A week ago, the Arizona Cardinals staked their claim as the best team in football by embarrassing the Green Bay Packers on national television. On Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks returned the favor.
Quarterback Russell Wilson threw for three touchdowns, and running back Christine Michael rushed for 102 yards as the Seahawks soared to a 36-6 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium to ruin the Cardinals' hopes of earning the NFC's top overall seed.
In the end, the result did not matter for Arizona. The Carolina Panthers' 38-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday locked them into the first seed with a 15-1 record. The Cardinals will stay in the No. 2 seed and have a first-round bye next week.
The Seahawks' seeding will be dependent on Sunday night's game between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. If Minnesota wins, Seattle will stay in the No. 6 seed and travel to Green Bay. If Green Bay wins, the Seahawks will ascend to the No. 5 seed and play Washington.
As it stands, the Seahawks will walk away now with perhaps their biggest statement win of the season.
Dominant from the outset, Seattle embarked on a 12-play touchdown drive on its first possession and never trailed. The Seahawks outgained the Cardinals 354-232 overall, forced three interceptions and held possession for 36-plus minutes.
They were leading 30-6 by halftime on the back of Wilson and Tyler Lockett, who shredded Arizona's punt coverage. Lockett gained 139 yards on his four punt returns, including scampers of 66 and 42 yards to set up touchdowns.
Mina Kimes of ESPN The Magazine has been impressed with his production all season:
if tyler lockett isn't on your rookie of the year shortlist, you aren't paying attention— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 3, 2016
The impressive performance came despite injuries paring down Seattle's already-thinned roster. Tight end Luke Willson, guard J.R. Sweezy and tackle Russell Okung were each forced to sit out of the regular-season finale with injuries. Add their names to a list that already includes running backs Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls, and it would have been understandable if the Seahawks went conservative to stay healthy.
Instead, they made Arizona look ordinary a week after it looked unstoppable. Quarterback Carson Palmer had his worst game of the season, completing 12 of 25 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown against an interception before exiting.
It was the first time in nearly three months Palmer has been held under the 200-yard mark through the air. Backup Drew Stanton compounded the problems by throwing two picks on his 18 attempts, compiling 84 yards overall.
Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus made a salient point:
Shouldn't work this way, but Carson Palmer's MVP case probably evaporated with this game.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 3, 2016
The Seahawks also held running back David Johnson in check for the first time since he became a starter. Johnson managed 25 yards on his 11 carries and added 34 yards on three receptions. The rookie had 100-plus total yards on each of his last four games prior to Sunday.
Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders complimented Seattle's defensive effort:
The Seahawks are just giving David Johnson no room to run, at all. They look fierce today.— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) January 3, 2016
On the other side, Wilson had his seventh straight multi-touchdown game, which has included six contests with at least three scores. Wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, tight end Chase Coffman and fullback Will Tukuafu each hauled in a touchdown pass. Doug Baldwin, while not adding to his big-scoring ways of late, led the team with five receptions for 46 yards.
Sheil Kapadia of ESPN highlighted Wilson's gaudy second-half stats:
Russell Wilson's final 7 games: 71% completions, 8.8 YPA, 24 TDs, 1 INT. Passer rating of 132.8. Historic stretch.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) January 4, 2016
Regardless of this weekend's result, both the Cardinals and the Seahawks have to feel confident heading into the postseason. Seattle won six of its last seven regular-season games. It would likely be a road favorite against Washington, and the Packers team it'd face next week is far different than the one from Week 2.
The Cardinals have regular-season wins over three NFC playoff teams (Seattle, Green Bay and Minnesota), including a triumph over the Seahawks on their home field.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians tried to spin the loss as a lesson, per Darren Urban of the Cardinals' official website: "This was a valuable lesson today because you could see it coming all week. Coaches, players, all of them fell into that reading-the-press-clippings thing and anointed Super Bowl champs. This was a nice wakeup call.”
Linebacker Dwight Freeney also commented: "Listen, you want to win every game. I’m not saying this was a preseason game or anything like that, but sometimes, you can learn more from losses than wins. Especially when the games don’t necessarily affect you. Hats off to them. That’s a good team out there. They are humming right now. But that’s football. The greatest thing is we have two weeks to figure it out. When was the last time we had two weeks to figure something out?”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll noted his team's mindset, per Bob Baum of The Associated Press (via ABC News): "These guys are confident that we can go wherever we got to go. We still don't know, but it isn't going to matter."
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman was understandably confident after the game: "It was just us playing our style of football. I think sometimes people forget who we are."
Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald made sure to note his team wasn't panicking: "That's a playoff football team, one that's been to the Super Bowl over the last two years. So we understand what we're going to be dealing with, the kind of competition it's going to be, and we have to raise our level of play, plain and simple."
Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter