First Look: The Arizona Cardinals

If the Cardinals are going to break the Seahawks' stranglehold on the NFC West, they will have to do it in the toughest of places to play and possibly without their top two receivers.

The Seahawks (8-4) could clinch their fourth straight division title with a victory on Sunday over the Cardinals. If the Cardinals (6-6) pull the upset, they would not only move within a game of Seattle in the division, they will have swept the Seahawks this year, giving them the advantage in the event of a possible tiebreaker.

It won't be easy, however. The Cardinals have lost four straight in Seattle; their last victory coming in 2002. And they could be without receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, whose status likely won't be determined until pre-game warm-ups.

Boldin suffered a dislocated second toe on his left foot in the third quarter last week against Cleveland. The Cardinals are consulting their orthotics specialist to try and fit Boldin with a supporting device that will fit inside a shoe.

Boldin will test the toe, and the device, this week in practice. He tried two orthotics on Wednesday but wasn't happy with either, so the search will continue this week.

Fitzgerald missed last week's game with a groin injury suffered the week before against San Francisco. He only jogged last week, and he'll be probably take it easy the first few days of practice this week. It's possible the injury could cause him to miss a second straight week.

Even if Fitzgerald and Boldin can play, the Cardinals will need Bryant Johnson, their No. 3 receiver, to continue coming through for them. In the past two games, Johnson has 11 receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown. He came up with a handful of clutch catches last week against the Browns.

With their problems at receiver, the Cardinals will need to continue to run the ball well. In a 23-20 victory over Seattle earlier this year, the Cardinals rushed for 132 yards and averaged 5.1 yards a carry.
Edgerrin James gained 128 yards against Seattle, one of his two 100-yard games this season.

SERIES HISTORY: 18th meeting. Cardinals lead, 9-8. The Cardinals have won the last two meetings, but both of those have been in Arizona. The Cardinals haven't won in Seattle since 2002, a streak of four games. A victory over Arizona will clinch a fourth straight division title for Seattle. They will have a three-game lead with three games to play and will hold the tiebreaker over the Cardinals by virtue of a 5-1 division record. The Cardinals are currently tied with Detroit and Minnesota for the second wild-card spot, but hold the advantage of those two teams.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Cardinals have been excellent in the red zone all year. They have scored 22 touchdowns in 29 opportunities, a 68.8 percent success rate, third in the league.

--Running back Edgerrin James moved past O.J. Simpson and Corey Dillon on the all-time rushing leaders list last week. James has 11,307 yards and could pass John Riggins (11,352) before the end of the season. James needs 78 yards to reach 1,000 for the second straight season in Arizona.

--CB Rod Hood has four interceptions and his 196 return yards rank first in the league. Hood has returned two of those picks for touchdowns.

--DE Darnell Dockett has eight sacks this year but has gone four games without one. Dockett, however, has produced pressure in those games, producing at least one holding call and a few quarterback hurries.

--Like many coaches, Ken Whisenhunt gives his team a day off on Mondays after victories. "What's exciting to me is that a number of guys still spend it in here (the team facility) working out and keeping their bodies in shape," he said.

BY THE NUMBERS: 6-1 -- That's the Cardinals' record this year when they don't commit more turnovers than their opponents.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a meaningful game in December. And if you have meaningful games in December ... you're doing something right." -- Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, on Sunday's game in Seattle.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

P Mitch Berger had a decent debut as a Cardinal last week. He had a net average of 30 yards a kick, mostly because he had one punt downed inside the 20.

WR Larry Fitzgerald has every reason to try and play despite a groin injury. If he makes the Pro Bowl this year, his salary increases by $5 million next year.

The Cardinals have changed the way they're running the ball. They're pulling the guards far less and using more stretch plays. That gives RB Edgerrin James some clear vision of cutback lanes and made things simple for the offensive line.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt blames himself for part of the team's struggles to run the ball this year. He just hasn't called enough runs. The Cardinals have run the ball only 41 percent of the time. Before the season, Whisenhunt envisioned that number to be about 55 percent.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--Rookie TE Ben Patrick is assuming a bigger role in the offense with each week. Patrick is an excellent receiver but he still makes rookie mistakes, such as lining up in the wrong spot at times.
--QB Tim Rattay no longer is being used in goal-line situations. Kurt Warner's left elbow is better and he has been able to hand off with his left hand. His inability to do that earlier prompted coaches to use Rattay when the club was inside the 3-yard line.
--CB Rod Hood is one of the team's best free-agent signings in recent years. He didn't cost much and he's played well almost every week. Hood has four interceptions this year and returned two of them for touchdowns.
--CB Antrel Rolle is starting now that Eric Green is out for the year. But Rolle showed last week why he is a better nickel back than starter. He was beaten on a double move and he sometimes doesn't play the ball well when he's guarding a receiver one-on-one.
--OG Deuce Lutui is a fierce run blocker, but he needs to cut down on his penalties. Last week he had a false start and two holds. He comes dangerously close to personal-foul calls when he runs downfield and levels people at the end of plays.

GAME PLAN: With their uncertainty at receiver, the Cardinals likely will employ the same offensive game plan they did last week. They'll try to control the clock with the running game and Edgerrin James. They will try to incorporate tight ends Ben Patrick and Leonard Pope into the passing game, and get running back J.J. Arrington isolated on linebackers through short passes and screens.
On defense, the Cardinals aren't likely to take too many chances, given their depleted secondary. They'll stay back in a zone and try to make the Seahawks grind things out.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Seahawks LB Lofa Tatupu vs. Cardinals OL. Tatupu had three interceptions last week in Philadelphia. He had 12 tackles and an interception against the Cardinals earlier this year. The Cardinals can't afford to commit turnovers Sunday.

Cardinals RB Edgerrin James vs. Seahawks linebackers. The Cardinals were able to run against Seattle earlier this year (26 attempts, 132 yards). If James can get to the linebacker level, he needs to break some tackles and turn four-yard gains into eight.

INJURY IMPACT: S Aaron Francisco (calf) could miss his fifth straight game and his sixth in seven weeks. Francisco suffered a torn calf muscle and might not return until next week at the earliest.

WR Larry Fitzgerald is limited in practice this week because of a sore groin. He likely will be a game-time decision on Sunday.

WR Anquan Boldin is limited in practice this week because of a dislocated toe on his left foot. He likely will be a game-time decision.


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