Jennifer Hilderbrand-US PRESSWIRE
Heavy is the head that wears the NFC Offensive Player of the Week crown. Arizona's defense is no joke.
1. In the fourth quarter teams get desperate. So, watch out.
It's the official "fourth quarter" of the NFL season and the playoffs are coming into sharper focus. Seattle is firmly entrenched in the hunt while perennially downtrodden Arizona is once again playing out the string. Looks like an easy win, right? Not exactly. It looks like a likely win. That's not the same as easy. Pre-Holmgren Era Seahawks fans should be familiar with the difference. We saw the 'Hawks play the "downtrodden but feisty" role for many seasons. Back in those days we'd see the old aphorism that "the hardest miles in the marathon are the last few" come to life every now and then. Teams that expected to just show up and win would find themselves in dogfights in the old Kingdome. Simple things that had been so easy in the first twelve games could get far more difficult in the last four. In the NFL "cognitive load" accumulates. Burdensome cognitive loads can overload the brain, causing hesitation and uncertainty at the most inopportune times.
All that is to say that if the past two games have caused you to pull out your hair and damn-near faint from delirious, euphoric exhaustion it's probably not going to get any better for you. Nobody may be picking Arizona to win, and rightly so, but I anticipate a dogfight rather than a cakewalk. (Arizona has the best defense Seattle has faced and the worst offense by DVOA and on a per drive basis.) So seriously, do your heart a favor and replace your pre-game anxiety-induced irritability with some pre-game meditation. Your spouse and children, not to mention the game thread, will thank you.
2. Arizona has some matchup advantages.
Arizona isn't good at QB with Kolb or Skelton, but the Cardinals are a bit less helpless than they were last week. Even semi-competent QB play allows Arizona to exploit some matchup advantages. I'd be shocked if they didn't take a page out of Chicago's book and mostly throw against our base defense, running just enough to keep it honest. Chicago saw success (at least in raw yardage terms) moving Brandon Marshall around to find favorable matchups. I imagine the Cards will do the same with Larry Fitzgerald.
For Seattle, playing without suspended CB Brandon Browner, communication breakdowns may be a bigger concern than coverage breakdowns. Thurmond was hardly noticeable last week, a good sign in his first game back. I am also excited for Lane, but I would be shocked if either plays mistake-free on Sunday. We will need to see Earl Thomas' best Lofa Tatupu impersonation. He'll need to be a very busy traffic cop.
When Seattle has the ball, it will most likely be a struggle. Based on expected points, Arizona's defense has had only three mildly bad to semi-bad games (SF, GB, and STL). Arizona's big, athletic corners can challenge our receivers on balls in flight (their strength). Darnell Dockett presents problems in the best of circumstances. Having him matched up against McQuistan and Moffitt (rather than a healthy Carpenter) does not give me the warm fuzzies. Add to that, Arizona's LB group may be the team's strongest overall unit.
I don't mean to sound like Arizona should be favored. But their defense is every bit as good as SF's (or better). So, you're fooling yourself if you expect anything other than a dogfight when Seattle has the ball. Seattle's clearest path to victory lies in the defense shrinking the field and putting the offense in favorable scoring positions. Arizona's clearest path to victory mostly involves the same thing, but with a bit more of the offense not screwing things up and striking opportunistically.
3. Hidden Yards are always a big deal in the NFC West.
There are no Dennis Erickson-style teams in the NFC West. Every team (ideally) emphasizes field flipping plays outside the offense (like explosive kick/punt returns and forced turnovers). Seattle has generally been good at kick returns but mediocre at everything else, especially forcing turnovers. Seattle has recovered 7 fumbles and lost 8.
However, interceptions have been oddly non-existent. Seattle's talented secondary gets its hands on a good number of passes but converts a paltry 15.6% of them into interceptions, 22nd overall. That's certainly an area where the team could get healthy against Arizona by getting out to a lead. By contrast, Arizona intercepts a healthy 25% of passes defensed (2nd overall). I know better than to openly question Russell Wilson (all hail!) but his current interception streak (roughly 120 passes without) is probably unsustainable. So you can see how this sets up as a game where points are likely to be at a premium and interceptions could easily flip the field. What's less clear is which team will be throwing them and which will be catching them.
Arizona has been somewhat mediocre on special teams overall, except punts and field goals*/PATs--the two areas where Seattle struggles (of course) despite being excellent overall on special teams. The point here is that by far the most likely way that either team will score 24 or more is via turnovers or field flipping returns. That's going to be the case for all of the remaining division games.
*I had no idea until last Sunday that no opponent had missed a field goal against Seattle. WTF?
4. The fourth quarter is about depth.
Both in games and in seasons, what happens in the fourth quarter is often a testament to a team's depth. Pete Carroll and John Schneider have spent two off-seasons building a roster from the bottom up precisely to have the depth to close out regular seasons like this one. I for one am very excited to see how this group performs in the fourth quarter against an elite defense.