G I started to write a column previewing the Seahawks’ critical prime-time Sunday night game against the Arizona Cardinals.
But it turned into one of those post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy stories where the limping survivors of a long season were left to engage in a grim and barbaric struggle for dominance.
The Seahawks come into the game missing at least two of the people most responsible for protecting their quarterback, who was already gravely physically endangered the last time these teams met.
On the other side, severe quarterback attrition has left the Cardinals employing the backup to the backup, Ryan Lindley, who was recently on another team’s practice squad and has never thrown a touchdown pass in the NFL.
Yet, because this game so strongly influences the race in the NFC West Division, and consequently the rights to homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, it well could be titled “The Road” to the Super Bowl.
Consider the warning from Seattle coach Pete Carroll this week, which provides as much information as you’ll need to know about how these teams will approach the game: “We’ll slug it out and see what happens.”
Both Carroll and quarterback Russell Wilson called this a typical/classic NFC West battle, in which each team will try to impose their will by running the ball and playing aggressive defense.
The plan in these cases has been to play it safe, limit mistakes, keep it close and try to win it at the end.
The reason for caution and risk minimization is obvious. The Cardinals are plus-12 in takeaways this season and the Seahawks are plus-eight.
That’s made them two of the top three scoring defenses in the NFL, with the Seahawks allowing 17.3 points per game and Cardinals giving up 17.4.
How valuable is every possession in a game like this? Well, your margin of error, statistically, looks like it’s about .1 point. Giving up even a single turnover that leads to a short-field possession could mean the difference in the outcome.
Carroll’s plan to slug it out gets more problematic when two of the top sluggers — left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger — are out with injuries, and right guard J.R. Sweezy was limited in practice this week with an ankle problem.
That means that backup Alvin Bailey is expected to start at left tackle and Lemuel Jeanpierre (the fourth Seahawk to start at center this season) will be in for Unger again.
Another possibility is to have Patrick Lewis fill in at center and Jeanpierre go at right guard if Sweezy has trouble getting back.
The last time these teams met, Bailey and Lewis both started on the offensive line, and a look at the stats sheet would have suggested that the Cardinals had executed the perfect game to defeat Seattle.
They sacked Wilson seven times (three by Calais Campbell in just the second period) and hit him 11 times. They held running back Marshawn Lynch to 39 yards, and allowed the Hawks just one touchdown in five trips inside the Arizona 20.
But on the other side, the Cardinals were inside the Seattle red zone only once. They gave up a blocked punt when they had just 10 men on the field, and dropped some open passes that could have been the difference.
In that one, Seattle found the way to win, mainly with Wilson picking up 73 rushing yards on 10 carries.
With similar creativity, the Cardinals have scored only two touchdowns in their past four games, yet are 11-3 and scraped out back-to-back wins over Kansas City and St. Louis — a pair of teams that already beat the Seahawks this season.
And despite having the best record in the NFC, and being undefeated in seven games at home this season, the Cardinals are underdogs by as many as nine points in some betting services.
So, the Seahawks will try to limit Wilson’s vulnerability with quick, timing passes. The Cards will try to run the ball but occasionally let Lindley try a deep ball when the Hawks crowd up to stop the run.
Other than that, it’s up to the defenses and special teams.
It adds up to 60 minutes of slugging it out with critical post-season positioning at stake.
Another Sunday in the NFC West.