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NFL Preview - Arizona (2-2) at Seattle (2-3)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The only two teams to win the NFC West over the past five seasons will convene at Qwest Field on Sunday, when the Seattle Seahawks play host to the Arizona Cardinals.
That said, no matter who wins the head-to-head battle will not find themselves in control of the division.
Everyone else in the West is chasing the first-place San Francisco 49ers (3-2) at the moment, as Mike Singletary's surprising team has defeated all three of its NFC West foes to ascend the divisional ladder after several years spent in the wilderness.
But both the Seahawks and Cardinals picked up ground on the Niners last week, and with San Francisco idle in Week 6, the winner of Sunday's battle at Qwest Field will inch ever-closer to the top of the division.
Seattle, which can move within a half-game of the 49ers with a victory, will be looking to build on a 41-0 blowout of the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday.
Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck returned from a two-game absence due to fractured ribs, completing 18-of-30 passes for 241 yards and four touchdowns in the runaway victory.
Wideouts Nate Burleson (6 receptions, 98 yards) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (5 receptions, 77 yards) posted two touchdowns each in the triumph,
The Seattle defense did its part as well, allowing just 199 yards, 10 first- downs, and forcing a pair of turnovers including a 79-yard fumble return for a touchdown by rookie defensive lineman Nick Reed.
Both of Seattle's wins have come by shutout, 28-0 against the Rams in Week 1 prior to the 41-point romp versus the Jaguars last Sunday.
The Cardinals had a bit more tension in its Week 5 tilt, but also scored an important victory over an AFC South foe.
Arizona squandered a 21-0 halftime lead, as the Texans pulled even at 21-21 with a Andre Johnson touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
But Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie later intercepted a Schaub pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown, and the Arizona defense made a goal-line stand that helped Arizona notch its first home victory of the season, 28-21.
In what has become a typical sort of showing by the Arizona defense, the Cardinals limited the Texans to 45 yards on the ground while surrendering 371 through the air.
The team leads the league in rushing defense (71 yards per game), and is dead last in NFL passing defense (303 yards per game) as Week 6 begins.
The Cardinals lead the series with the Seahawks, 11-9, including a home-and- home sweep last season. Arizona was a 26-20 winner at Qwest Field in Week 11 of last year, and completed 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.
Arizona, which snapped a five-game losing streak in Seattle with last season's win there, has won four of the last five in the series.
Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt is 3-1 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 CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Despite an attempt to establish a running game this season, it has generally been more of the same for the Arizona offense in 2009, meaning Kurt Warner (165 passing yards, 6 TD, 4 INT) throwing the ball down the field to wideouts Larry Fitzgerald (22 receptions, 4 TD), Anquan Boldin (23 receptions, 1 TD), and Steve Breaston (16 receptions). To wit, the Cardinals enter Week 6 ranked third in NFL passing offense (279.8 yards per game), and 31st in rushing offense (56.5 yards per game). Fitzgerald caught both Warner touchdown passes in the win over Houston, and Boldin was high-man with seven catches for 81 yards. Breaston is questionable with a knee injury, but caught four passes for 66 yards despite that designation last week. Running backs Beanie Wells (95 rushing yards) and Tim Hightower (126 rushing yards, 2 TD, 25 receptions) combined for just 41 yards on 13 combined carries against the Texans, though Hightower did score his second touchdown of the year in the win. The Cardinals line has done a generally good job of protecting Warner this year, allowing just eight sacks as Week 6 begins.
The Seahawks' shutout of the Jaguars last week came in large part due to the work of a pass rush that racked up five sacks, even in the absence of Patrick Kerney (12 tackles, 2 sacks), who has been bothered by a groin problem and is questionable for Sunday. End Lawrence Jackson (12 tackles) posted his team- leading fourth sack and a forced fumble in the win, while rookie outside linebacker Aaron Curry (32 tackles) had his second sack of the year to go along with a team-best nine tackles and a forced fumble of his own. On the back end, a Seattle secondary that has managed just one interception through the first five weeks was led by cornerbacks Ken Lucas (20 tackles, 1 INT) and Josh Wilson (10 tackles, 1 sack), who combined for 10 tackles. Given the strength of the Arizona passing game, Lucas and Wilson will need plenty of support from safeties Deon Grant (17 tackles) and Jordan Babineaux (31 tackles) this week. The Seahawks rank a middling 17th in NFL rushing defense (106.8 yards per game), but come off a week in which they limited the Jags' Maurice Jones-Drew to 34 yards on 12 carries. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu (24 tackles, 1 sack) contributed eight tackles to the winning effort last week, and defensive tackles Brandon Mebane (8 tackles, 1 sack) and Colin Cole (15 tackles) have been generally strong at the point of attack this year.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
The healthy return of Hasselbeck (617 passing yards, 7 TD, 2 INT) to the Seattle lineup clearly offered a lift to the team last week, and further progress for the Seahawks passing game will be expected going forward. In addition to the big days for Houshmandzadeh (27 receptions, 2 TD) and Burleson (30 receptions, 3 TD), wideout Deion Branch (10 receptions) and tight end John Carlson (22 receptions, 2 TD) posted two catches each in the win. Top running backs Julius Jones (285 rushing yards, 12 receptions, 3 TD) and Edgerrin James (105 rushing yards) combined for just 80 yards on 28 combined carries in the triumph, and will look to provide more of a spark this week. With 18 rushing yards against the Cardinals on Sunday, the ex-Cardinal James (12,226 yards) will pass Marcus Allen for 10th place on the NFL's all-time rushing list. The Achilles' heel for the Hawks offense remains up front, where tackles Walter Jones (knee), Sean Locklear (knee) and guard Rob Sims (ankle) are expected to remain out, and tackle Brandon Frye (neck) was placed on season-ending injured reserve earlier this week. The Seahawks signed ex-Chief tackle Damion McIntosh on Tuesday, and he could step into the lineup immediately. The Seattle o-line has allowed 10 sacks and is blocking for a group of running backs that has averaged just 3.7 yards per rush with two touchdowns.
Despite Rodgers-Cromartie's big play last week, which earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, the Cardinals remain susceptible to the big play in the passing game. Part of the problem has been an inconsistent pass rush that did not sack the less-than-mobile Schaub last week and has seen starting outside linebackers Clark Haggans (17 tackles, 1 sack) and Chike Okeafor (12 tackles, 1 sack) combine for just two sacks through four games out of the team's 3-4 setup. That has placed extra strain on the secondary, and Rodgers- Cromartie (15 tackles, 2 INT) and fellow corner Bryant McFadden (22 tackles) will need continued help from safeties Adrian Wilson (17 tackles) and Antrel Rolle (21 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) against the Seahawks' many targets on Sunday. The run defense, as mentioned, has been much better, with Darnell Dockett (12 tackles, 1 sack) setting the tone in the trenches and linebackers Karlos Dansby (28 tackles) and Gerald Hayes (27 tackles) making a number of plays on the back end.
Not much change from last year in respect to Arizona's worthy fantasy point- producers. Warner and his top targets Fitzgerald and Boldin remain must-starts, and Breaston and Hightower are OK flex plays. The Cardinals defense gives up too many yards and big plays to consider strongly for use, and kicker Neil Rackers has only six field goal opportunities through the first four weeks.
Seattle has become a breeding ground for fantasy pickups after the way Hasselbeck and the offense played last week, but this is still going to be a team that spreads the football around to its receiving principles - Houshmandzadeh, Burleson, and Carlson. The running back Jones is a low-end option for this week, especially given the quality of the Arizona run defense thus far.
The strength of the Seahawks' homefield advantage was reinforced last week, as a team that had lost three straight games looked like a Super Bowl contender against a Jacksonville club that was making one of the longest trips in the NFL. The Cardinals are more familiar with the challenges of Qwest Field than were the Jaguars, but it would also seem that Arizona is playing Seattle at the wrong time. Hasselbeck's return to the lineup last week was a boon for the offense, and though the Hawks are still depleted along the offensive line, they should be able to move the football with little problem against the Cardinals. On the other side of the ball, Arizona has been stunningly inconsistent - sometimes in the same game - and this will be one of those weeks when a Warner mistake or two, coupled with the Cardinals' inability to run the football, will saddle the reigning NFC champs with a loss.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 24, Cardinals 16
10/15 13:39:52 ET