As the 12-2 Seahawks prepare to close out what may be the finest regular season in the franchise's history, they could not find a more cantankerous group of party poopers than the Arizona Cardinals. Even more than the San Francisco 49ers, the Cardinals want to unload a truck trailer of compost into the Seahawks' punch bowl Sunday.
Since the 34-22 unpleasantness Oct. 17 in the desert when the Seahawks dumped the Cardinals in a desolate arroyo and told them to walk back, the Cardinals actually ran back, winning six of their past seven games. At 9-5, they have hustled all the way to the edge of playoff contention and are sick to death of all this Seahawks/12th Man/Pete Carroll hyperbole.
No, they're not saying much. Don't have to.
"As the season has progressed, there has been more of a belief that you’re going to win each week," was how Arizona QB Carson Palmer politely put it this week. "Deep down, you know it . . . We want to keep it going."
Peevishness is more acute on defense, where the points given up to Seattle equaled a season high. Particularly annoying was a third-quarter encounter between RB Marshawn Lynch and DT Darnell Dockett, the 300-pound barrel of bombast and orneriness who has occupied a fortress along the Cardinals' defensive front for what seems like most of this century.
The Seahawks had a first down at the Arizona six-yard line when Lynch took the ball in his left hand and stuck his right forearm in the face of Dockett with such force that his knees buckled and his helmet popped off.
Lynch fell a few inches short of a touchdown, which the Seahawks obtained on the next play, but the indignity suffered by Dockett was matchless. The moment on the nationally televised Thursday Night Football was replayed as if it were a wardrobe malfunction at halftime of the Super Bowl.
It was another signature moment of ferocity by the Seahawks. A minimal amount of experience around football will suggest the play also has to be an open wound for the Cardinals, a prideful group that leads the NFL in rushing defense at 84 yards a game.
That night in Phoenix, the Seahawks gashed them for 135 yards, 91 by Lynch.
Since he was a participant in the play, center Max Unger was asked Wednesday for his recollection.
"Why does everyone keep bringing up that play?" Unger said, a little sore. He wanted to take neither pride nor credit for the trouncing, and frankly wished reporters would shut up about it. "I got nothin' for ya."
Somewhere deep in the reptilian portion of the brain there resides a phrase for Unger's apparent distress: Poking the bear. He wants no part of stirring the rage of Dockett, who along with linemate Calais Campbell form one of the most formidable tandems in the NFL.
But Dockett wasn't available to articulate his dreams about getting a fistful of Lynch's dreadlocks. So others were sought to speak about the ball of anger that will roll upon the Clink turf Sunday.
"Those guys have always been a problem," said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. "They’re loaded. Those guys are tough.
"They have all of the right ingredients for a good defense and they’re playing really tight right now."
The reason the Arizona malevolence is a big deal Sunday is not merely because of the stakes — a win gives the Seahawks the NFC West division title and homefield advantage though the playoffs. It's also because the Cardinals are strong where the Seahawks are strong — running the ball. Or, at least they were.
In beating the Giants in New York Sunday, Lynch gained 47 yards. He had 72 yards against the 49ers, 45 against the Saints and 54 against Minnesota. A 54-yard average for Beast Mode over the past four games is not how the Seahawks want to enter the playoffs.
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell admits this is a tough weekend to re-establish manhood in the trenches.
“There’s a little bit of a challenge with being able to stick with the running game," he said. "I think there is something to that, to stick with it. But you have to make sure that you keep getting first downs."
In the Carroll regime, that means running the ball. No matter how improved Arizona is from the previous meeting.
"They’re different right now — they’re just better," he said. "We’re going to run the football. So matching strength with strength, if that’s what you’re asking me, that’s what we do. We’re not changing depending on the team that we’re playing."
So if it's possible for viewers to take eyes away from the local and national darling, QB Russell Wilson, it will be amusing to watch the mayhem in the middle.
Last time, Dockett lost his hat and his dignity on national TV. As Unger seems to understand, this Sunday is a poor time to meet a poked bear.