With the way Arizona's special teams units have performed this season, perhaps only a Christmas miracle could have raised their level of play against Seattle.
And perhaps that miracle took place.
With the clock winding down and the score deadlocked near the end of regulation in Seattle on Christmas Eve, Arizona Cardinals placekicker Chandler Catanzaro raced onto the field for a shot at redemption, booting a 43-yard field goal that split the uprights and split the hearts of the Seahawks right down the middle to give his team a 34-31 victory.
Moments earlier, a Cardinals' team that received the present it had been pining for was stuck with the reality of returning to Arizona with a lump of coal.
After taking a 31-18 lead with just over four minutes to play, Arizona allowed a Seahawks' touchdown drive that narrowed Seattle's deficit to just six points with under three minutes to play. With an opportunity to ice the game, Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians dialed up a pair of passing plays, and quarterback Carson Palmer attempts wound up stopping the clock and offering Seattle more than enough time to get the ball back and attempt to engineer a game-winning drive.
Following a dismal punt from recent acquisition Matt Wile that set the Seahawks up in Cardinals' territory, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson found wide receiver Paul Richardson isolated in the corner of the end zone with no Arizona defender in sight on a score that tied the game. On the ensuing extra point that would have given Seattle the lead, kicker Stephen Hauschka sailed his kick wide and Arizona emerged with one final opportunity to avoid an embarrassing collapse.
Much as they've done all season, the Cardinals put their faith in the hands of running back David Johnson, who came up with receptions of 13 yards and 29 yards to move Arizona into field goal territory in the closing seconds. With the team out of timeouts and looking to make Catanzaro's game-winning attempt a bit shorter, Palmer found wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald over the middle of the field on third down and 10 just short of the first down marker. The reception forced Arizona's field goal unit to sprint into position, and as the clock ticked away, Catanzaro prepared himself for the shot at redemption he --and the rest of the Cardinals special teams units--so desperately needed.
Though Arizona had a blocked field goal and a blocked punt earlier in the game that demonstrated marked progress on special teams, Catanzaro still missed a 53-yard attempt with a kick that fell short of the goalposts earlier in the game.
If not for Fitzgerald's final reception, Catanzaro was likely poised to attempt the game-winner from the same distance, one that haunted him earlier in the game. While Arians has been liberal with casting blame on Cardinals' players following losses this season, he stood by Catanzaro throughout the week after the Clemson product botched an extra point and a field goal attempt against New Orleans in a seven-point loss last week.
Arians' decision paid dividends, as for the second time this season, Catanzaro delivered a walk-off winner in the closing seconds of a game to propel the Cardinals to victory.
Though Arizona didn't have a potential playoff bid hanging in the balance on Saturday, the Cardinals backed up their coach's words that they had plenty to play for with one of their most thorough efforts of the season. Knowing Seattle entered the weekend in control of its own destiny for the No. 2 seed and a first round playoff bye in the NFC, Arizona sought to play a spoiler's role, and did so effectively against the Seahawks.
With Seattle's loss, Pete Carroll's squad falls back to the No. 3 seed in the NFC as the Atlanta Falcons hop past the Seahawks in the conference standings. Even though Arizona isn't playing for playoff positioning, the Cardinals victory improved the team to 6-8-1 on the season, and marked just the second time Arizona had won a game away from home this season.
Additionally, the win marked Palmer's first win away from University of Phoenix Stadium this year, as he sat out of the Cardinals' 33-20 win in San Francisco earlier in the season with a concussion.
For Palmer, Saturday's Christmas Eve matinee wasn't among his most dominant performances of the season, but it did rank among his most efficient. The 14th year veteran completed 16 passes for 284 yards and one touchdown, and most notably, didn't turn the ball over. For much of the year, the Cardinals' road struggles could be directly traced to Palmer's tendency to be turnover-prone on the road, and Saturday's clean sheet was critical for Arizona to slip past Seattle. As the Cardinals' starting quarterback, Palmer is now 3-0 at Century Link Field, and his three victories account for half of all of Seattle's losses at home since 2012.
Palmer notched the victory with help from his offensive line, which did a remarkable job keeping him upright throughout the afternoon. For a group missing four different players who have started this season and suffered another injury as right guard Taylor Boggs exited Saturday's contest early, Arizona's ability to protect Palmer made all the difference for the Cardinals' offense. The Cardinals surrendered just a lone sack against an often-dominant defensive front, and also paved the way for a persistent rushing attack that accounted for 94 yards on the ground.
Defensively, Arizona also fought through adversity, as safety Tony Jefferson suffered an injury at the outset of the contest, forcing rookie cornerback Harlan Miller to fill Jefferson's role as a free safety in the defensive backfield.
A Cardinals' defense down Jefferson, linebacker Deone Bucannon, safety Tyrann Mathieu, safety Tyvon Branch and cornerback Marcus Cooper shut down the Seahawks for much of the afternoon --at least until the team's fourth quarter explosion--thanks in large part to a defensive front that racked up six sacks.
The Cardinals' greatest weak spot Sunday was the play of third round draft choice Brandon Williams, who filled in for Cooper in a starting role and struggled to keep pace with the Seahawks' receiving corps for most of the afternoon. Williams was consistently burned by multiple Seattle wideouts, but thanks to Arizona's ability to pressure Wilson, the Cardinals walked away from the game with a victory.
Though Arizona's win won't mean much over the long haul, the Cardinals can take satisfaction from the fact they finished the year with a win and a tie in their two contests against the NFC West Division champions. While the Cardinals may earn more than half of their overall wins against divisional foes, the team will enter the offseason after next Sunday's season-finale against the Los Angeles Rams knowing a division title should be within reach next season.null