A pair of NFC West residents that have each put together strong second halves of this 2011 campaign both seek to close out their respective seasons with a flourish when the Arizona Cardinals host the Seattle Seahawks Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Either the 2010 division champion Seahawks or the Cardinals had captured the NFC West crown in each of the last seven seasons before both teams fell victim to poor starts and the unexpected resurgence of the San Francisco 49ers this year. Arizona lost six of its first seven games out of the chute, including a narrow 13-10 defeat to Seattle at CenturyLink Field back in Week 3, while a 2-6 beginning all but doomed the Seahawks' chances of duplicating their exploits of the previous season.
Each has turned things around since, however, with the Cardinals winning six times in a seven-week span prior to last Saturday's 23-16 loss in Cincinnati and Seattle ripping off a 5-1 stretch before coming up on the short end of a 19-17 decision to the 49ers in its home finale.
With those setbacks eliminating the two playoff hopefuls from postseason consideration, it's possible that inspiration will be hard to come by on Sunday. Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt insists that's not the case, however.
"We're not approaching this like [it's] the last week," he said. "That's not the way we approach it with our team or how we play. We want to win this game. I think it's a pretty significant achievement for this team to reach 8-8 after starting 1-6. I think it means a lot. I think back to  when we finished the year 8-8. That gave us some momentum going into the offseason and had a pretty decent year the next year."
The Cardinals also got off to a slow start in their matchup with the Bengals, falling behind by a 23-0 count after three quarters before quarterback John Skelton directed three scoring drives in the final 12 minutes. The second-year pro nearly pulled off an improbable comeback by marching Arizona inside the Cincinnati 20-yard line with under two minutes left, but a would-be touchdown pass on fourth down went incomplete when wide receiver Early Doucet tripped and fell down.
Skelton will draw a third straight start under center this weekend with regular triggerman Kevin Kolb ruled out after still experiencing symptoms from a concussion he sustained in Arizona's 21-19 upset win over San Francisco on Dec. 11. Skelton brought the Cards back from a 12-point second-half deficit by tossing two touchdown pass that day, and the team is 5-2 in his seven games played this year.
Seattle was edged by the playoff-bound 49ers when San Francisco kicker David Akers booted a go-ahead field goal with 2:57 to go, but did receive another outstanding performance from running back Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks' offensive catalyst ended the Niners' 36-game streak of not allowing an individual 100-yard rusher by gaining 107 on 21 carries, and also became the first player to score a touchdown on the ground against the club this season.
Lynch has eclipsed the century mark six times in Seattle's last eight tests and has netted a touchdown in a franchise-record 11 consecutive outings. The last time he was held out of the end zone was against the Cardinals back on Sept. 25.
The Cardinals hold a slim 13-12 edge in their overall series with the Seahawks, but Seattle has won the last three meetings between the clubs after following up a 2010 home-and-home sweep with the aforementioned three-point verdict in September. The Seahawks came through with a 36-18 triumph in last season's trip to University of Phoenix Stadium, snapping a four-game road losing streak to Arizona. The Cardinals did come out on top in four straight bouts with Seattle between 2008-2009, capped by a 31-20 home win in the latter year.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll is 4-0 lifetime against the Cardinals, having compiled a 3-0 mark with the Seahawks as well as a win in 1999 while then at the helm of the New England Patriots. Whisenhunt owns a 5-4 record versus Seattle, but is 0-3 in head-to-head encounters with Carroll.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Lynch (1118 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 13 total TD) has carried both the load and the Seattle offense over the course of the season's second half. Last week's game marked the eighth straight week he's been given at least 20 carries, and the powerful back has accumulated 855 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns during that outstanding stretch. The Seahawks have also gotten efficient play from quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (2869 passing yards, 13 TD, 12 INT) as of late, with the athletic offseason pickup having gone four consecutive games without an interception while throwing for a score in each of the team's last six tilts. He's had to make do without top wide receiver Sidney Rice, who came through with 109 yards on eight catches in the Week 3 win over Arizona, since November due to his ex-Minnesota teammate's season-ending concussion, but the pass-catching corps has gotten contributions from undrafted rookie find Doug Baldwin (48 receptions, 4 TD) and second-year man Golden Tate (30 receptions, 3 TD) during the stretch run. Injuries have also impacted the performance of an offensive line that's given up 46 sacks on the season and four to the Cardinals in September's showdown.
Arizona will be aiming to shore up its run defense after being gashed for 165 rushing yards by the Bengals a week ago, and the team had particular trouble in containing quarterback Andy Dalton, a less mobile player than Jackson. The Cardinals did do well in keeping Lynch in check the first time around, holding him to a modest 73 yards on 19 carries behind a concerted effort led by end Calais Campbell (71 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 INT). The 6-foot-8 lineman had a monster game that day, compiling 10 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks, and his 10 passes defensed this season are an astounding number for a player at his position. The inside linebacker duo of Daryl Washington (95 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) and veteran Paris Lenon (87 tackles, 3 sacks) also figure to be active in withstanding Seattle's ground game, and they'll have support from standout strong safety Adrian Wilson (62 tackles, 1 INT, 12 PD), a renowned run stopper who was selected to his fifth career Pro Bowl this week. The Cardinals haven't been adept at causing turnovers, having garnered only nine interceptions on the season, but Campbell, line partner Darnell Dockett (46 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and rookie outside linebacker Sam Acho (37 tackles, 6 sacks) can be counted on to provide a steady pass rush.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Though Skelton (1642 passing yards, 10 TD, 13 INT) has had accuracy and turnover issues at times, Arizona has been able to win with the strong-armed youngster and he's demonstrated a knack for coming through in the clutch. The 23-year-old has engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks while posting an impressive 99.1 quarterback rating in the final period, with six of his 10 touchdown passes having come in that frame. He's averaged nearly 300 yards over the last three weeks and connected on several big plays to prolific wideout Larry Fitzgerald (71 receptions, 1262 yards, 8 TD), with the Pro Bowl honoree having surpassed 100 receiving yards twice in that span. Young counterpart Andre Roberts (47 receptions, 2 TD) has aided the aerial cause by stepping up his production in recent weeks, while accomplished tight end Todd Heap (22 receptions) came up with six catches totaling 61 yards in Arizona's earlier loss to Seattle in one of the highlights of his injury-plagued season. Arizona hasn't established much of a rushing attack lately, mostly because of a nagging knee problem top running back Beanie Wells (1047 rushing yards, 10 TD, 10 receptions) has played through with limited effectiveness. The former first- round choice is averaging a pedestrian 3.1 yards per carry over the last four weeks, and the team has managed under 75 yards on the ground in three straight games.
Skelton could very well have a challenge in his hands in attempting to navigate a Seattle defense that's given opposing quarterbacks very little room to work during the stretch run. Over the past four games, the Seahawks have yielded a mere 156.3 passing yards per contest and a total of two touchdowns through the air while garnering eight interceptions as a young secondary has really come of age. Cornerback Brandon Browner (52 tackles, 6 INT, 20 PD), an astute import from the CFL, has five picks in the last five weeks as the group's best ball- hawk, while lanky rookie Richard Sherman (49 tackles, 3 INT, 16 PD) has also shined on the opposite side and second-year free safety Earl Thomas (92 tackles, 2 INT) received a Pro Bowl nod for his work as the center fielder. Seattle has regressed a bit in stopping the run, however, as evidenced by the season-high 178 rushing yards it surrendered to the 49ers last Saturday, and the team has lacked a pass-rushing complement to sack artist Chris Clemons (46 tackles, 11 sacks) for much of the year. The Seahawks still allow a respectable 3.8 yards per carry on the season and field a quality linebacker group of David Hawthorne (102 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) in the middle and Leroy Hill (85 tackles, 4 sacks) and rookie K.J. Wright (61 tackles, 2 sacks) on the outside flanks.
KEYS TO THE GAME
It's no secret that the Seahawks are going to rely on Lynch to jump-start the offense, and how the Cardinals handle the workhorse back may determine their fate on Sunday. If they can keep him under wraps and force Jackson to air it out to a short-handed group of receivers, that should enhance their chances of winning.
Turnovers. A huge factor to Seattle's second-half surge has been the defense's skill at creating mistakes, with the team having amassed 18 takeaways during its 5-2 run after inducing only 11 over the season's first eight games. The Seahawks are 5-1 this year when coming out ahead in the turnover battle, but 0-5 when having more giveaways than the opposition.
With that last point in mind, it's critical that Skelton keeps the errors to a minimum on Sunday. He's thrown two or more interceptions in five of his seven appearances and helped put the Cardinals in a hole they couldn't crawl out of with three picks in the first 2 1/2 quarters of last week's loss. The Seahawks intercepted Kolb twice in their Week 3 triumph over Arizona.
Both these teams have found winning formulas over the past two months, but it's the Seahawks that have been more impressive in doing so. The defense has been sensational in forcing turnovers, which could be a real concern for Arizona considering Skelton's tendencies, and Lynch's penchant for churning out hard yards has provided a real lift to an offense that's not prolific at throwing the football. The matchups seem to favor Seattle, as Arizona's pass-oriented approach plays to the Seahawks' strength on defense and the Cardinals have been the more mistake-prone of these two participants. In what should be a tight battle between rivals that don't offer much in the way of explosion, Seattle's ability to stop foes could prove to be the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 20, Cardinals 13