By Todd Dybas The News Tribune
RENTON — For once, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s insistence that each week is a “championship week” is a literal assessment.
The 12-2 Seahawks host the resurgent Arizona Cardinals (9-5) at CenturyLink Field on Sunday with an opportunity to lock up what they set out to accomplish.
If Seattle wins, it will clinch the NFC West division title, the conference’s top seed, a first-round playoff bye, and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
It would be Seattle’s first division championship since 2010.
“We’re going to go for it this week,” Carroll said. “This is a championship matchup and we’re going to do everything we can to go get it done.”
To do so, the Seahawks will have to beat a much-improved Cardinals team.
In Week 7, Seattle went to Arizona and handled the Cardinals. After taking a 14-0 lead, a third-quarter surge put the Seahawks in front 31-13, dismantling questions of the outcome.
The Cardinals have won six of seven since that loss to position themselves for a shot at a wild-card playoff spot.
“They’re just cleaner, sharper, better at everything,” Carroll said of the Cardinals. “They really have come together.”
The Cardinals are better than anyone in the NFL at stopping the run. Arizona is No. 1 in rushing yards allowed. The Seahawks are second in rushing yards gained. Carroll said the Cardinals’ run-stopping prowess will not stop him from remaining a run-first coach.
Arizona’s injury situation may change the number of deep shots the Seahawks take today. Arizona will be without both starting safeties. Rookie star Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL and LCL against St. Louis on Dec. 8. He’s out for the year.
Last Sunday, Rashad Johnson sprained his ankle. Rookie free agent Tony Jefferson will step in for Johnson at free safety, who is listed as doubtful on the team’s injury report. The Cardinals like to blitz, so Jefferson will be a crucial player today.
The Cardinals also bring to town a pair of starting tackles that have never been to CenturyLink Field before. Right tackle Eric Winston has eight false starts this season.
In addition, quarterback Carson Palmer is hurting. Palmer, when healthy, is about as mobile as a fire hydrant. He has an ankle sprain that will further reduce his mobility.
However, Palmer has been precise during Arizona’s run. He’s thrown nine touchdown passes and just two interceptions in the past six games.
“He’s playing like you could always imagine him to play,” said Carroll, who coached Palmer at USC.
The Seahawks are dealing with an injury issue, too. Starting right guard J.R. Sweezy is out after suffering a concussion against the New York Giants last Sunday. Sweezy was the only offensive lineman to start every game this season for the Seahawks.
Carroll did not specify Sweezy’s replacement when he met with the media Friday. Paul McQuistan is a candidate, though the Seahawks have been rotating James Carpenter and McQuistan at left guard. There are questions if Carpenter can play a whole game.
Backup center and guard Lemuel Jeanpierre is another option, as is rookie Alvin Bailey.
Whomever the Seahawks plug-in, along with the rest of the line, will face one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett is a three-time Pro-Bowler. Behemoth defensive end Calais Campbell (6-foot-8, 300 pounds) has six sacks, a forced fumble and eight stuffs.
Dockett was part of a defining and embarrassing moment in the first meeting this season. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch knocked Dockett’s helmet off and his 290 pounds to the ground on the way to the end zone.
That’s just the message the Seattle wants to send again today when a title is attainable.