Everything was in place Sunday for the Seattle Seahawks to beat Arizona. The table was set for them to clinch the NFC West Division.
Despite a sloppy performance that found them picking up almost as many penalties (nine) as first downs (10), despite a kicking game that cost them a routine field goal and set up Arizona for a chip shot of its own, despite not really deserving to own the lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Hawks owned the lead midway through the fourth quarter.
All they needed to win their 13th game of the season was for the defense to make a stop, force a punt, and turn things over to the offense for some clock killing.
But the Seahawks couldnt make the stop.
On a third down and 3 at the Arizona 27, quarterback Carson Palmer connected with tight end Jake Ballard for a 17-yard gain.
On a third and 5 at midfield, Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith was called for defensive holding. On a third and 6 at the Seahawks 31, Palmer lofted a pass into the end zone that Michael Floyd bobbled but managed to hold on to for a touchdown.
Moments later, Russell Wilson threw an off-target pass that either bounced off the ground or ricocheted off the forearm of Doug Baldwin, and Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby was there to intercept it.
They made the plays to win, defensive end Red Bryant said in the most quiet the home-team locker room at CenturyLink Field has been since Dec. 24, 2011, when the Seahawks lost to San Francisco. They played just as hard as we did.
Between us, Red? It looked like the Cardinals actually played harder. They had to. Their 9-5 record had them on the fringe of playoff contention, staring down at a win-now-or-forget-about-tomorrow challenge.
Before Sunday, coach Pete Carroll and his players said what they thought they should say about an Arizona team they drubbed 58-0 last December. They talked about focusing on the task and taking care of business and not looking beyond a quality opponent.
But the emotional edge belonged to the Cardinals, who, unlike the Seahawks, couldnt afford to lose. Aside from failing to secure home-field advantage through the playoffs, the 17-10 defeat had no consequences for a team that this Sunday will have another chance to wrap up home field for the playoffs.
We must win every week, Carroll said when it was suggested the visitors were fueled by a desperation not applicable to the Seahawks. Youre not asking the question I want to address here.
This goes to next week, and thats what happens. Were very, very fortunate that we have that opportunity, and were going to make the most of it. These guys in that locker room have to flip the switch, from the frustration of not getting it done today to getting it done next week. Thats what were going to do. Were going to try to do that and see if we can finish this thing off and get this division.
As ugly as the offense looked Sunday definition of ugly: when the longest play of the day includes 8 yards advanced on a fumble nothing was lost that cant be salvaged next week against the St. Louis Rams.
Its not the end of the world, reassured Baldwin. This is going to give us the ability to refocus and get better. I love adversity, because I think that the great ones dont just become great through victory. They dont just constantly win all of the time; thats not what makes them great. Its the ability to recover from the defeat, and how they recover is what makes them better.
Were going to recover from this in a better way and make sure that were ready for next week.
The opportunity to regroup is a luxury the Cardinals didnt have. They had to escape CenturyLink Field with a victory, and they must beat the 49ers next week in Arizona, and even if they go two-for-two in Must Win games to finish with an 11-5 record, theyll still need some help.
This keeps our playoff hopes alive, and thats all that really matters to me right now getting to the playoffs, Arizona defense end Calais Campbell said. Just a chance, thats all we can ask for.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks, who locked up their playoff bid weeks ago, appear to be a team that has become a bit too comfortable with the NFLs most decisive home-field edge.
They realized losing to Arizona cost them nothing that cant be retrieved against St. Louis, and they played like it.