Bobby Wagner is a middle linebacker. He confronts everything head-on.
That includes the biggest test he and his Seahawks have had this season: Facing the 6-2, NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals at CenturyLink Field on Sunday night.
“We understand that they understand that they’ve got to take us off the top to beat us,” Seattle’s All-Pro said about Arizona’s attempt to end the Seahawks’ two-year reign as division champions.
“It’s not going to be an easy task coming into our home,” Wagner said of the raucous venue at which Seattle is 9-0 in prime-time games under coach Pete Carroll. “So we are going to make sure we don’t let them do that.”
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Both teams are coming off byes. During all that time, Carroll has talked about how large this chance is for his team, which started its uneven quest for a third straight Super Bowl appearance at 0-2 and 2-4 and is now 4-4.
“It is,” he said, “a big opportunity.”
This is how big: Should the Seahawks improve to a league-best 23-4 in November and December since 2012, plus 5-1 against Arizona in the last four seasons, Seattle could conceivably be tied for first place after next week.
Arizona goes home to play still-unbeaten Cincinnati next weekend on the same day that the Seahawks are hosting a 3-5 San Francisco team they clobbered 20-3 last month.
But that’s getting way ahead of ourselves — and of Seattle’s immediate task.
It’s the Seahawks’ biggest game since February’s Super Bowl against Tom Brady and New England.
The Cardinals’ 35-year-old Carson Palmer is playing better than he ever has, even when he was winning the Heisman Trophy in 2002 at USC for Carroll. So says … Carroll.
Palmer has five games this season with at least 300 yards passing, two games with at least 370. He has thrown for 20 touchdowns against six interceptions. His passer rating is an NFC-best 110.2; only Brady and Andy Dalton have better ratings.
Arizona is second in the league in scoring at 32.9 points per game, and third with 417.2 yards of offense per game. The Cardinals defense is third overall and fourth against what Seattle wants to do foremost: the run.
Part of that is because opponents have trailed Arizona for so much of games that they’ve had to pass instead of run.
That’s played right into the hands of the Cardinals and their blitz-from-everywhere defense. Literally, right into their hands. Arizona has an NFL-high 13 interceptions in eight games, 10 more than Seattle’s famed “Legion of Boom.”
“We attack, in every situation,” Palmer said. “On offense. On defense.”
Still the Cardinals realize that their only win over Seattle in the last four years came at CenturyLink Field in December 2013. That is Palmer’s only other time quarterbacking the Cardinals in Seattle.
“I mean, they’re the defending (NFC West and NFC) champions, and for us to become champions we have to beat them. I think we’re all in that same mindset,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “People ask if it’s a rivalry, and I would say no. We haven’t won enough for it to be a rivalry.
“We feel like we’ve gotten better. And they’re the measuring stick because they’re our division champs and our conference champs.”
This time last season, Arizona was 8-1 and on its way to the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Then it learned Palmer was done because of knee injury.
Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley and even Logan Thomas happened next for Arizona. The Cardinals went 3-4 to finish the regular season, including 0-2 against the Seahawks while getting outscored 54-9 by them within a month’s time.
Bye-bye, top seed and even the division title. Seattle seized that by ending the regular season with six consecutive victories.
Arians remembered that Arizona had at least 10 players on injured reserve by the time they got to Seattle last Nov. 23.
Plus, Palmer has a running game this year. Last season, lead back Andre Ellington managed 24 yards on 10 carries in Seattle’s 19-3 home win over Arizona on Nov. 23. By the rematch in Glendale, Arizona, the following month, he was out injured. The Cardinals had zero running threat with which to keep the Seahawks’ defense honest in Seattle’s 35-6 domination in the desert. That gave Seattle a second consecutive NFC West title.
Now, Seattle can’t focus solely on Palmer, revitalized receiver Larry Fitzgerald (55 catches, seven for touchdowns) or partner John Brown. Former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson has arrived from Tennessee in as shrewd a free-agent signing during training camp as the league’s had in years.
He’s been stampeding behind a remade offensive line that includes former 49ers and Idaho stalwart guard Mike Iupati. Johnson’s 676 yards rushing is third in the NFL behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Atlanta’s Devonta Johnson.
Chris Johnson has almost twice the rushing yards this season as the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch.
When he gained 109 yards on 30 carries in Arizona’s most recent game, Nov. 1 at Cleveland, Johnson became the first Cardinal since former Seahawks running backs coach Stump Mitchell in 1985 to have four 100-yard rushing games in a season. Johnson’s back-to-back 100-yard games are the first for Arizona since Edgerrin James, another one-time Seahawk, did that in 2006.
Not bad for a 30-year old released by the Jets, shot in the shoulder in a March drive-by in Florida, and not signed until Arizona called in August offering a one-year deal loaded with incentives.
“That’s the biggest difference,” Wagner said of these Cardinals as compared with last season’s team. “They have the running game to complement the passing game. They’ve got a lot of weapons outside, but they do a good job of balancing the runs and faking it and going deep.”
Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard thinks this new running game, which Arians had vowed to improve all offseason, is what sets Arizona’s offense apart from any in football.
“They want to be physical and they want to control the line of scrimmage. They test your discipline,” Richard said. “They’re a patient offense. They’re dedicated to the run and they have good backs that can go the distance. The explosive nature of their backs is really what makes their running game dominant …
“The fact that they use their backs out of the backfield in the passing game is what makes them pretty special.”
More of what makes Sunday a pretty special chance for the Seahawks. They can keep everything in the division right there for their taking in what’s already been something of an odyssey.
“There have been a lot of teams that go 9-0, or whatever the case may be, and then they fall off towards the end,” Wagner said.
“We always have a way of sticking around and finding our way into the playoffs, and then making a splash.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
ARIZONA CARDINALS (6-2) at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (4-4)
5:30 p.m. Sunday, CenturyLink Field
TV: Ch. 5. Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
The series: Tied, 16-16. … Arizona’s last win in Seattle was Dec. 22, 2013. The Cardinals, Cowboys (in 2014) and Panthers (last month) are the only teams to beat the Seahawks in Seattle over the past four seasons.
SEATTLE’S KEYS TO VICTORY
Block the blitz: No one blitzes more than the Cardinals. When Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable was asked how often he expected Arizona to blitz, he said: “Every single play.” Since in the opener, when the Rams flooded Seattle’s offensive line, which has starters in three new positions, the book’s been out and wide open. The Seahawks haven’t consistently answered blitzes all season. The Cardinals dumped Russell Wilson seven times when they played in Seattle last November. This Seahawks line has been worse than that one.
Score 7 instead of 3: Sure, it’s great for Seattle that Steven Hauschka is 18 for 19 on field goals. But Arizona’s is the wrong offense against which to settle for field goals in the red zone. That will result in an “L.” The Seahawks, last in the NFL in red-zone touchdowns, spent their bye week and this week studying and tweaking their approach inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Those changes may include more emphasis on jump balls for 6-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham. And converting on third downs for a change (Seattle’s 37.6 percent rate is 29th in the league) would sure help, too.
Make him Chris Johnson, vintage 2014: The former 2,000-yard rusher with the Titans was forgotten and discarded last year in Tennessee. Now he’s third in the league in rushing, after signing with the Cardinals in August. He’s made quarterback Carson Palmer and Arizona’s passing game even more dangerous. If Seattle’s ninth-ranked rushing defense can limit Johnson to, say, 70 or fewer yards, pass-rushing ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett will better test Arizona’s line, which might have an injury fill-in at center (journeyman A.Q. Shipley).
Seahawks, 23-20. The division champs know this is their chance for prime position toward another title. They also know it’s wild card or bust if they lose. Earl Thomas has his best game this season vs. Arizona’s deep passes, Bobby Wagner leads a limiting of Johnson, and the defense again carries an unsatisfying offense to victory.
If he’s as fast and ready, as all say, coming off the physically
unable to perform list, Seattle has a deep weapon to debut.
Palmer has an NFL-best 144 passer rating on throws 11-20
yards down the middle. That’s where All-Pro Thomas plays.
Another Seattle All-Pro will be the key to keeping Johnson
from breaking more long runs.
He was injured and didn’t play in either of Arizona’s losses
to Seattle last year. He’s playing as well as any QB right now.
He’s romping like it’s 2009 again, giving the Cardinals
a running dimension they’ve lacked for years.
He has been all over the field, blitzing, breaking up passes
and thumping ball carriers. Seattle needs a plan for him.