The Arizona Cardinals have won a franchise record 13 games and have clinched their first-ever first-round bye.
On Sunday, they’ll look for win No. 14 and a season sweep of their NFC West division rivals, the playoff-bound Seattle Seahawks (9-6), when they meet at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Here are three questions and a prediction for the Cards’ regular-season finale.
1. Will this game mean anything?
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is insistent that his team’s starters will play a full game on Sunday – but that may or may not come to fruition based on what happens in Charlotte during the Cards-Seahawks game.
The Cards can clinch the NFC’s No. 1 overall seed if they beat Seattle and the Panthers lose at home to Tampa Bay. But even though Carolina suffered its first loss of the season at Atlanta last weekend, a second straight defeat against the below-.500 Buccaneers seems highly unlikely.
So, there’s a good chance the Cards will know by the third quarter that they’re locked into that No. 2 position. The question, then, will become: Will Arians elect to go all out to win a game that’s meaningless in terms of playoff standings, or will he choose to play it safe and pull QB Carson Palmer, RB David Johnson and other key players to ensure their health heading into the postseason?
2. Will the Cards stuff the Seahawks’ ground game?
Until last weekend’s slip-up against the Rams, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was enjoying a phenomenal stretch of football: The fourth-year pro threw 19 touchdown passes without a single interception during a five-week span.
But without injured running backs Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls, the Seahawks’ ground game has taken a significant hit. The combination of Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown and Christine Michael combined for just 26 yards on 15 carries against St. Louis, and on Sunday, that trio will face a Cards rushing defense that’s fourth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and per carry.
Wilson is a rare talent, but he probably won’t be able to beat the Cardinals on his own. Will Seattle’s backup rushers find any room to run Sunday, or will the Cards turn Seattle into a one-dimensional offensive unit?
3. Will Rashad make his return?
Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson turned 30 on Saturday, and there’s no doubt that one of the Cards’ key defensive pieces would love to end his birthday weekend by returning to the field after missing two straight games with an ankle injury.
The Cardinals are already without Tyrann Mathieu, who tore his ACL in the Cards’ victory over the Eagles two weeks ago. Mathieu is one of two Cardinals to have a team-high five interceptions on the season. The other is Johnson, who would benefit from shaking some rust off Sunday against the Seahawks.
Johnson is questionable for Sunday’s game, and if he doesn’t play, he will have missed five weeks of action before Arizona’s first playoff game. Will the birthday boy be able to take the field?
This is going to be a weird game. The Cardinals’ starters may play for a full 60 minutes, or they may not. The Seahawks’ starters may play for a full 60 minutes, or they may not.
As of this writing, both teams have a chance to improve their playoff positioning with a win and a loss by another team. In the Seahawks’ case, they can move from the No. 6 to the No. 5 seed with a victory and a Green Bay home win over Minnesota – but that game won’t take place until Sunday night, so the Seahawks may not know where they’re headed in the Wild Card round until hours after their matchup in Arizona ends.
So, it’s easy to understand why this is an especially tricky game to predict. In the end, I lean toward the Seahawks, simply because there’s a slightly better chance that their starters will remain on the field for the entire game.
Whatever. The game isn’t likely to matter one way or another for the Cards, and if they lose, don’t sweat it. This team is primed for a Super Bowl run, as long as their stars – knock on wood – leave the field with their health intact on Sunday.
Seahawks 21, Cardinals 20