SEATTLE, Ariz. -- It was supposed to be Clinch Sunday for the Seattle Seahawks and their rabid fans.
There was a hitch in the clinch celebration.
The Arizona Cardinals played the role of the Grinch who stole Christmas week.
For the rest of the NFC contenders, enjoy your reprieve. Seattle was inept on offense Sunday, had 102 yards on nine penalties, and failed to hold the lead late in the game, giving you life to fight another week.
In an old-fashioned defensive smackdown, with two NFC West teams slugging it out like it was 1999 (or maybe 1959), the Cardinals prevailed 17-10. Arizona is now 10-5 and still in the playoff picture.
The Cardinals came to Century Link Field, the place where no visitor had won in two years, and outmuscled the most physical team in the league.
“It was two defenses just duking it out all day,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “You have to give [Arizona credit]. They played really well on defense, harder and tougher than we wanted them to be.”
An opponent playing harder and tougher than Seattle is a surprise. The Seahawks sat in the dressing room afterward saying it didn't matter, and it won’t if they win next weekend at home against St. Louis. But one look in the players' faces and it was clear they were stunned.
Seattle's 14-game home winning streak was over to a team it was favored to beat by 10 points, and the Seahawks didn’t see it coming. A game one week from now that could have been a glorified practice session is now a showdown for everything they have worked for all season.
“We can’t harp on this," Seattle free safety Earl Thomas said. “This is no time to panic. Everything we’ve worked for is still right in front of our face. There’s not anything different.”
Well, a few things are much different than most people thought. The Seahawks have lost two of their past three after going 11-1. And the offense hasn’t looked overly impressive, even in the 23-0 win against the New York Giants last week.
For the first time all season, quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense looked overwhelmed.
“You have to credit their defense,” said Wilson, who was 11-of-27 passing for only 108 yards and was sacked four times. “But we can play better and we can do better. We had some opportunities to make some big plays, but for whatever reason, we were a little bit off.”
That might be understating it just a tad. In a game that could have clinched the NFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Seattle offense looked completely out of sync and unable to find any answers to the rugged Cardinals' defense.
“It’s impossible not to feel frustrated," said Seattle tight end Zack Miller, whose 11-yard TD catch in the fourth quarter was the only time the Seahawks reached the end zone. “But we still control our own destiny.”
After the 34-7 victory against New Orleans on Monday night three weeks ago, that destiny seemed assured. The Seahawks appeared Super Bowl bound.
That destiny is a little in doubt now. This game left some questions to answer, and it also had some head-scratching moments near the end.
What was a magnificent defensive battle became a sideshow circus of bizarre calls in the fourth quarter.
Two big calls went against Seattle. First, an apparent fumble by Arizona running back Rashard Mendenhall at the Seattle 16 was reviewed, but upheld as called as no fumble.
“We could not determine the status of the runner’s knee," referee Scott Green said. “The ball does come loose, but we never got a [video] shot that showed the status of his knee or any other part of his body being down, so therefore, you go with the call that was made on the field.”
The Cardinals kicked a field goal moments later to go up 9-3.
“Again, we didn’t have indisputable evidence that it hit the ground," Green said. “Therefore, we went with the call as it was made on the field, which was an interception.”
However, maybe the craziest play of the game went Seattle’s way. After the Seahawks tied it 9-9 on the pass from Wilson to Miller, Hauschka’s extra-point attempt was blocked.
But Hauschka got another chance when the Cardinals were flagged for lining up over the center, which isn’t allowed. Hauschka made the second attempt and the Seahawks led 10-9 with 7:26 to go.
But don’t say Seattle lost this game because of the officiating. They lost because the Cardinals' defense was dominant.
So were the Seahawks -- until the end. After keeping Arizona out of the end zone all game, the Seahawks' defense couldn’t do it when it mattered most. The Cardinals drove 80 yards and scored on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer to Michael Floyd on a third-and-six.
The home-field magic was over.
“If there is one thing I’ve learned, you’re going to have ups and downs in life,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, we still have to win the next game. That’s doesn’t change for us. We lost this one and we shouldn’t have lost it. We’ve had a really good season, and we just have to finish strong. Now the last game of the season is a championship game. It doesn’t get any better than that.”