For the second year in a row, a surprising Arizona Cardinals team sits atop the NFC West at the season's midpoint. And just like last year, a preseason favorite Seattle Seahawks club has started slow and trails in the standings after eight games, but looks primed to make a strong second-half run. The two rivals face off on Sunday Night Football in a pivotal game with huge playoff implications for both teams.
The Cardinals have a two-game lead over the St. Louis Rams and Seahawks, but can hardly feel safe about their situation. They have the third-hardest remaining schedule in the league, a brutal slate that includes four NFC West games, a trip to Philadelphia and matchups with the NFC North's co-leaders, Minnesota and Green Bay. They kick off the second half of their season with a trip to Seattle, where they are just 1-4 since 2010 and have scored a total of 40 points in five games.
After a roller-coaster ride to start the season -- alternating two-game winning and losing streaks over the first eight games -- the Seahawks have finally climbed back to .500. Although they are just 4-4, they can't be counted out of the division race or playoff picture yet. Seattle is confident it has turned its season around, and can point to a league-best 20-4 record in games No. 9 through 16 over the last three seasons as proof that it's primed to make a late charge.
The Seahawks also have the advantage of a favorable schedule the rest of the way. Sunday's night contest is the start of a three-game homestand, and they have just one divisional road game left -- a Week 17 tilt in Arizona that could decide who is crowned the NFC West champ. Per Fivethirtyeight.com's projections, the season finale against the Cardinals is the only game the Seahawks are not favored to win in the second half. If Seattle is going to make a move and position itself as a playoff contender, now is the time.
The Cardinals' hot start has been fueled by a supremely talented, productive and efficient offense led by the ageless trio of Carson Palmer (age 36), Chris Johnson (age 30) and Larry Fitzgerald (age 32). Arizona ranks second in points per game and third in total offense, and is averaging an NFL-best 6.7 yards per play. The team is on pace for a franchise-record 526 points, which would also be one of the top-10 single-season marks in league history.
Aside from a healthy Palmer, the key difference between this year's offensive unit and last year's is a vastly improved running game. In 2014, the Cardinals ranked last in the NFL in yards per rush (3.3) and averaged the second-fewest rushing yards per game (81.8). This year, thanks to a revamped offensive line and a rejuvenated, the Cardinals are seventh in yards per rush (4.5) and ninth in rushing yards per game (124.8).
The added threat on the ground has also opened up an already potent passing attack, which leads the NFL in both yards per attempt and ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating (QBR). There are few teams that boast as diverse an array of weapons as Arizona, making the Cardinals one of the most dangerous and impressive offensive teams in the league.
The Seahawks, on the other hand, have struggled to find any consistency on offense this season, ranking 24th in points per game (20.9). While they've been able to move the ball at an average rate (14th in yards per play), the Seahawks have had a ton of trouble converting yards into points and reaching the end zone. They are by far the league's worst unit inside the 20, with just five touchdowns in 17 red zone trips (29.4 percent), and have scored touchdowns on just 14 percent of their drives, the second-worst mark in the NFL.
If Seattle is going to string some wins together and make a postseason push, it will be on the strength of its defense, which is rounding into championship form. They haven't allowed a touchdown in the past two games, surrendering a combined 15 points in their past two games. For the season, only the Denver Broncos have given up fewer points per game and fewer yards per game than the Seahawks.
Who to Watch
The resurgence of wounded in a drive-by shooting in March and didn't even know if he'd ever be able to play football again. He signed a one-year deal this winter with Arizona and has made a miraculous comeback, ranking fourth in rushing yards per game this season. Johnson's per-carry average of 4.8 yards would be his best since 2009, the year he led the league in rushing with 2,006 yards.has been one of the best stories this season. The former New York Jets running back was
Marshawn Lynch's season, however, has not been as glorious as Johnson's. Beast Mode is having his worst campaign since coming to Seattle five years ago. He is averaging only 3.6 yards per rush and 62.5 rushing yards per game, and has scored just two touchdowns on the ground. That's a steep decline from last year's numbers when he averaged 4.7 yards per carry, 81.6 yards per game and tied for the league lead with 13 rushing scores.
He's been hampered by hamstring issues, so that could explain some of the drop-off in production, but you also have to question whether he's showing some ill effects of his heavy workload in the Seahawks' run-first offense over the past few years. Since 2011 (his first season in Seattle), he has the most carries (1,284) of any player in the NFL.
How to Watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: CenturyLink Field, Seattle
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
Online: NBC Sports
The Seahawks are 3-point favorites and the over/under is 44.5, according to OddsShark.com.
There's not much consensus on whether Seattle or Arizona is going to win this divisional showdown. The ESPN panel sides with Seattle by a 9-4 margin, while five of the eight experts at CBS Sports have the Cardinals getting it done on the road, but our crew here at SB Nation favors the Seahawks. Five of our seven guys are taking the home team, while Ryan Van Bibber has the Cardinals and resident Seahawks fan Matt Ufford named "whiskey" as his pick.
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