Not really sure where to start. The interception call will probably generate most of the conversation about this game but I think the biggest reason that the Cardinals beat the Seahawks was that Arizona played football better than Seattle did. So I suppose that's where we should begin.
The Cardinals came in and dictated the flow as much as any visitor to Seattle has in a long time. That's not to say that they had their way with the Seahawks -- far from it -- but we've gotten so used to seeing Seattle handle their business at home in decisive fashion and this was anything but that. On the opening drive, the Cardinals hit on a 63-yard slant pass to Brittan Golden, setting up an and-goal for Arizona. No team had scored on their opening drive against Seattle this season, a streak that seemed destined to end until a diving Byron Maxwell tipped a pass to Kam Chancellor to preserve the defense's improbable run.
The teams traded gross drives for most of the game, with turnovers and officiating saying a lot more about field position than any offensive execution did. Stephen Hauschka hit a field goal. Then Jay Feely made one. Then Feely made another one. Then a Malcolm Smith interception return gave Seattle a first and goal they couldn't convert. Hauschka came on for a game-tying chippie, which he made, but there was a false start (how does that happen?) that moved it from a comfortable 21-yard attempt to an apparently precarious 26-yarder. With the rain deluging, Hauschka clanked the re-try, keeping Seattle down by three heading into the half.
The second half sucked, too. A gross, scoreless third quarter bled into a less-gross fourth, that didn't see any points until Jay Feely extended Arizona's lead to six with a 26-yarder. That put the pressure on Russell Wilson to move the football, I mean really move it, and he delivered. Frankly, we shouldn't be surprised at this point, but there he was again, moving the chains when it mattered most, picking up chunk yardage at crucial moments like he's done so many times before. The first big play was a 28-yarder to Golden Tate, followed a few snaps later by a diving catch on a crossing route by Jermaine Kearse. Shortly afterward, Wilson hit an open Zach Miller in the painted grass for the game's first touchdown and, after a goofy rule saved Seattle's ass on a blocked PAT, the Seahawks had their first lead in 40 minutes.
The Cardinals started their next drive on their own twenty and, in direct contrast to the game's narrative, drove the ball down to Seattle's 31 yard line. Despite being on the edge of field goal range, Bruce Arians eschewed a field-position play call in favor of a go route to Michael Floyd who was one-on-one with Maxwell, who played the route almost perfectly. No matter, Floyd kept his concentration on a bobbling football, cradling it to his chest in the endzone. A Rashard Mendenhall two-point conversion extended the lead to seven and put the pressure back on Russell Wilson and the offense.
Excited anticipation rippled through the stands. We've seen it so many times before: Wilson near-miraculously leading a scoring drive when there is no option for failure. The first play of the drive was also the last, as Wilson skipped a pass in front of a diving Doug Baldwin. The ball hit the ground, kicked up rubber pellets from the field turf, reversed its spin after hitting Baldwin's bicep, cartwheeled ten feet in the air, and was corralled by Karlos Dansby. The ref called it an interception, which was ludicrous at the time. As the play went to review, 'Hawks fans were reassured by Mike Perriera that officials are taught to consider the spin of the football when reviewing plays like these. Surely the combination of that and the turf nuggets would be enough to overturn such a preposterous call at such a high-leverage junction.
Nope. The replay official apparently ruled that Baldwin's arm was composed of some sort of fluid titanium alloy capable of defying simple physics and upheld the interception. A first down later and the Cardinals were further muddling an already confusing NFC playoff picture. So what happened?
The Cardinals defense was spectacular today. The front seven will get, and probably deserve, most of the praise but it was as complete a defensive effort as any team has played against the Seahawks in two seasons. Arizona limited Seattle to 3.8 yards per play, a massive drop off from the 5.8 they'd been averaging on the year, keeping the Seahawks under 200 total yards in fewer than 23 minutes of possession.
So how'd they do it? They started by forcing Russell Wilson to be a pocket passer and honestly, it didn't look like Wilson wanted any part of that. All season long, and notably in the first game vs Arizona, Wilson has made big plays outside the pocket. Wilson has been rightly praised for his ability to extend plays but one has to wonder if he hasn't gotten too used to doing it. There were multiple times this afternoon when Wilson began to drift out of the pocket, looking to set up his signature curly-Q moves when isolated one on one with an over-matched defensive lineman. The problem today was that the Cardinals were prepared, staying committed to containment and refusing to give Wilson the time he's accustomed to granting himself in order to make a play.
Compounding that particular issue was Wilson's penchant for moving out of the pocket within the first two and a half seconds of a play. Thomas Beekers called it "ghost pressure", which seems apt. The result was arguably Wilson's worst game as a pro, and his* first loss at home since his dog chewed up his Paddington Bear in second grade.
*I hate crediting quarterbacks with wins and losses. The game is too intricate, too interdependent.
The final numbers on Wilson are as uncomfortable to read as this game was to watch: 11-27, 108 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT.* The most damning part of it was the 4.0 yards per attempt -- less than half of what Wilson was averaging on the season. Wilson's game wasn't devoid of bright spots, as he put a couple of passes on his receivers' hands that weren't hauled in and Seattle's lone touchdown drive featured three outstanding throws to Golden Tate, Jermaine Kearse, and Zach Miller. I mean, it's not like he sucks and all of a sudden he's been exposed as a fraud. There's no reason to assume he won't make the adjustments necessary to keep this from happening again, but we'd be remiss in giving him a pass. He struggled big time today.
*I know, I know.
While Daryl Washington, Calais Campbell, Dan Williams, and others were harassing Wilson behind the line of scrimmage, the Cardinals' impressive secondary were refusing to give him anyone to throw to. One of the things Wilson's been able to count on this year is someone getting open enough to give him an escape valve; not so today. Jermaine Kearse (three catches for 38 yards on seven targets) was the only guy who got any sort of semi-consistent separation, as Patrick Peterson and Co. kept Doug Baldwin (1-8, 6 targets) and Golden Tate (2-34, 3 targets) from getting loose.
Marshawn Lynch was able to help alleviate some of the pressure with 71 yards, although it took him 18 carries to get 'em. 3.9 yards per carry is nothing to be ashamed of against the NFL's best run defense, but on a day when the passing game was struggling, it would've been nice to see Seattle establish themselves more assertively on the ground. It's been over a month since this running game has really clicked*, and it's something I'd really like to see some improvement in before it's one-and-done time.
*Marshawn Lynch's last five games rushing: 54, 45, 72, 47, 71. He's averaging 3.3 yards per carry over that stretch.
Darrell Bevell has taken some heat from 'Hawks fans this season and while I think most of it has been fairly ridiculous, the Seahawks offense looked completely incapable of adjusting to the Cardinals' game plan. I'm hesitant to say "if they had run this play instead of that one, then..." because I think that's a rabbit hole we have no business going down but you can judge him on scheme and today the scheme was over-matched. The Rams have a dominating front seven. The 49ers and Panthers also have dominating front sevens. Adjustments need to be made.
On the flip side, the Seahawks defense was phenomenal again, flexing their muscle all over the place. Taking nearly 1,000 words before bringing them up is unfair to the effort they put forth, as all three levels of the defense were excellent. Carson Palmer was swarmed all day, suffering two sacks, nine QB hits, and what's sure to be noticeably bruised sternum en route to throwing four interceptions. Numbers like that aren't possible without a complete effort. Like any good dance lesson, we'll start with the back end.
Kam Chancellor played his best game of the season and what may have been the best game of his career to date, racking up a team-leading 11 tackles, breaking up two passes, snagging a pick in the endzone, and giving half the Cardinals' skill position guys tinnitus with massive log-boom hits. Richard Sherman grabbed two more interceptions, one of which was also in his own endzone, and made a season-high eight tackles. Earl Thomas also shone, making 10 tackles (giving him 103, a shocking 76 of them solo) and providing his usual mastery of the opposing pass routes. Seattle's "back up" corners, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane were also terrific, playing the scrappiest defense I can recall seeing from a pair of CBs. Even on the game-winning pass from Palmer to Michael Floyd with 2:13 left came against near flawless coverage, as Maxwell stayed on Floyd's hip and even knocked the ball out of Floyd's hands for a moment. That it was a TD had everything to do with an immaculate throw and an incredible effort by the receiver.
Oh, and the special teams were generally awful. Hauschka had his baffling miss and had an extra point blocked, a play that was overturned on a technicality. Robert Turbin fumbled a kickoff return without being touched and Jon Ryan continued his weird stretch of poop punting. Close games often turn on a special teams play and Seattle had a slew of unforced errors in this one. Bunch more penalties (9-102), too.
I don't know if there are such things as good losses, but sometimes defeat can force the type of urgency that easy winning may not generate. For all of their strengths, the Seahawks have their weaknesses and they were put on display by Arizona. It was, in a sense, a blueprint on how to defend Seattle. It's a blueprint that requires especially talented personnel, but playoff teams typically have that and the Seahawks need to be prepared to face a defense like this again.
The good news is that, as Kenneth Arthur noted, still three scenarios in which Seattle wins the division and the #1 seed:
*The 49ers lose to the Falcons tomorrow night
*The 49ers lose to the Cardinals nextweek
*The Seahawks beat the Rams
One of the perks of winning 80% of your first 15 games is having options. Still, it'd be great to see the 'Hawks come out and put the Rams in the dirt next Sunday. Lick your wounds but remember, the path to the 'Ship is still clear and the roads are well lit.