Two weeks remain in the NFL regular season, but only a few teams have clinched their place in the postseason. AFC powerhouses, like the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and, to a lesser extent, Indianapolis Colts, have secured their divisions already, while the AFC North teams control the other three spots, narrowly edging out a trio of teams with 8-6 records.
The NFC is a dangerous game of musical chairs, with five spots available for six teams and the team on the outside likely finishing the season with 10 wins and nothing to show for it. The featured match-up of Week 16 is a battle of NFC West foes as the division-leading Arizona Cardinals welcome in the Seattle Seahawks.
While Arizona has already clinched a postseason berth and Seattle looks likely to follow suit, the game this Sunday night has important home-field implications for two teams who thrive at home.
CenturyLink Field in Seattle has been one of the toughest places to play over the past several seasons and this season is no different. The Seahawks are 6-1 at home with the help of the 12th man, and over the past several weeks has been shaping up into postseason form, going 4-0 and limiting opponents to only 6.75 points per game.
The defense and running game have been key to their run. Seattle allows the fewest yards per game in the NFL, 272.4, which is 27 fewer than the second place Detroit Lions. The team stifles passing offenses to 184.3 yards per game, also first, and ranks 4th in overall defensive efficiency which captures when and how yards were accumulated. On offense, Marshawn Lynch has bullied his way to 1,133 yards and 10 TDs this season and has been hot lately, running for 85 or more yards in five of his last six games.
The only game Lynch failed to reach 85? It was against Arizona, which held him to just 39 yards. The difference in that contest, which Seattle won 19-3, was Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s ability to extend plays and drives, rushing 10 times for 73 yards to make up for Lynch’s poor outing. This week, the Arizona defense will have Wilson spotlighted.
“Try to contain the improvised plays because that’s where he makes his money,” Arizona linebacker Kevin Minter told AZCardinals.com. “That’s his bread and butter. ‘This ain’t open? Alright, I’ll scramble a little bit and find somebody deep.’"
Seattle will have its work cut for it in Arizona however, where the Cardinals are 7-0 and have limited opponents to just 15 points per game. The Cardinals have struggled to create offense of late, mostly because of their quarterback injury issues, but have stayed in games because of their opportunistic defense. The defense, which ranks 6th in efficiency, has a +12 turnover differential and has scored four defensive touchdowns.
However, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, Arizona might be using luck to make up for ability. Author Sharon Katz found that the team has been lucky to recover fumbles at the rate they have (63%), and has had only a 52% chance to win across all plays, 15th in the NFL and a mark of a team that should win eight games and not eleven.
Arizona, at home, is as tough as they come. But, without a credible passing game, they will find it difficult to keep their defense off the field. With so much to play for, fans should expect a low-scoring defensive struggle, one that stays close until the fourth quarter, but ends in a Seahawks victory.
You can watch the Seahawks and Cardinals on NBC, beginning at 8:25 p.m. Eastern time Sunday.