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Seahawks try to wrap up NFC West against Arizona

Seahawks try to wrap up NFC West against Arizona
Seattle Seahawks supporters cheer at the end of an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, in East Rutherford, N.J. The Seahawks won 23-0. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
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SEATTLE (AP) — With the road schedule finally wrapped up, Pete Carroll joked he was looking forward to the Seahawks' home stand.

What Carroll didn't specify: Was he referencing Seattle's final two games of the regular season, or the possibility the Seahawks won't have to leave the Pacific Northwest until the Super Bowl if they can knock off Arizona on Sunday?

"That's the only chance we got and we're going to go for it this week. ... This is a championship matchup and we're going to do everything we can to go get it done," Carroll said.

For a change, Carroll's usual mantra that has kept the Seahawks focused throughout a season of rising expectations comes with something tangible this week. What Seattle (12-2) can earn on Sunday would only reinforce the idea it is the favorite in the NFC to reach the Super Bowl.

A win over the Cardinals will give Seattle the NFC West title, a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage for the postseason in a venue where the Seahawks have not lost in nearly two calendar years.

"Every game this year we've been taking as a championship opportunity, so when games like this come around we'll be ready for it," Seattle safety Earl Thomas said.

The Cardinals (9-5) have just as much as stake. Arizona must win its final two games and get help from others to have a chance at reaching the playoffs. That would complete a massive turnaround from where the Cardinals were after getting manhandled by Seattle 34-22 in Week 7. Arizona has won six of seven since behind the best run defense in the NFL and improved play from quarterback Carson Palmer.

"I think as the season has progressed there has been more of a belief that you're going to win each week, and just kind of deep down you know it," Palmer said.

Here are five things to watch as Seattle tries to wrap up a second division title in Carroll's tenure, while the Cardinals seek to continue their late charge:

TRIPLE THREAT: Seattle's defense is on the cusp of a possible triple of league dominance. The Seahawks are ranked No. 1 in total defense (279.5 yards per game allowed), No. 1 in scoring defense (14.6 points per game) and No. 2 in total takeaways (33). They have held two of their last three opponents to less than 200 yards total offense, and intercepted Eli Manning five times in their 23-0 shutout of the Giants last week. It was Seattle's first shutout of the season.

PROTECT PALMER: The low point for Arizona's offense and its ability to protect Palmer came against Seattle. Palmer was sacked seven times by eight Seahawks' defenders. It was the most Palmer has ever been sacked.

Not surprisingly, the Cardinals' late charge has come with better protection. Palmer is being given time in the pocket to find Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd downfield. The only time Arizona's protection struggled came in its only loss in the last seven games, when Palmer was sacked five times in a 24-21 loss at Philadelphia.

"We've become a better pass protection unit because we're running the football better," Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. "I think that'd be a key to this ball game also is being able to stay in a very close ballgame and stay balanced."

STRENGTH VS. STRENGTH: While Seattle may have the No. 1 overall defense, the best run defense in the league belongs to the Cardinals. Arizona has allowed only one 100-yard rusher this season — and just barely. Frank Gore finished with 101 yards rushing in Week 6. The Cardinals are allowing 83.2 yards per game on the ground.

The run game is supposed to be one of Seattle's strengths, although it's lagged in recent weeks. The Seahawks have not rushed for more than 134 yards in any of their last four games. Marshawn Lynch has 1,089 yards rushing, but just three 100-yard games.

BAD MEMORIES: Arizona's last visit to Seattle became the most lopsided afternoon in Cardinals history. Arizona capped a nine-game losing streak with a 58-0 rout by the Seahawks. Seattle led 38-0 at halftime, got an interception return for a touchdown and recovered a muffed punt for another score as part of a 28-point second quarter.

The Cardinals haven't forgotten. The score was posted inside the team facility early this week.

TITLE TIME: The last time the Seahawks were in position to win an NFC West championship, it came in Week 17 of 2010 in Carroll's first season. At that time, the division was the joke of the NFL and Seattle became its dubious winner and the first division champion with a losing record at 7-9.

The NFC West is now the toughest division in the league. Winning there now comes with clout and pride.

"To have to put up with kind of the yucks about being 7-9 and winning the division years ago and you know, who's laughing now?," Carroll said.
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