SEATTLE — Three months ago, Russell Wilson was left running for safety, battered around in his first NFL start for Seattle by a confident Arizona bunch that was taking the initial step toward a 4-0 start.
When the Seahawks and Cardinals meet again Sunday, it’s Seattle that’s surging toward the playoffs, while Arizona is suffering through an eight-game losing streak, matching their longest slide since 2006.
Looking back to when the season opened with Arizona’s 20-16 win, the current state of the two teams entering the rematch could not have been predicted.
“It seems like it was last year. It seems like it was a whole different experience when we did that,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We just looked different at that time.”
The Seahawks (7-5) are legitimate playoff contenders that with a little help could still be in the running for the NFC West title, rallying around their rookie quarterback and with three of the final four games at home a chance at a 10-win season for the first time since 2007.
The Cardinals (4-8) are a mess, with a revolving door of candidates to play quarterback and none of the three options stepping forward to take charge of the position.
Embattled coach Ken Whisenhunt is going back to John Skelton this week after starting rookie Ryan Lindley in the previous two games, including last week’s 7-6 loss to the New York Jets in which the offense produced a measly 137 total yards.
Part of Whisenhunt’s decision was going with a veteran in such a hostile environment.
“The two years I’ve been there, it’s always just a dog fight playing those guys. Their stadium is like an amphitheater, all the sound just stays in there,” Skelton said. “It’s going to be gloomy. It will probably rain. They’re in the midst of a playoff run. They’re trying to get into the playoffs here, so it will be a tough environment, but I think having a veteran at quarterback and veterans on the o-line and the guys outside will really benefit us.”
Wilson is coming off his finest all-around performance in last week’s 23-17 overtime victory over Chicago. The win kept the Seahawks a game up in the race for the final wild-card spot in the NFC and kept alive slim hopes of catching San Francisco for the division title.
Wilson threw for 293 yards and two touchdowns, and added another 71 yards rushing, the most ever for a Seahawks quarterback. His dynamic effort against the Beas earned him NFC offensive player of the week honors, the first Seattle player to receive the award since Shaun Alexander in 2005.
“Russell and I were just up there watching film and he said how funny it is to watch the game now and how big of a difference it is, that we were completely a different team that we are now compared to then,” said Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin, who cracked two front teeth trying to make a diving catch late in the season-opening loss. “I think it’s confidence wise. He’s matured a lot. He’s got a better grasp of the offense. The offensive line has gelled and played more games together now. There is just a lot more confidence on the offensive side of the ball that can only help us.”
Additionally, Seattle gets a chance to prove it can avoid playing down to its competition. Some of the Seahawks most impressive wins have come against the elite of the NFL — Green Bay, New England and Chicago. And some of their losses — Miami, Detroit and St. Louis — have come against teams with sub-.500 records.
“We need to take that next step as a team,” Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said. “The good teams we need to try and make them look normal. The bad teams or some of those teams that aren’t as good as the elite teams we need to make them look bad. That’s the attitude we need to have going forward.”
Seattle will be playing its first game without starting cornerback Brandon Browner, who dropped his appeal this week of a four-game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs. Browner will miss the rest of the regular season, but could be back if Seattle makes the playoffs. His departure could be the first major blow to Seattle’s defense. Fellow starting cornerback Richard Sherman is appealing his four-game suspension for a PED violation and could be facing a suspension if his case is not overturned on appeal.
Walter Thurmond, a one-time starter last season before suffering a serious leg injury that opened the opportunity for Sherman to start, will step in for Browner and his first challenge will likely be an extended dose of trying to contain Arizona star Larry Fitzgerald.
“There is a little bit of rust, but I think I got that rust off with these past couple of weeks with practice and stuff like that,” Thurmond said. “… I’m ready for the test. It’s not my first rodeo. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
While Arizona’s offense continues to slide down the ranks to being among the worst in the NFL, its defense has remained stout and the reason the Cardinals have been in so many games during the losing streak. They are the seventh-best defense overall and No. 3 in the league against the pass. The Cardinals’ run defense has struggled, but could get a boost with the possible return of defensive end Calais Campbell.
“You strive to have balance, but our defense has done a good job of focusing on playing hard and trying to give us a chance in some games,” Whisenhunt said. “It’s a credit to some of our young players that have developed in the way they work.”