“The two forces met with a fearful din of spears and bossed shields, clashing in a fierce and furious melee of bronze-breasted fighters. And there the screams of the dying were mingled with cries of triumph, and blood flowed over the earth.”
– Homer, the Iliad
Last Sunday night’s hostilities between Arizona and Seattle, for those who prize defense above all, crackled with electricity and treachery. The malice between the teams has intensified since 2013, the year coach Bruce Arians took the helm of a Cardinals team that had seemed content with occasional playoff appearances, like most teams. Arians talked Super Bowl from his first press conference, and Cardinals Nation regarded him curiously, as if he spoke a dialect they couldn’t quite grasp. But Arians guided Arizona to a 10-6 mark that season after the team turned in a lackluster 5-11 mark the year before. Something like hope had lodged inside players and fans.
But with hope comes heartbreak, and the Cardinals were home flipping burgers when Seattle eviscerated Denver 43-8 in the 2013 Super Bowl. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll lifted the Lombardi Trophy that day. Seattle, Arizona’s division foe, held the prize that the Cardinals had begun to believe could someday be theirs. A rivalry was born.
In recent years, Arizona has won two games up in notoriously noisy and difficult CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Seahawk fans, dubbed “The 12th Man,” are so loud the stadium broke the Guinness record for crowd noise, registering 131.9 decibels following a sack of San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick on Sep.15, 2013.
Coming into last Sunday night’s contest, Seattle had taken three straight in University of Phoenix Stadium, silencing Cardinals fans (known as “the Red Wave”). Those losses haven’t sat well with Arians and the Cardinals, and desire had risen in the blood to protect home soil this time and pull within a half game of the Seahawks in the standings.
It was an old-fashioned slobber-knocker. All-out grappling on the line, big hits, and stifling defense, particularly on the Cardinals’ side. Arizona held Seattle to just 65 net yards in regulation. 65. That is record-setting territory, and would be lauded for decades were it not for the Cardinals’ special teams, which suffered a blocked punt, a blocked field goal, and a potential game-winning 24-yard Chandler Catanzaro field goal in overtime that doinked off the left upright. That’s shorter than an extra point, and after the game Catanzaro said, “I make that kick 999,999 times out of a million.” In the end the result shone clearly on the scoreboard: 6-6—a rare NFL tie.
It could have been worse. After the Catanzaro miss, Seattle drove down the field to give their reliable kicker Stephen Hauschka a 27-yard attempt to steal the game for the Seahawks and extend their division lead over the Cardinals to 2.5 games. Hauschka could make that kick with his eyes closed and maybe he should have—he watched wide-eyed as he swung the ball well left, missing not only the uprights but also the kicking net. Arizona dodged a bullet, Seattle’s sideline blinked in disbelief, and Coach Carroll’s mouth seemed frozen in a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
It was a brutal contest all around, and it left Cardinals fans smoldering. Blaming his final kick, some fans would just as soon Catanzaro took up gardening, or maybe the bassoon. They’re calling for GM Steve Keim to pluck a new kicker from the pool of NFL castoffs, whose fortunes rise and fall like a craps shooter’s at the Bellagio. Outside of the top-tier, placekickers can run hot and cold. Why not bring in another who might help the Cards run the table?
But the youthful Catanzaro has proven reliable in the past and blame should be spread across the whole of special teams. There have been injuries, bad snaps, and poor blocking. It has been a stark reminder of the importance of the underestimated third phase of football.
From my seat, I’m encouraged by a Cardinals defense that hasn’t allowed a touchdown in nine quarters, which they haven’t achieved since 1970. Before every snap, Seattle QB Russell Wilson saw them shifting and lurching, advancing and falling back all across the line. An attack was coming, but from where? The Cardinals prowled like panthers, with a hunch in the shoulder, all potential energy, ready to race snarling through the line and lunge at Wilson, intent on dropping him to the earth and picking the meat from his ribs. It was a dominant performance, and if the struggling offense can find its footing, a second half run is inevitable.
For now, Arizona sits at 3-3-1, and trails Seattle by 1.5 games in the division. The Cardinals seek redemption today against a Carolina team that knocked them out of last year’s playoffs. Beyond that lies a bye week–a week to lick wounds, retool, take a hard look in the mirror and come out fighting for the long run to the finish.
This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.