Arizona traded for Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones, signed two-time Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis, and re-upped running back Chris Johnson and tight end Jermaine Gresham. The Cardinals now have 11 players with Pro Bowl experience; the Seahawks have eight.
Many Las Vegas bookmakers have pegged the Seahawks as division favorites, and that's understandable. While the Cardinals have been the faster starting team the past two years, the Seahawks are the better closing team. Plus, they have Russell Wilson at quarterback. Wilson is a more seasoned and successful quarterback in the postseason than Carson Palmer, who has struggled -- he has only one career playoff win.
Regardless, the talent race between the Cardinals and the Seahawks brings back memories of the Seahawks' rivalry with the San Francisco 49ers from a few years ago. At that time, Jim Harbaugh was coaching a talented and deep 49ers team, and both organizations tried to top each other for acquisitions. The Harbaugh-Pete Carroll rivalry turned the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry into the best in football.
What's interesting is to compare how the Cardinals and the Seahawks are constructed. The Seahawks have a core group signed through 2017 and 2019, including Wilson, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Jimmy Graham, Bobby Wagner and Michael Bennett. Tyler Lockett is an interesting addition to the group after making the Pro Bowl as a returner in his rookie year, along with showing promise as a receiver. Seattle lost a big piece when Marshawn Lynch retired, but Thomas Rawls showed as a rookie that he can fill in capably, assuming he returns healthy after breaking an ankle in December. The Seahawks might also add more running back help in the draft.
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim has done a masterful job of drafting and strategically signing key free agents. But Palmer turns 37 in December. Wilson turns 28 in November and is just hitting his peak. The Cardinals have great, young talent, particularly in the secondary. But this team is built to win now, and Keim is acting accordingly.
Keim has elevated the offensive line by adding Jared Veldheer, Mike Iupati and Mathis in the past three years. Palmer has played his best football with coach Bruce Arians calling the plays. With hopes of winning now, the Cardinals don't fear having Gresham, Mathis and Johnson on one-year contracts. Keim didn't fear acquiring Jones, who is making $7.799 million in 2016 and is a free agent in 2017.
Where the Seahawks still have the edge over the Cardinals is their consistency. In each of the past four years, the Seahawks have allowed the fewest points. The defense has allowed Wilson and the offense to grow. Only giving up 17 to 19 points a game has allowed Wilson to keep the score close and make plays in the fourth quarter to win.
Both teams learned something last season.
The Seahawks learned that a slow start could leave them in the wild-card round of the playoffs instead of having home-field advantage. Because the NFC is loaded with teams with great quarterbacks and excellent defenses, it's hard to think a wild-card team can win three games on the road, particularly in places such as Green Bay, Minnesota, Carolina and Arizona.
The Cardinals learned that winning the division with a 13-win season is great, but it takes more concentration and focus to win in the playoffs. The Seahawks got over that hump with their win in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Cardinals are still trying.
Carroll's teams are great closers. Over the final eight regular-season games in 2015, the Seahawks scored the second most points (256); the Cardinals finished fifth (226). Over the same span, the Seahawks were tied for third in fewest points allowed (137); the Cardinals were 11th (160).
The key to this season may be how the offensive lines play. The Cardinals have a huge advantage. The Seahawks are regrouping. They've lost Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy this offseason. Since winning the Super Bowl, they've lost all five of their starters along the offensive line, four to free agency and one in a trade. The Seahawks have a young, inexpensive offensive line.
General manager John Schneider is going to be patient. Though they don't have a lot of cap room, it's not out of the question that a veteran such as Ryan Clady could fall into their laps at the right price. They've already signed J'Marcus Webb and Bradley Sowell. The plan is to go heavy on offensive linemen in the draft.
In the big picture, both teams seem to be set to return to the playoffs. The team that wins the division and earns home-field advantage has the better chance of going to the Super Bowl. Still, the Seahawks are a team with a history of being dangerous.