RENTON — Nobody does 9-1 quite like the Arizona Cardinals. Despite a defense beset by injuries and QB Carson Palmer lost for the year to a torn ACL, Arizona enters Sunday’s matchup against the Seahawks with a three-game lead in the NFC West, the best record in the NFL and firmly in control of its postseason fate.
Not that being in this position means anything to Arizona coach Bruce Arians.
“They’re the world champs. We’re 9-1,” Arians said. “We haven’t done s—.”
It was no surprise to Arians when he learned the Seahawks, who at 6-4 need a strong finish over a brutal six-game stretch to make the playoffs, were favorites for Sunday’s matchup at CenturyLink Field (1:05 p.m. FOX). As of Thursday, the betting line was Seattle -6.5. And, Arians, in his second year as Arizona’s head coach after a winding career through the college and pro ranks, didn’t downplay its significance after the Cardinals snapped the Seahawks’ franchise record 14-game home winning streak in December with a 17-10 win. Another win would give Arizona a nearly insurmountable lead in the NFC West.
The Cardinals didn’t come from nowhere, finishing 2013 at 10-6, third in the NFC West and missed the playoffs. To Arians, the victory in Seattle was a turning point. Since that game, they have the NFL’s best record.
“It was very critical. I can’t deny that,” Arians said. “It was probably the cement. We didn’t really play great, but we played hard and hung in there . . . that’s been the building block that we’ve used since.”
If the Seahawks feel lingering angst about the loss, they haven’t let on.
“I didn’t even really look at that,” said WR Doug Baldwin. “I looked at tape from this year. I didn’t go back and look at tape from last year.”
“It was just a gritty game. It was a back-and-forth game,” said CB Richard Sherman. “I don’t remember anything exceptional, or it being different than any other divisional game.”
Led by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Cardinals use an aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme. The defense ranks third in the NFL with 17.6 points per game but allows an average of 343.7 yards (13th).
“When I was the head coach at Temple, I only knew two play calls (on defense) and both were all-out blitzes,” Arians said. “If I ever clicked over (the headset) to the defense, which wasn’t very often, they knew what I wanted.”
The Cardinals are also forcing turnovers. They’re tied for second in turnover differential (plus-11) despite the loss of key players — LB Daryl Washington (suspended for violating NFL’s substance abuse policy), DE John Abraham (injured reserve ) and DT Darnell Dockett (out for year with a torn ACL) — to their front seven. LB Karlos Dansby left this offseason via free agency.
“They have not skipped a beat and they seem to be playing better,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “Larry Foote (34-year-old linebacker signed in free agency) has had a lot to do with it with the attitude and style of play that he brings. S/LB Deone Bucannon (first round pick from Washington State) has been a big factor for them, too.”
When Palmer went down with a knee injury Nov. 9, the Cardinals turned to backup QB Drew Stanton, a 30-year-old Michigan State product who saw action earlier in the year when Palmer was out with a nerve problem in his throwing shoulder.
Given another chance, Stanton stepped in for Palmer and rallied the Cardinals to a 31-14 win over the Rams, then played well enough last week, going 21 of 32 for 306 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, to help Arizona to a 14-6 win over the Lions.
Stanton, though, is a 54.8 percent career passer in 17 games. The staple of Arians’ offense is using wide receivers Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald (questionable with a knee injury) and rookie John Brown to test opposing secondaries with deep throws. That probably won’t change with Stanton.
“The attitude and mindset of their offense is the same,” said Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. “There’s contested throws down the field and they’ve got terrific receivers that can go up and challenge for them, so we’re really looking forward to that part of the game.”
Wilson takes blame for passing game
Yes, the Seahawks have the top rushing offense in the NFL.
But they rank 30th in the NFL in net passing yards (191.8 per game). QB Russell Wilson hasn’t passed for 200 yards in a game since Oct. 19. And they aren’t hitting explosive passing plays with any frequency.
“I think it’s on me more than anything,” Wilson said. “There’s a time and place to be big right now and we just have to make those plays and we’re going to. I believe that we’re going to capitalize.
“I think I have to find a way to be clutch and always be clutch. It’s something that I look forward to.”
Lynch sits out
Among those held out of Thursday’s practice: RB Marshawn Lynch (back), LB Kevin Pierre-Louis (shoulder), CB Marcus Burley (hamstring) and C Max Unger (knee/ankle). LB Brock Coyle (glute) and DE Demarcus Dobbs (knee) were limited.