(Sports Network) - The Arizona Cardinals headed into last week's bye in first place in the NFC West, but a perfect weekend by their fellow division inhabitants has tightened up the standings.
An early edge for the top spot in the division is on the line in Seattle this weekend, as a pair of 3-2 clubs in the Cardinals and Seahawks clash at Qwest Field.
The Cardinals were riding high after a 30-20 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in Week 5, a triumph that sent them into a bye week just ahead of the Seahawks and St. Louis Rams in the standings.
Seattle, St. Louis and San Francisco all recorded wins this past weekend, though, with the Seahawks' 23-20 road victory at Chicago moving them into a tie with the Cardinals. The Rams are right behind at 3-3.
"I was hoping they would all lose," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald told Arizona's website. "But it makes it more interesting."
The victory by the Seahawks was a rare one on the road for the club. Seattle won for just the fourth time in its last 21 regular-season away games and bested a non-divisional opponent on the road for the first time since Dec. 2, 2007 in Philadelphia.
Matt Hasselbeck threw for a season-best 242 yards, running back Marshawn Lynch had a touchdown run in his Seahawks' debut and the Seattle defense totaled six sacks on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
"That's probably the most emotion and energy we've brought to an away game," said Hasselbeck, who credited the defense afterward.
Seattle will now try to solve an Arizona club that has won 12 of its last 14 against the NFC West, but will be giving an undrafted rookie just his second career start under center.
With quarterback Derek Anderson struggling to guide the offense, the Cardinals went with BYU product Max Hall against the Saints. Hall didn't exactly light up the scoreboard and threw for just 168 yards without a touchdown pass, but he still became the first undrafted rookie signal-caller to defeat a defending Super Bowl champion since 1967.
Arizona instead bested New Orleans on the strength of its defense, returning a pair of turnovers for touchdowns while intercepting Saints quarterback Drew Brees three times. That helped the Cardinals become just the second team in NFL history, and first since the Bears in 1993, to score 30-plus points without a rushing or passing touchdown.
The Cards topped the Rams, 17-13, in their first road game of the season, but have since fallen in trips to Atlanta and San Diego by a combined 82-17 margin.
Hall could have some additional help as he attempts to right the ship on the road this weekend, as wide receivers Steve Breaston and Early Doucet may return to the lineup from respective injuries. Breaston sat out the past two games due to knee surgery, while Doucet has been limited to just one game because of a sports hernia.
The Cardinals lead the series with the Seahawks, 13-9, and have a four-game winning streak over Seattle. Arizona completed its second straight home-and- home sweep of the Seahawks last year, with a 27-3 road rout at Qwest Field in Week 6 and a 31-20 triumph at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 10. Seattle last defeated the Cardinals at home in 2007, a 42-21 triumph. A win for the Cardinals on Sunday would help them match their longest streak of all- time against the Seahawks, mirroring their five-game run from 1976 to 1995.
Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt is 5-1 against the Seahawks since taking over in Arizona. Seattle's Pete Carroll is 1-0 against the Cardinals as an NFL head coach, with that victory coming for his 1999 New England Patriots team. Whisenhunt and Carroll will be squaring off for the first time head-to-head.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
The Cardinals have posted just 240 yards of offense per game, ranking 31st in the NFL. They have struggled to move the ball both through the air (152.6 ypg) and on the ground (87.4 ypg) and are averaging less than 18 points per game. Whisenhunt decided to go with Hall in an effort to provide a spark, though that wasn't exactly the case against the Saints. The rookie completed 17-of-27 pass attempts with an interception and fumbled twice. However, the Cards recovered both miscues and one was actually returned two yards by offensive lineman Levi Brown for six points. With Hall not doing much to keep the defense honest, running back Beanie Wells (129 rushing yards) managed just 35 yards on 20 carries, while counterpart Tim Hightower (239 rushing yards, 2 TD) had six yards on four rush attempts. Fitzgerald (26 receptions, 2 TD) did have one of his best games of the season, making seven catches for 93 yards, while tight end Ben Patrick (10 receptions) had five catches for 30 yards. Fitzgerald could benefit from the return of Breaston (14 receptions, 1 TD) if the latter is ready to go. Hall was also sacked four times and Arizona has yielded 19 so far this season.
Hall could be in for a long day if the Seahawks can duplicate the pressure from last weekend's victory over the Bears. Seattle upped its season sack total to 17 after five different players were credited with at least a half of a sack. Safety Lawyer Milloy (32 tackles, 3 sacks) led the club with two sacks, while free safety Jordan Babineaux (20 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) posted 1 1/2. Cornerback Roy Lewis (11 tackles, 1 sack) and linebacker Aaron Curry (16 tackles, 1 sack) were also awarded a sack each, while corner Marcus Trufant (25 tackles, 1 INT) led the way with six tackles. Arizona's run game doesn't figure to get on track in this one either, seeing as Seattle ranks second in the NFL by limiting opponents to just 70.4 yards per game on the ground. With Hall likely to take to the air a lot in this one, he'll have to watch out for free safety Earl Thomas (27 tackles, 3 INT), who is tied for the NFL rookie lead in interceptions. Linebacker David Hawthorne (17 tackles) will also look to make some plays, as he has 16 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in his last two games versus Arizona. Though Seattle ranks just 30th against the pass (290.8 ypg), it is 12th in scoring defense (19.4 ppg).
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle's offense has undergone a few changes over the last few weeks, most notably being the addition of Lynch (208 rushing yards, 1 TD) coupled with the trade of wide receiver Deion Branch back to New England. The Seahawks are hoping the tandem of Lynch and Justin Forsett (282 rushing yards, 1 TD) can improve the club's 30th-ranked ground game (85.8 ypg), and the two combined for 111 yards on 27 carries a week ago. The good friends and former college teammates at California also both found the end zone once, marking Seattle's first rushing touchdowns scored by someone other than Hasselbeck this year. With the dual threats behind him, Hasselbeck (1056 passing yards, 5 TD, 6 INT) had his best passing game in terms of yards and also completed 25-of-40 attempts against the Bears. He hooked up with Deon Butler (12 receptions, 2 TD) on a 22-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, the longest of the wide receiver's career. Mike Williams (21 receptions) also stepped up with Branch gone, setting career highs with 10 catches and 123 yards. Butler ended with four catches and another recent addition, wide receiver Brandon Stokley, made three grabs. Overall, the Seahawks rank 21st in passing offense (206.6 ypg) and 19th in scoring (19.6 ppg).
With the Cardinals going with a rookie at the QB spot, Arizona's 28th-ranked defense (382.0 ypg) knew it would have to step up. It did just that versus the Saints, turning a pair of fourth-quarter turnovers into touchdowns. Safety Kerry Rhodes (30 tackles, 1 INT) took back a fumble for a score for a second straight game, while cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (18 tackles, 1 INT) ran an interception 28 yards for a touchdown. Arizona did still allow the Saints to post 358 yards of offense and ranks 29th in the NFL for allowing 27.6 points per game. While the Cardinals have struggled in protecting their own quarterback, they haven't made much trouble for opposing ones either. They sacked Brees just once in Week 5 -- with linebacker Clark Haggans (23 tackles, 2 sacks) doing the honors -- and have just eight total on the season. However, linebacker Paris Lenon (43 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and corner Greg Toler (35 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) came up with interceptions, while Rhodes and rookie linebacker Daryl Washington (31 tackles) led the club with six tackles each. Hasselbeck will need to account for Rodgers-Cromartie, as he has three picks and a forced fumble in four career games versus the Seahawks.
As logic would suggest, an offense that ranks 31st in the NFL doesn't offer much fantasy value. Hall is just too raw and inexperienced to warrant a look, while the lack of a passing game is preventing Wells and Hightower from finding room. Add in a split-carry situation, and neither are worth a start. Fitzgerald should be Hall's top target and is always a must-start, though he may find space limited. Breaston, if he plays, is normally a solid No. 2/flex option, but Hall's presence lowers his value. Cardinals kicker Jay Feeley is 6-for-7 on field-goal attempts with three made beyond 40 yards. Though the unit found the end zone twice last time out, Arizona's defense is too much a risk despite this favorable matchup.
It is still too early to tell how Lynch and Forsett will share the load for Seattle, but either is worth a look given the bye weeks and the matchup. Lynch probably has greater value, since he got more carries last weekend. Hasselbeck has been solid but not great in terms of fantasy production and there should be better options. Williams and Butler figure to see more looks with Branch gone, but tight end John Carlson (16 receptions, 1 TD) remains the Seattle receiver with the biggest upside. Kicker Olindo Mare has attempted just four field goals this year, while the defense is a good sleeper choice given Arizona will be starting a rookie quarterback.
First place is on the line in this one, but neither team has looked like a top competitor so far. Arizona comes in well rested and could be getting some healthy players back, but the decision to go with Hall under center clouds the team with some uncertainty. The Cardinals play their division well, but the Seahawks have the talent to make things difficult for Hall. Seattle's stingy defense and the advantage of the 12th man should provide the difference in this one and lift the 'Hawks into first place.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Seahawks 20, Cardinals 10