SEATTLE -- When Steven Hauschka’s foot connected with the ball for the opening kick of Sunday’s Cardinals-Seahawks game, neither team knew what was happening three time zones away.
The New Orleans-Carolina game wouldn't be over for another two minutes, meaning, unless word spread on the sideline, the Cardinals wouldn't know how much Sunday’s game truly meant until halftime, if they found out at all.
Nobody knew, Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said.
But as history has written it, the Panthers won, which, for the next 3 hours, 9 minutes, meant Arizona was playing for its postseason life. Lose and the Cards would be eliminated, rendering Week 17 against San Francisco meaningless. Win and, with help, the playoffs would still be a possibility.
The Cardinals found themselves in unfamiliar territory. They were the focus of the football world briefly, holding the mighty Seahawks down by their wrists and eventually putting a foot on their throat in a 17-10 victory. To many outside the West Coast, Arizona is associated with offense simply because its coach, Bruce Arians, is widely considered an offensive genius.
But to those in the know, this team isn't anything without its defense. It quietly became the league’s top-ranked unit against the run heading into Seattle, but it’s a well-built, well-rounded and talented group that proved Sunday that no matter how bad the offense is, the defense will give Carson Palmer as many chances as he needs to win the game.
Which is exactly what happened.
After the Cardinals held Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to a career-low 108 passing yards and slowed running back Marshawn Lynch to a crawl in the second half, Arizona got one last pass out of Palmer -- after four interceptions. He hit Michael Floyd along the left sideline of the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown that gave the Cardinals their most important win since Kurt Warner was quarterback.
“We didn’t want to have to rely on [the defense] as much as we did today,” Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “But that’s what being a team is all about -- when a group is struggling, the other one picks it up. That’s what the defense did for us a lot of times today.”
Regardless, for the first time since 2009, the Cardinals won a game in December that meant something and are in the playoff picture. And they did it by stopping a locomotive that many didn’t think would slow down until MetLife Stadium in February. And, now, Seattle is facing a possibility of not even winning the NFC West after its franchise-best 14-game home winning streak was snapped.
“Don’t get no better than that,” Arians said. “It’s why you play the game. Come into a venue like this -- fantastic venue, great fans -- and win, that’s why you play the game. That’s why we all grew up playing this game.”
But nobody on that field grew up thinking they were going to throw a season-high four interceptions in a make-or-break game. That was the reality Palmer lived Sunday, giving the ball away three times inside the Seattle 36 -- twice deep in the end zone.
Instead of entering the second quarter potentially up 14-0, Arizona had two of its first three possessions curtailed because of the picks. Yet, while Arizona wasn’t scoring, neither was Seattle. The Seahawks didn’t get on the board until 78 seconds into the second quarter.
“I guess that one defies the odds,” Arians said. “You usually don’t turn it over four times and win on the road. Well, when your lines of scrimmage dominate the game offensively and defensively, you’re gonna have a chance.”
A winning chance at that. While Palmer reverted back to his old ways, throwing four picks for the third time in his career, it was the defense that shouldered the burden of last year's 58-0 embarrassment and this October's loss for Arizona.
None of that has been forgotten.
Last Monday, a day after the offense shined in a win over the Titans, the entire defense gathered at the Cardinals’ practice facility in Tempe on what was supposed to be a Victory Monday. Instead of celebrating, however, the defense was studying.
The Cardinals watched tape of the Seahawks against San Francisco and St. Louis, two teams that played Seattle tough this season.
“Everybody was in there talking,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “[We were] making sure we understood what these guys wanted to do and making sure we didn’t let them get out to an early jump like we did in the first game [this season].”
For about two hours, the defense -- no coaches were allowed -- broke down film, discussed the matchups and prepared. During that meeting and another defensive players-only meeting Friday, the consensus was to put a lot of the responsibility on the Cardinals’ front seven.
“And they came out on top again,” Peterson said.
Arizona sent pressure Wilson’s way from the middle of the line and off the edges, causing the 5-foot-11 quarterback fits when he tried to find receivers, especially around the 6-foot-8 Campbell, who sacked Wilson twice. And when Wilson finally scrambled away, more often than not, he was surrounded by a bevy of defenders from all three levels.
Wilson completed 11 of 27 passes for 108 yards, a touchdown and an interception while getting sacked four times.
“For us to step in there and get pressure and get some three-and-outs, and get them frustrated, that was huge for us because it really showed that we came to play,” Campbell said.
Arizona knocked Seattle off its offensive equilibrium all day. The Seahawks were 2-for-13 on third down and had just 10 first downs. They managed just 192 yards, the second time they've been held to fewer than 200 this season.
To win on the road this late in the season, a little luck needs to be mixed with skill.
After Malcolm Smith returned a Palmer interception to the Cardinals' 3 later in the second quarter, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Lynch would power it in for a touchdown to give Seattle the lead and momentum heading into halftime. He bulldozed his way to the 1, and then Arizona stopped him on second and third down from the 1 before a formation penalty forced Seattle's field goal attempt to move back to the 6. Then Hauschka bounced the chip shot off the left upright, keeping the score tied at 3.
Seattle had seven three-and-outs, three drives of four-and-out, a drive of six plays and one of just a single play, on which Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby picked off Wilson on a controversial call after the ball bounced off Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin’s arm.
But that wasn’t even the most impressive part of the defense’s day.
Lynch had 60 yards on 11 carries in the first half. He kept the Cardinals working, churning his legs for yards after contact throughout the first two quarters. Then they stopped.
Lynch wasn’t going to be the reason Arizona lost. He had just 11 yards on seven carries in the final 30 minutes after the Cardinals stopped him where he couldn’t start.
To Dansby -- who’s making his case for defensive player of the year with 109 solo tackles, 6.5 sacks and four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) -- stopping Lynch revolved around one idea.
“Hit him. We had to put a hat on him,” Dansby said. “We got somebody in front of him, and everybody else rallied to the ball. That is the name of the game, get to the ball. That is what we were saying all week long. Somebody storm up, and everybody else rally to the ball.”
The Seahawks didn't have an off game on their own. Everything that went wrong was forced by Arizona’s defense, which needed a win like this, on the road, to validate the previous 14 games.
Even though they’re not yet attending the playoff party, the Cardinals proved here that they’ll be worthy of an invite.
“We showed,” Peterson said, “that we can play with the best of them.”