There's an awful lot to say about this game, both beautiful and morose. It will tempting to glance at this one and retreat to the same familiar themes- Seahawks can't close in the fourth quarter, too many penalties, offense can't move the ball when it matters, yada yada yada. And to a degree, that's correct. The Seahawks did have a fourth quarter lead for the whateverth straight game and for the sixth time in the last ten, they couldn't hold it. They also committed a butt ton of penalties (14 for 131 yards), and the offense was only able to score three points after charging back to take an early fourth quarter lead.
All of that is right but it also overlooks the fact that the 2015 Arizona Cardinals are really good at football. This team isn't the smoke-and-mirrors outfit that started last season 9-1 before crumbling down the stretch. They're not the same squad that has meandered around the middlebottom of the NFC West ever since Kurt Warner retired. This team runs, passes, and plays defense like the best teams in the NFL do. Yes, this loss has a lot to with the Seahawks but it's important to know, before we get to that, that Seattle is no longer the best team in this division and that has at least as much to do with how good the Cardinals are as it does with Seattle's shortcomings.
Never was that more apparent than in the first 25 or so minutes of this one, when the Cardinals gained 91% of the game's first 236 yards en route to a 19-0 lead. Everything about that stretch was obscene, including the fact that after four drives, Seattle had 62 penalty yards to 23 offensive ones. Additionally, Carson Palmer came out dealing. After a quick punt on their first drive, Arizona's next four possessions covered 213 yards on 35 plays, completely dominating game flow and putting Seattle in the extremely rare position of being down three scores at home. Now, the last two times the 'Hawks trailed by three scores at home, they came back and won, and they damn near did it again today. But we'll get to that in a bit.
Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about that original deficit was how brazen the Cards were about throwing the ball downfield. There was absolutely no fear in Palmer, as he stood amidst the rubble of a crumbling pocket all night, throwing the ball with decisive conviction. On back-to-back possessions, Michael Floyd beat both Seattle cornerbacks for long scores, emboldening Arizona's spirit and play calling. The first time, he sort of drifted up the right sideline and then accelerated into the back corner of the endzone as soon as Richard Sherman let his eyes drift to John Brown running an underneath crossing route. Palmer lobbed the ball over a scrambling Sherman to a waiting Floyd, who cradled it like he was trying to win an egg toss competition.
On the next drive, he beat Cary Williams down the left sideline in a straight man-to-man go route that he may* or may not have false-started on. To be honest, Floyd didn't beat Williams with his feet, as Cary stayed on his hip the whole way; no, Floyd beat Williams with his hands, knocking Cary's down at the last moment while extending to catch a perfectly thrown pass before tucking himself inside the pylon for his second score in as many minutes.
Here's the thing, this is how you beat the Seahawks. You need not only the talent but the balls to challenge Seattle's vaunted secondary at the third level and Arizona has both. It doesn't always work, obviously, but that's now twice in the last three years Arizona has entered Century Link Field and left with a win. Remember that game? Palmer had four interceptions but that didn't stop him from going deep and hooking up a long game-winning TD pass late in the fourth. Same big armed QB, same explosive WRs, same wrinkly, pendulous Bruce Arians nuts. That's not to say that the Seahawks defense has been figured out, just that their soft spot happens to be located between their teeth and you have to be willing to go there in order to beat them.
And while all that was going on, the Seattle offense was looking as hopeless and dysfunctional as they have in half a decade. Holding, false start, a dropped pass, an overthrow, a safety that wasn't a safety, a safety that was a safety, and five heavy-pressures on seven dropbacks- all in the first four drives. On one play, their QB backpedaled with the ball at his waist while his right tackle got pushed back like a five year old on a shopping cart. That's when Wilson ran into Okung, dropped the ball, picked it up again, ran backwards a little, dropped it again, and then won a wrestle-sesh in the endzone to limit the circus damage to two points.
But then everything switched. It was sudden, and beautiful and made you wonder why it wasn't always like that. Seattle abandoned the stodgy, scripted shotgun read-option and opted for an upbeat no-huddle attack that felt looser and more fun. Wilson darted around, not looking to make the "right play" but just looking to make plays. He ran when it was time to run, as he did on a slick 13-yard scamper on their final first half drive. He passed when it was time to pass, as he did right afterward when he dialed up (welcome back) Paul Richardson on a 42-yard go-route and later, Doug Baldwin on a deep seam. And sometimes he did both, as he repeatedly found Baldwin on broken plays- you know, the way they used to.
By the way, this was the best game Baldwin's had in a really long time. He was the only guy who got open with consistency and he always seemed to know exactly what spots he had to get to when Wilson began scrambling. Seven catches, 134 yards, and a tud for Doug.
After netting just 23 yards and zero points on ten plays during their first four drives, Seattle bounced back with 222 yards and 17 points on their next four. It's that dichotomy that makes this offense so frustrating. For 25 minutes they were abysmal. They were all of the abysms. For the next 25, they carved up one of the best defenses in the NFL like they were using the JV as a midweek tune-up. I don't know why, other than to say that football is weird.*
*How weird? Seattle is now 0-4 when winning the turnover battle.
And while the offense was scorching, the defense drafted off them and began causing some serious old school damage. The Cardinals went from moving the ball as easily as they pleased to looking completely baffled in an instant. It was crazy to watch the switch get flipped. After racking up 267 yards and 22 points on 37 plays over a five drive stretch in the first half, 'Zona opened up the second half with 30 yards and two turnovers on their next 19 plays. During that time everyone looked great, but none better than the defensive line. Michael Bennett won battle after battle, Cliff Avril became a destroyer of worlds. Jordan Hill and Aytah Rubin collapsed the pocket from the center and harassed Chris Johnson before he could get going. Behind them, Seattle DBs began accurately jumping routes and altering Palmer's timing.
The real fun started when Kris Richard (finally) started cooking up some blitzes. After relying, mostly unsuccessfully, on a four man pass rush, he began to bring pressure in the phantasmic forms of stunts and twists. On consecutive drives, Seattle blew Palmer's house down when one of their wolves charged through the line unimpeded. The Cardinals OL looked bewildered as they struggled to figure out which guys to block and in the meantime, the Seahawks teed off.
On one play, Cliff Avril charged literally over the top of the dude trying to block him and shoved Palmer to the ground as he was getting set to throw. Avril's savagery forced the ball out of Palmer's hand, where it bounced around until KJ Wright arrived for the swoop-n-scoop. That fumble was immediately followed by a three-yard Marshawn Lynch touchdown and on the very next drive, Seattle came with an inside linebacker twist that had Wright flying up the middle. By the time Chris Johnson recognized the threat, it was too late, as Wright breached the pocket and slapped the ball away from Palmer with his gigantic whale fin. Bobby Wagner then sprinted through the rubble to pluck the ball off the turf and take it to the house. That play not only gave Seattle the lead at 29-25, it extended their NFL-record streak of having a lead at some point to 57 games.
That was, unfortunately, where the fun ended. The Cardinals came back admirably, benefiting from more of Seattle's yellow flag charity and a healthy serving of good ol' fashioned play-making. They snatched the lead back from the Seahawks and their roaring crowd with a -- you guessed it -- seam route to a tight end. This latest entry in the back-breaking TD catches by tight ends on a seam route journal was Jermaine Gresham, who slipped unnoticed behind everyone. You know, the way 6'5" 260 lb guys usually do.
After that, Seattle's offense stalled and the Cards came right back with it. The thing about Bruce Arians is, for better or worse, they don't stop attacking. Sure he's insufferable and yes he looks like a gigantic baby emoji with a drawn-on goatee but his teams always keep pressing. After a couple more clock-wringing first downs, Arizona's three point lead became ten with one of my favorite play calls of the season.
Facing a third and three and seemingly following the same run-run-pass cadence they'd kept the last two drives, Arizona line up in a three-wide shotgun formation with Andre Ellington in the backfield with Palmer. Carson took the snap and dropped back but, for the first time all game, he stuffed the ball into his RB's gut for a draw. Seattle hadn't seen it all game and the result was, from an objective football perspective, sublime. Ellington picked up the first down before beating Kam Chancellor's angle and then sprinted unhindered down the left sideline for what would turn out to be the decisive points.
And, like so many other games this season, the difference in this game wasn't thematic. It was one or two plays going one way when they could've gone another. It almost always is. Consider Arizona's last drive of the first half. Seattle, by all common sense interpretations of events, forced a fumble on a completion to the tight end. That fumble was then scooped up by Earl Thomas, who already had an interception, and returned near midfield with about a minute left. Instead, the Seahawks became latest casualty of the NFL's ongoing efforts to codify the elimination of any contested catch. The pass was ruled incomplete and instead of Seattle having one minute to go half the field and make it 19-14 or 19-10, the Cardinals got to keep the ball in field goal range and extend their lead to 22-7 before the half.
Or how about the short stop route by Jaron Brown that Sherman anticipated perfectly? Swimming under Brown, Sherman deflected the pass up in the in the midst of three Seahawks ready to pick it off. Instead, Brown snaked his little twigs back up in the air and snagged the pass that would ultimately lead to the go-ahead score. Those aren't the only examples, obviously, as there were plenty of things that broke Seattle's way too, but they are the two starkest exhibits of getting beat despite making your best play and sometimes that's just the difference.
Ultimately, while it's weird to lose another game despite winning in turnover margin, it's tough to beat any team when you commit 14 penalties and concede 30 first downs. It also doesn't help when, after converting your first third down, you fail to do so on your remaining seven opportunities.
So how good is this team? I don't know. I'm pretty confident saying they're pretty good but that's still a long way from being really confident that they are really good. And while I absolutely do not think the Seahawks are a true-talent 4-5 team, they are a true-record 4-5 team and unfortunately it's your record, not your talent, that determines your postseason draw, if any.
With the Cardinals at 7-2, I think it's pretty safe to say that the division is a lost cause. If the Seahawks do make the playoffs, they'll be traveling for the privilege. So what about the wild card spots? Right now they're being held by the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, respectively, who each find themselves 6-3 after blistering starts to the season. That's two games to overcome and since Seattle lost in Green Bay, it's unlikely they'll make up the three games necessary to leapfrog them. That means that the Falcons are the squad the 'Hawks have the most realistic shot at catching. I don't feel like breaking down remaining strengths of schedules or anything, just know that while two games over a seven game stretch can be a difficult gap to make up, it's clearly doable and I honestly think the Seahawks are a better team than the Falcons so I'm not giving up hope yet.
Sadly, it's not as clear a path as that. Not only does Seattle have to catch Atlanta, they have to beat a barge full of competitors as well. Tied with Seattle at 4-5 are the Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St. Louis Rams, and Chicago Bears. And the Saints are just a half game back of that pile up but I think they're pretty terrible so I'm only including them as a footnote.
There's still a lot to shake out. At this point last year, the three teams with the best records in the NFC were the Cardinals, Detroit Lions (both of whom lost on the road in the first round) and the Philadelphia Eagles (who missed the playoffs completely). As dire as these straits may seem, a lot of carnage can take place in two months. Seattle's next opponent is just perfect. The 49ers at home. A win puts the 'Hawks at 5-5. A loss removes all uncertainty from the rest of the season. The good news is they (most likely) won't lose so we can all enjoy this weird ennui for a while longer.
Until then, onward and upward.
The cigar I smoked tonight was called The Inferno or some shit. It was bad. Don't buy it. Buy this gorgeous Alec Bradley Centuria instead. Waaay better. Best place I've found to get them is still www.Famous-Smoke.com, so give yourself a gift. You earned it, kiddo.