Cardinals start tough finish at Seattle

(Eds: Adds details, quotes. With AP Photos.)By JOHN MARSHALLAP Sports Writer

When asked how much time he has spent looking at the scenarios for his team to get into the playoffs, Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians closed his left hand into a circle, forming a zero.

It makes sense. Not because of the game-at-a-time mentality of NFL coaches, but because it’s unlikely any of the myriad of scenarios would matter if the Cardinals don’t beat Seattle and San Francisco in their final two games.

Arizona plays Seattle on the road on Sunday.

”It doesn’t matter; we have to win this game,” Arians said on Wednesday.

The Cardinals have had a great run so far.

Arizona got off to great start last season and staggered home, losing 11 of its final 12 games to finish 5-11 and cost coach Ken Whisenhunt his job.

The Cardinals have taken a different tack in their first season under Arians, getting better as the season has progressed. With last weekend’s overtime victory at Tennessee, Arizona (9-5) has won six of its past seven games and secured its first winning season since 2009.

Despite their recent run, the Cardinals are still on the outside looking in at the playoffs, stuck behind NFC West powers Seattle and San Francisco.

The Seahawks and 49ers are Arizona’s final two opponents, so they would certainly help their chances by beating them both.

It won’t be easy.

The Cardinals lost at San Francisco 32-20 on Oct. 13 and 34-22 to Seattle the next week. The first of the rematches will be at CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks have won 14 straight and their fans recently set a world record for loudest noise at an outdoor stadium while triggering what amounted to a localized earthquake in the stadium.

Seattle also happens to have been the site for one of Arizona’s most humiliating losses, a 58-0 wipeout last season that Arians had no interest in reviewing with his team.

”This is a big one because they’re in first place and it’s at their place,” he said. ”The last time we were there, obviously everyone knows what happened. That wasn’t we, that was another team. So this is our barometer to see where we’re at.”

The Cardinals are certainly a better team than when they faced the Seahawks last season and earlier this year.

In the first game this season, Seattle’s defense manhandled Arizona’s offense, sacking quarterback Carson Palmer seven times and intercepting him twice. The Seahawks got off to a fast start, leading 14-0 by early in the second quarter, and Russell Wilson threw for three touchdowns against the Cardinals.

Arizona’s offense has become much more stable in the two months since that game, the line protecting better while Palmer has become more efficient, cutting back on his turnovers while helping the Cardinals score 27 points or more six times in the past seven games.

”We’re starting to get a lot of confidence as a team,” said Palmer, who’s limited in practice this week because of a sprained ankle. ”Obviously, they’re confident for a reason. They’ve won a lot of football games, they’ve won at home, but we’ve been playing well the past couple of months. It’s a big game for them, a big game for us.”

Win it and the Cardinals will face another big game, Dec. 29 against the 49ers.

Maybe by then Arians will be looking at playoff scenarios – maybe.