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NFL Preview - Seattle (3-5) at Arizona (5-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Arizona Cardinals have put on a mighty impressive show whenever they've taken their act to another city this season. The team's local fans probably don't feel as if they've gotten their money's worth, however.
The ever-puzzling Cardinals hope to put an end to their recent home-field disadvantage when the defending Super Bowl participants entertain the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday in a key NFC West clash from University of Phoenix Stadium.
Arizona had been quite formidable as a home team during the first two years of head coach Ken Whisenhunt's tenure, having compiled a 12-4 regular-season record along with a pair of playoff victories over that span. The Cardinals have veered off course in that department thus far in 2009, however, with only a miraculous late goal-line stand in a Week 5 win over Houston preventing Whisenhunt's charges from carrying a startling 0-4 mark at University of Phoenix Stadium into Sunday's showdown.
In contrast, the Cardinals have performed like world-beaters on the road through the first half of the 2009 campaign, a stark reversal of fortune from previous years. Last weekend's 41-21 trouncing of the Chicago Bears at Solider Field improved Arizona to 4-0 in enemy venues this season, with three of those triumphs coming by double-digit margins.
The Seahawks can personally attest to Arizona's sudden prowess as the visitor. When these two divisional foes squared off in Seattle on October 18, the Cardinals cruised to a 27-3 victory behind a dominating defensive effort and a sharp showing from veteran quarterback Kurt Warner.
Arizona rendered an impotent Seattle offense to a mere 128 total yards in that game, including a franchise-worst 14 on the ground. On the other side of the ball, Warner and his stellar corps of receivers were able to successfully navigate a Seahawks secondary, with the two-time league MVP throwing for 276 yards and two scores while completing 32-of-41 attempts, 13 of which landed in the sure hands of All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald.
The Warner-Fitzgerald combo was even more deadly in this past Sunday's rout of the Bears, as the seasoned signal-caller matched a career high with five touchdown strikes and the dynamic receiver toasted Chicago for 123 yards and two scores on nine catches.
Warner bounced back strongly from a wretched day in the Cardinals' 34-21 home loss to Carolina the week prior, in which the 38-year-old was picked off five times and lost a fumble. Like his team, Warner usually hasn't played up to par at University of Phoenix Stadium, where he's tossed nine interceptions in Arizona's four outings this year.
Seattle comes in two games behind the first-place Cardinals in the NFC West standings and is looking to build off the momentum generated from last week's come-from-behind win over visiting Detroit. After a series of early mistakes spotted the Lions a 17-0 first-quarter lead, the Seahawks erupted for 25 consecutive points to avert a potentially devastating defeat.
An opportunistic Seahawk defense intercepted Lions rookie Matt Stafford five times to help back a season-best 329 passing yards from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who finished the afternoon having completed a club-record 39 passes.
Seattle will now attempt to bring that high level of play to the road, where the team has been outscored by a 95-44 margin in losing all three of its games during the first half. Dating back to last season, the Seahawks have dropped six of their last seven tilts as the guest.
The Cardinals lead the series with the Seahawks, 12-9, and have won three straight over their division rival including the aforementioned 27-3 road rout of Seattle in Week 6. Arizona swept last year's home-and-home, coming up a 26-20 winner at Qwest Field in Week 11, and completing the sweep with a 34-21 win at home in Week 17. Seattle last defeated the Cardinals at home in 2007, a 42-21 triumph. The Hawks are 0-3 in Arizona since last winning there in 2005.
Whisenhunt is 4-1 against the Seahawks since taking over in Arizona. Seattle's Jim Mora was 2-0 against Arizona during his tenure with the Falcons (2004-06), and will be facing Whisenhunt for the first time head-to-head.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Faced with a big early deficit and a running game that was non-existent, the Seahawks put their faith in Hasselbeck (1307 passing yards, 10 TD, 4 INT) last week and were rewarded for that trust. The three-time Pro Bowl honoree fought through an aching shoulder to connect on 39-of-51 throws, none bigger than a two-yard touchdown toss to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh (41 receptions, 3 TD) in the third quarter that put Seattle ahead to stay. Hasselbeck also made good use of his checkdown options, as running backs Julius Jones (382 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 4 total TD) and Justin Forsett (123 rushing yards, 16 receptions) and fullback Justin Griffith (9 receptions, 1 TD) each had at least five catches against the Lions and combined for over 150 yards receiving. Wide receiver Nate Burleson (45 receptions, 562 yards, 3 TD) has been Hasselbeck's primary target this season, but was held to just two receptions by the Cardinals in last month's loss. Hasselbeck had a miserable game as well, completing a subpar 10-of-29 passes for 112 yards while being sacked five times, while Jones mustered a paltry five yards on five carries against a swarming Arizona front. Seattle was without two valued starters up front for that matchup in left tackle Sean Locklear and left guard Rob Sims, both of whom are now healthy and ready to play.
Jones isn't the only back who's found the yards hard to come by against the Arizona defense this year. The Cardinals have yielded just 93.1 rushing yards per game (3rd overall) so far in 2009, although the team was gashed for 270 yards on the ground in a loss to Carolina two weeks back. Expect the Seahawks to attack a unit that's given up the fourth-most passing yards in the league (247.3 ypg) and allowed 347 net yards through the air to a Chicago offense playing mostly in comeback mode a week ago. Arizona did sack the Bears' Jay Cutler four times and intercepted him once, though, and has gotten to opposing quarterbacks a respectable 21 times over the course of the season's first half. Towering end Calais Campbell (28 tackles, 3.5 sacks) had 1 1/2 sacks of Hasselbeck in the Week 6 win and is tied with veteran outside linebacker and ex-Seahawk Chike Okeafor (25 tackles, 3.5 sacks) for the team lead in that category. Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby (57 tackles, 0.5 sacks) tops the Cards in tackles and is one of a host of difference-makers on defense, along with two-time Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson (36 tackles, 1 INT, 0.5 sacks) and disruptive lineman Darnell Dockett (26 tackles, 2 sacks). Arizona did play last week's contest without starting linebacker Gerald Hayes (40 tackles) due to back spasms, and it's unclear as to whether he'll be able to come back for Sunday's game.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
As the most pass-oriented team in the NFL this season, Arizona's success has essentially been determined by how Warner (2175 passing yards, 16 TD, 11 INT) performs under center, and the aging triggerman's up-and-down play has been reflected in his club's week-to-week inconsistency. Help could be on the way, however, as the offense has lately been showing signs of reviving a ground attack that's been dormant for most of the year. The Cardinals put up 182 rushing yards on the Bears last week, far and away their best output of the season, and rookie running back Chris Wells (310 rushing yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions) appears to be developing into an impact player after a slow beginning to his career. The first-round draft choice had a career-best 72 yards on 13 carries against Chicago and has averaged 5.3 yards per attempt over the past three weeks while splitting duties with starter Tim Hightower (283 rushing yards, 5 TD, 40 receptions). An effective running game would make Fitzgerald (56 receptions, 632 yards, 7 TD) and fellow wideouts Anquan Boldin (35 receptions, 1 TD) and Steve Breaston (35 receptions, 2 TD) an even greater chore to contain. Boldin, one of the game's toughest and most physical receivers, is ready to return from a nagging ankle sprain that caused the Cardinals to deactivate him for last week's win.
A Seattle defense that had come up with only three interceptions over the first seven games nearly doubled that number in last Sunday's victory over Detroit, with cornerback Josh Wilson (22 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD) taking the last of the team's five picks 61 yards for a game-sealing touchdown in the final minute. The Seahawks will be aiming to force a few mistakes out of Warner on Sunday by unleashing proven pass rusher Patrick Kerney (16 tackles, 4 sacks), who sacked the Arizona quarterback twice in last month's meeting, and emerging sophomore Lawrence Jackson (17 tackles, 4 sacks) off the edges, a task that would be made easier if they're able to stuff the run. Seattle limited Hightower and Wells to a combined 65 yards on 25 rushes in the Week 6 clash, although that still didn't prevent Warner and Fitzgerald from having big games. The Seahawks were without their top cover corner, Marcus Trufant (7 tackles, 1 INT), for that contest, however, and weakside linebacker Leroy Hill (14 tackles) also didn't play because of a groin injury. Both players have since returned and have provided a boost to a defense that's also received excellent play out of new middle linebacker David Hawthorne (45 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 INT), who's replaced the injured Lofa Tatupu at the all-important position. The undrafted free agent came up with nine tackles and two interceptions of Stafford in last weekend's win.
Both teams figure to air it out early and often come Sunday, making both Warner and Hasselbeck attractive plays at the quarterback spot and upping the value of some of the receivers who usually aren't sure-fire fantasy starters, players such as Burleson, Houshmandzadeh and Breaston. Barring injury, there's never any question as to whether or not Fitzgerald should be in weekly lineups, but Boldin owners may want to investigate other options with the possibility that he's still not 100 percent. Take a chance on Seahawks tight end John Carlson (33 receptions, 2 TD), however, as he'll be going up against a Cardinals defense that allowed three touchdowns to Chicago's Greg Olsen last week. Although Wells has been coming on strong as of late, Hightower is still the Arizona back to own right now due to his receiving skills and being the favorite for goal-line work. Don't count on a wealth of rushing yards out of Seattle's Jones, but he should get enough touches to warrant consideration at the flex position.
Are the Cardinals due for yet another letdown on the heels of a big win? It's not outside of the realm of possibility, provided the Seahawks' defense can force mistakes like it did last week and the front line can give Hasselbeck ample time to dissect a secondary that's shown vulnerability at times. Warner's not some fresh-faced rookie, however, and Arizona's easy victory in Seattle just a few weeks back says a lot about the talent differential between these two teams. The Seahawks are healthier than that earlier meeting and will be more competitive this time around, but the Cardinals usually show up for games that mean something and have a little extra motivation after a series of duds in their own building.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 24, Seahawks 17
11/12 17:09:47 ET
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