter the All-Pro conversation through the first half of the year. You can bet establishing the run is high on the to-do list for both offensive coordinators and Johnson will be the focal point for the home team as a result. Seattle has turned in some of its best rushing games under Carroll when the Seahawks play in Arizona so you can bet they’ll try to establish Christine Michael and company early and often this week.
3. Fitz and Sherm
Richard Sherman has been in the highlight packages a ton the past week thanks to his controversial play at the end of the Atlanta game last Sunday. He’s still one of the best corners in the league right now and a big part in the Seahawks’ success on that side of the ball once again in 2016. While the secondary also features Pro Bowlers like Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, it’s Sherman who gets all the attention for helping slow opposing wide receivers. This week it’s a familiar face in Larry Fitzgerald, who has been like a fine wine and aged well as the face of the franchise. While he’s not as much of a deep threat like he once was, the veteran can still make you pay and has been the top target for the Cardinals’ offense no matter who is at quarterback. We probably won’t see too many more of these battles between the big names in the NFC West so soak up the primetime spotlight on this one.
As hard as it is to believe, we really don’t have a great idea of how good (or mediocre) either team is despite the calendar turning to late October. Seattle’s best win came last week as the Seahawks held on in the fourth quarter to beat a surprising Atlanta team at home. Beyond that, the Seahawks struggled on offense through two weeks before hitting a groove against two of the worst teams in either conference.
The same could be said for Arizona, who has been on an early season roller coaster. The Cardinals have rallied to get back to an even record thanks to wins over teams that are a combined 4-13 on the year but are showing signs of life in all three phases even so. The offense has shifted to leaning on running back David Johnson instead of relying on aging quarterback Carson Palmer and the defense leads the league in turnovers. Many predicted this would be the best team in the NFC and, after ironing out a few issues in the first month, maybe this is the chance that Arizona needs to prove those predictions correct.
Seattle also is coming into its own however and own one of the most impressive wins in the NFC thanks to a game in which the Seahawks controlled three of the four quarters of action. Russell Wilson is getting healthier and the defense is certainly living up to expectations. Plus, they simply have the Cardinals’ number at their own place based on the way the division rivals have played the past couple of years.
In what should be a close, hard-fought game until the fourth quarter, expect Seattle to emerge with a win thanks to a late turnover in the second half and a dominating ground game to help the Seahawks move further out in front in the NFC West.
Prediction: Seahawks 28, Cardinals 17
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.