Countdown to kickoff

Greetings from a rainy, windy Qwest Field, where some of the Seahawks already are out in the elements preparing for today’s showdown between the co-leaders in the NFC West.

Most of the players and coaches have spent the week saying that this game isn’t that much bigger just because both the Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals are 3-2 and the winner will move into sole possession of first place. Every game every week is important because it’s the game you’re playing that week, they said. It’s more about momentum and putting together back-to-back wins than holding the division lead this early in the season, they offered.

But the rest of us don’t have to approach it with that one-game-at-a-time mindset. We can get as geeked as possible over the possibility of the Seahawks leading the division with a 4-2 record, and what the afternoon might be like for Cardinals rookie QB Max Hall making his first road start in the noise factory that is Qwest on every given Sunday.

What to expect today? The unexpected. That has been the norm for these rivals to this point.

The Seahawks have upset two opponents at home – the 49ers and Chargers – only to then go on the road the following weeks and play poorly in losing to the Broncos and Rams. But last week, they beat the Bears in Chicago – the first time the Seahawks have beaten a team with a winning record on the road in a 10 a.m. start since 2004.

The Cardinals also have been on that win-one/lose-one merry-go-round – most strikingly in the last two games before their bye. They were thumped by the Chargers in San Diego 41-10 – one of two games in which they have yielded 41 points – and then beat the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints 30-20 at home.

Asked this week to evaluate his defense, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt offered, “Well, I think inconsistent would be a word I would use.”

That assessment could describe just about every unit on each team in today’s game.

The exceptions have been the Seahawks’ run defense and their kickoff coverage and return units. The Seahawks rank second in the league in average rushing yards allowed (70.4) and average yards per carry (2.9). They led the league in opponents’ average starting position on kickoff returns (20.6-yard line), as well as starting position on kickoff returns (33.7). Not surprisingly, Leon Washington has the best kickoff return average in the league (37.0).

But the Cardinals are committed to running the ball with the tandem of Tim Hightower (5,2-yard average) and Beanie Wells (129 yards on 39 carries), even though they rank 29th in the league in rushing offense (87.4 yards per game).

The biggest problem for the Seahawks’ defense will be Larry Fitzgerald, who has 26 receptions and also has made a habit of having big games against the Seahawks. He could be facing a unit today that will start rookie Walter Thurmond at right cornerback because Kelly Jennings has a strained hamstring. That matchup definitely will be worth watching, especially to see of the Cardinals motion Fitzgerald to create coverage situations for a rookie making his first NFL start.

One way to combat that, of course, is to put pressure on Hall. The Cardinals have allowed 13 sacks in their past two games, and the Seahawks are coming off a season-best six-sack performance against the Bears. The Seahawks also have forced seven of their eight turnovers in the two games at Qwest.

Offensively, fans will get their first in-the-pads look at “Beast Mode” running back Marshawn Lynch, who was acquired in a bye-week trade with the Bills and had more of an impact on the upset of the Bears that his stat would indicate (44 yards on 17 carries). His physical style has given the offense that needed element.

“Marshawn showed us all of the toughness that we really wanted to see on our team coming out of that spot,” coach Pete Carroll said this week – not just against the Bears, but from the first day he stepped on the practice field.

Each team is coming off its best performance in their inconsistent seasons. These two teams have combined to win the past six NFC West titles. The Cardinals have won four in row in the series, and six of the past seven. It should be fun.

We’ll be back later with the inactives …


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