Coach Bruce Arians is the first to admit his Arizona Cardinals did not play well during the first quarter of the season, digging an early hole during a 1-3 start in September.
However, after consecutive victories by a combined score of 61-24, the defending NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals (3-3) have a chance to close to within a half-game of the division lead when the Seattle Seahawks (4-1) visit University of Phoenix Stadium for Sunday night's prime-time tilt at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
"We've been playing better. Each season is a new year," Arians said. "We did not play well in September, surprising to me, but we did play very well the last two weeks, and hopefully we can continue that."
Granted, beating up on the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Jets, who are a combined 2-10, is a different animal than facing Seattle. The Seahawks are coming off a hard-fought win over the Atlanta Falcons, their first victory over a team with a winning record this season. It is fair to say this is a strong litmus test for teams that have combined to win 10 of the past 12 NFC West titles.
The Cardinals have won four of the past five meetings, but the Seahawks have a three-game winning streak at University of Phoenix Stadium, including a 36-6 victory in Week 17 last season after Arizona already clinched the division and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
"12s show up," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the team's fan base. "I was asked that by their press, too, they're aware of it as well. I guess our people like to get out of the Northwest and get down there, get to Arizona. I don't know. We have had great crowds down there, and they've been really good to us."
On the field, the Cardinals boast a dynamic weapon in running back David Johnson, who enters Sunday with 568 rushing yards (third in the NFL) and eight touchdowns on the ground to go with 20 catches for 265 yards through the air. Seattle counters with the league's third-ranked run defense and the top unit in yards allowed per game (283.6).
Arizona is still looking to get its passing game untracked, with Arians acknowledging too many potential big plays failed to be executed through six weeks. The Seahawks are fifth in fewest passing yards allowed, but they did get beat for a pair of late big plays to fall behind against Atlanta last week. One miscommunication resulted in Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman yelling at defensive coordinator Kris Richard and inactive strong safety Kam Chancellor on the sideline.
"I mean it's another week, it's another opponent, everything starts over," said Sherman. "We're frustrated, if they're going to score, it's going to be a very difficult score. It's going to be something that was just a dog fight. We hate to give up easy ones."
Sherman may not shadow a receiver with the Cardinals sporting several playmakers. Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer, with some of his receivers matched up against Seahawks cornerbacks DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane, will have a prime opportunity to regain his form. He enters with seven touchdowns against five interceptions and an 84.1 passer rating.
"It's been not as easy as in the past. We've missed some, they're there, we just haven't hit them," Arians said of the Cardinals' passing game. "We'll get our opportunities, and we just have to keep throwing at them."
Arians knows his team will be equally challenged on the other side of the ball. Arizona sports the league's No. 5 defense entering Sunday, but last year, it did not successfully handle the Seahawks' transformation to a more wide-open attack based on the throwing of quarterback Russell Wilson.
Wilson completed 19 of 28 passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns in Week 17 last season, and he enters Sunday with a streak of 158 consecutive passes without an interception. In fact, he has thrown only two in 12 games dating back to Week 10 of last season.
He compiled those figures despite playing on right ankle and left knee sprains that clearly limited his mobility. Arizona has 19 sacks on the season and is facing a reworked Seattle offensive line that continues to experience growing pains, but Arians said the 5-foot-11 Wilson has developed into far more than a scrambling quarterback who hurts defenses on the run and on busted plays.
"Years ago everybody said, 'Make him stay in the pocket,'" Arians said. "Now you rush him and hope you can contain him because he's lighting everybody up from the pocket."
More to the point, Wilson is steadily getting closer to full health.
"We're just continuing to count on him to get out there and do his thing," Carroll said. "He feels better again, he's markedly improved than he has been the last couple weeks. Let's see how that goes.
"We're going to keep running the stuff and count on him to read the things out and do all that he knows how to do. We're not restricting him at all."
Arizona travels for a rematch against struggling defending NFC champion Carolina next week before hitting its bye week, while Seattle travels to New Orleans before returning home for a Monday night tilt against resurgent Buffalo and a trip to New England before playing host to Philadelphia. So the outcome of Sunday's game could have a significant impact on what will be at stake when the Cardinals pay a visit to Seattle on Christmas Eve in Week 16.
While Carroll harped on the importance of his "12s," Arians had a bit of a different take on why the home-field advantage might not be as significant as many assume. In his view, the crowd noise impacts his defense just as much in trying to contain Wilson & Co.
"I think one of the big things is the home-team defense is really hard to communicate," Arians said. "I think it's one of the reasons we play so well (in Seattle, where Arizona has won two of the past three years), that the defense has a tough time communicating because the crowd noise and the fans are into it. We've had some lack of communication at times."