By Cedric Williams
One of the marquee matchups of the entire 2016 NFL season is coming Sunday night, when the two teams most experts selected as the two most likely to battle it out for the NFC West title will meet for the first time, as the Seattle Seahawks will head down to the desert to take on the Arizona Cardinals.
It’ll be a nationally-televised game on NBC’s Sunday Night Football and it will almost certainly go a long way in determining where teams will go this year and how they will be seeded when the NFC playoffs roll around in January.
The Week 7 NFL schedule has at least five or six truly fantastic matchups on its slate. But none of them figures to be the battle most football people are expecting for this first meeting of 2016 between the Seahawks and Cardinals.
Arizona will show up for Sunday’s contest with a 3-3 record, following a truly dominating performance and victory on Monday Night Football over the New York Jets. The Cardinals scored five minutes in on their second possession of the game and then continued to build on their lead throughout the night in what proved to be a 28-3 beat down over the Jets.
The win was Arizona’s second straight and it followed a pair of surprising back-to-back losses to Buffalo and Los Angeles. But the seemed to have found its stride again, thanks to a convincing victory in which the club dominated New York in just about every way possible.
Arizona on Offense
Arizona’s offense ranks 10th overall in both total yards per game (368.7) and points per game average (25.5).
Most people know the Cardinals as a high-octane passing club, led by veteran QB Carson Palmer and future Hall-of-Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald. But this season, Arizona’s top player on offense has been running back David Johnson, who will come into Sunday’s meeting with the Seahawks ranked third overall in rushing this season with 568 yards on 113 carries.
Johnson is also averaging five yards a carry — more than 94 yards per game — and he leads the entire NFL with eight rushing touchdowns this season.
Arizona on Defense
The Cardinals rank fourth in the league in fewest total yards allowed per game (295), which includes a third overall ranking against the pass, where Arizona has allowed just 191 yards per game on average. Arizona is also tied for third with 19 quarterback sacks and tied for the league lead with nine interceptions this season.
The top players on defense for the Cardinals this year have been defensive ends Markus Golden and Chandler Jones, who have dominated the line of scrimmage for Arizona, to the tune of 10 combined quarterback sacks and countless other quarterback hits, hurries, and pass deflections.
Seattle QB Russell Wilson will undoubtedly have his large hands full trying to maneuver around those two come Sunday night.
Players to Watch
Along with Palmer, Fitzgerald, and Johnson, another key figure to keep an eye on for Arizona will likely be third-year receiver/return man John Brown. Not only is a dangerous player any time he gets his hands on the ball, whether it be on a pass, an end around handoff, or a kick return, the former D-II All-American from Pittsburg State just seems due for an explosion.
In his first two seasons in Arizona, Brown scored 12 touchdowns. This year, he has yet to reach the end zone six games into the season. But it only seems like a matter of time before it happens. And when it does, it’s likely to come in bunches — especially since Arizona likes to try many different ways to get the ball into Brown’s hands.
On defense, two key players to watch figure to be All-Pro defensive backs Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Arizona likes to move both all over the field to take advantage of their multiple skills and talents. So that’ll be two more players Wilson will have to keep an eye out for throughout Sunday’s matchup.
These teams both won on the other’s home field when they met last season, so any home-field advantage doesn’t seem to matter much, even though the Seahawks and Cardinals are both known for having tremendous home crowds at all their games.
What will matter come Sunday night is which club can control the line of scrimmage. Arizona has shown it would like to run the ball with Johnson as much as it can and take its time pounding on an opposing defense, while Seattle has made big plays in the passing game lately with several players taking separate turns becoming Wilson’s favorite target.
Regardless of how Sunday night’s matchup goes, the Seahawks will still be in first place once the game is over. But it could be a much tighter race than it is right now if Arizona can hold serve against the ‘Hawks, just as it did on Monday night against the Jets.