The Seattle Seahawks are absolutely ecstatic about the potential of their new quarterback. The Arizona Cardinals, on the other hand, don't seem too enamored with their old ones.
The next chapter in Russell Wilson's enthralling story begins Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, where the fast-rising rookie leads the Seahawks into a season-opening battle with the Cardinals in a skirmish between NFC West rivals with unexpected starters under center.
Wilson, a third-round selection by Seattle in April's draft who wasn't considered a premium prospect because he's under 5-foot, 11-inches tall, entered training camp as an extreme long shot to unseat expected No. 1 quarterback Matt Flynn after the Seahawks gave Aaron Rodgers' former understudy in Green Bay $10 million in guaranteed money back in March. However, the athletic ex-North Carolina and Wisconsin star won the job with a string of dazzling preseason performances in which he displayed both rare playmaking ability and uncommon leadership for such a young player.
The 23-year-old amassed 536 passing yards and five touchdowns through the air while rushing for 150 yards and another score in guiding Seattle to a 4-0 exhibition record in which the Seahawks outscored the opposition by a resounding 122-44 margin.
"He's done everything we've asked him," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said of Wilson. "When [general manager] John [Schneider] was excited about drafting him and we got the momentum going to make that pick, this is the guy we hoped that he would be."
When he takes the field on Sunday, Wilson will become the first rookie taken in the draft's third round to begin a season lid-lifter since Buffalo's Joe Ferguson in 1973.
Arizona's John Skelton came into the summer as a bit of an underdog due to financial reasons as well, with the Cardinals having invested heavily in 2011 opening-week starter Kevin Kolb after acquiring the ex-Philadelphia Eagle in a trade shortly after last year's lockout. But after filling in admirably for an injured Kolb for most of last season's second half, the 2010 fifth-round choice was given the opportunity to claim the starter's role outright in an open camp competition.
Skelton did indeed come out the winner, albeit in a case of being more of the lesser of two evils after neither he nor Kolb impressed in the preseason. Their uninspiring efforts caused Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt to hedge on making a final determination until just over a week before Sunday's contest.
"It���s kind of a weight off my shoulders in a sense because finally the speculating and the waiting are over," Skelton said. "At the same time, there is another weight placed on them."
Skelton showed he could handle the pressure in his fill-in duty last season, directing the Cardinals to a 5-2 record in his seven starts and engineering four fourth-quarter comebacks in four of his appearances.
One of those victories came against the Seahawks in Glendale during the 2011 finale, a 23-20 overtime triumph in which Skelton threw for 271 yards and orchestrated a 13-play, 71-yard drive to set up kicker Jay Feely's deciding kick.
That win was one of four in extra time by the Cardinals last season and capped a 7-2 stretch to close out the campaign.
Seattle also finished 2011 on a strong note, prevailing in five of its final eight games following a 2-6 start.
Cardinals lead 14-12
2011 Meetings: Seahawks 13, Cardinals 10 (Sept. 25 at Seattle) Cardinals 23, Seahawks 20 (OT) (Jan. 1 at Arizona)
Seahawks HC Pete Carroll vs. Cardinals: 4-1 overall, 3-1 with Cardinals Cardinals HC Ken Whisenhunt vs. Seahawks: 6-4 Carroll vs. Whisenhunt Head-to-Head: Carroll leads, 3-1
Notes: Seattle had won three straight in the series prior to its overtime road loss in the 2011 finale, but is just 1-5 in visits to University of Phoenix Stadium since 2006. The Seahawks' lone victory there over that stretch was a 36-18 verdict in 2010. Carroll's first career win over the Cardinals came in 1999 while then at the helm of New England.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Seattle: 28th overall (303.8 ypg), 21st rushing (109.8 ypg), 22nd passing (194.1 ypg), 23rd scoring (20.1 ppg)
Arizona: 19th overall (324.5 ypg), 24th rushing (101.6 ypg), 17th passing (222.9 ypg), 24th scoring (19.5 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Seattle: 14th overall (343.3 ypg), 15th rushing (112.3 ypg), 11th passing (219.9 ypg), 7th scoring (19.7 ppg)
Arizona: tied 18th overall (355.1 ypg), 21st rushing (124.1 ypg), 17th passing (231.0 ypg), 17th scoring (21.8 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Seattle: +8 (31 takeaways, 23 giveaways) Arizona: -13 (19 takeaways, 32 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Seattle: 47.8 percent (46 possessions, 22 TD, 15 FG) -- 22nd overall Arizona: 51.1 percent (45 possessions, 23 TD, 13 FG) -- 15th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Seattle: 48.7 percent (39 possessions, 19 TD, 15 FG) -- 11th overall Arizona: 39.7 percent (58 possessions, 23 TD, 24 FG) -- 2nd overall
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
A major reason for Seattle's second-half turnaround in 2011 was the production of running back Marshawn Lynch (1204 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 13 TD in 2011), with the Skittles-favoring bruiser ripping off six 100-yard games in the final nine weeks while averaging over 23 carries over that span. The Seahawks may not be able to lean heavily on their workhorse in the opener, however, as Lynch has been dealing with back spasms during the week and will likely have a more limited role if he does play. That won't change Seattle's approach, however, as the team is confident powerful rookie Robert Turbin, a fourth-round choice in the draft, can step in without a hitch. Coordinator Darrell Bevell will almost certainly have Wilson on the move throughout the afternoon as well for a couple of reasons, one to take advantage of the youngster's outstanding running skills and another to create throwing lanes to compensate for his lack of height. When Wilson does drop back to pass, expect him to look often in the direction of talented wide receiver Sidney Rice (32 receptions, 2 TD), now healthy after being limited to nine games last year by a shoulder injury that required surgery. He was a big factor in Seattle's narrow win over the Cards this past September, catching eight passes for a season-best 109 yards. Resurgent veteran Braylon Edwards, back from a knee problem that reduced him to a mere 15 receptions in nine outings with San Francisco in 2011, will be opposite Rice with usual split end Golden Tate sidelined with a sprained knee, while second-year pro Doug Baldwin (51 receptions, 4 TD) emerged as the offense's go-to guy in clutch situations out of the slot during a solid rookie year.
The goal of Arizona defensive coordinator Ray Horton will be to make Wilson's debut as uncomfortable as possible, whether by disguising coverages or bringing blitzes from all angles. He's got a pair of good pass rushers to count on in the front-line duo of 6-foot-8 end Calais Campbell (72 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 INT), who knocked down 10 passes with his exceptionally long frame last season, and three-time Pro Bowl tackle Darnell Dockett (51 tackles, 3.5 sacks), while a secondary headed up by imposing strong safety Adrian Wilson (65 tackles, 1 INT, 17 PD) and immensely gifted 2011 first-round pick Patrick Peterson (64 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) really came on down the stretch of 2011 after struggling during the early portion of the year. Keep an eye on Daryl Washington (107 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 INT), the Cardinals' fastest linebacker who could be used to spy Russell Wilson to ensure the dangerous scrambler doesn't break free out of the pocket. Arizona's leading tackler a year ago, he and Adrian Wilson are also two of the key components of a run-stopping corps that did a pretty good job of containing Lynch in the two 2011 meetings.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Considering Skelton's (1913 passing yards, 11 TD, 14 INT) mediocre preseason and accuracy concerns -- he's only a career 52.6 percent passer in the pros -- and the shaky state of an offensive line that lost left tackle Levi Brown to a year-ending triceps tear in August, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the Cardinals were more reliant on their running game come Sunday. Arizona is better equipped to utilize a more smash-mouth style than in its two matchups with Seattle in 2011, neither of which running backs Beanie Wells (1047 rushing yards, 10 TD) and Ryan Williams participated in because of injuries. Both are ready to go for this tilt, however, with Williams to make a belated NFL intro after the 2011 second-round pick missed all of his rookie year with a patellar tendon tear. He'll provide a shiftier alternative to the downhill style of Wells in the committee procedure. The Cardinals aren't going to abandon the pass, however, especially when they've got one of the game's truly elite wide receivers in Larry Fitzgerald (80 receptions, 1411 yards, 8 TD). The remarkable veteran put up better numbers with Skelton at the controls of the offense as opposed to Kolb last season, including a nine-catch, 149-yard masterpiece against the Seahawks in the finale. Slot receiver Early Doucet (54 receptions, 5 TD) may be able to create some mismatches against a Seattle secondary that isn't all that deep at cornerback, but reliable tight end Todd Heap (24 receptions, 1 TD) may not be much of a factor if he's asked to help out the pedestrian combo of journeyman D'Anthony Batiste and raw rookie Bobby Massie at the tackle spots.
Seattle's first order of business on defense will be to stop the run and force Skelton into obvious throwing situations, and the Seahawks do possess some quality pluggers in the interior line tandem of nose tackle Brandon Mebane (56 tackles) and onetime Cardinal Alan Branch (34 tackles, 3 sacks) as well as 320-pound end Red Bryant (32 tackles, 1 sack) and hard-hitting strong safety Kam Chancellor (97 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT). Getting someone other than top pass rusher Chris Clemons (51 tackles, 11 sack) to pressure the passer will be a high priority, however, and the team is hoping promising 2012 first-round pick Bruce Irvin can quickly make an impact. Another high-upside rookie, second-rounder Bobby Wagner, will be critical in run defense as the club's new starter at middle linebacker. Seattle has the cornerbacks capable of physically matching up with Fitzgerald in 6-foot-4 Pro Bowl honoree Brandon Browner (54 tackles, 6 INT, 23 PD) and the 6-foot-3 Richard Sherman (55 tackles, 4 INT, 17 PD), but 10-year vet Marcus Trufant (23 tackles, 1 INT) will need to adjust smoothly to a new role as a slot defender in nickel packages after spending his entire career outside.
Both 2011 encounters between these teams were decided by three points, and with each expected to play things rather close to the vest with quarterbacks that are either unproven or erratic, another narrow margin on the scoreboard seems like a good bet. If that's the case, it's hard to ignore Arizona's success in tight affairs last season, as all of the Cardinals' eight victories were by seven points or less and they went 4-0 in overtime. Skelton did demonstrate a knack for coming through in crunch time during last year's extended look, while Russell Wilson has yet to prove anything other than he's a dynamic talent capable of doing damage against vanilla defenses. Though Seattle seems to have the superior all-around team, Arizona is the one that appears better suited to survive the challenge that this game will present.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 20, Cardinals 17