Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll labels every game "a championship opportunity," a tactic he is sticking with as the Seahawks prepare to host the Arizona Carolina Cardinals Sunday.
If the Seahawks are to have any opportunity at a championship this season, though, then Sunday's game is just about a must-win.
The Seahawks, at 6-4, trail 9-1 Arizona by three games with six to play --- including a Sunday night game in Arizona on Dec. 21.
In other words, there's little realistic hope at a repeat NFC West title without beating the Cardinals Sunday, possibly twice.
This is also the beginning of a stretch of five games in six weeks against NFC West foes --- including two each against the Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers.
"There's a lot out there," Carroll said. "We know we have to do it one week at a time and with Arizona starting and that's the only game in the world that matters. I think it's a really cool time of the year."
The question now is how ready will the Seahawks be for the task.
It was Arizona that dealt Seattle what at the time was the most surprising defeat of the 2013 season, a 17-10 loss at CenturyLink Field on Dec. 22.
At the time, the game looked like just a blip on the radar. But now, with Arizona having become the team to beat in the NFC West, it looks like a game that might have been a changing of the guard.
Arizona held Seattle to 103 yards rushing in the game and just 89 passing with Russell Wilson going 11-27 for 108 yards and a 49.6 passer rating that ranks as among the lowest of his career.
The Cardinals particularly unnerved the Seahawks with a blitzing defense that sacked Wilson four times and kept him under pressure all game.
Carroll expects more of the same Sunday.
"They are very aggressive," Carroll said. "They cover very aggressively, very tight, they have really good corners so they can get away with their one-on-ones and their zero coverage blitz that they throw at you and so they make it real tough there."
Seattle also expects to see an Arizona team that will try to get the run going even if it isn't having much success. Arizona ranks 175h in the NFL in run percentage at 41 percent despite ranking 30th in yards at 79.8.
If nothing else, that tends to shorten the game and keep it in the hands of the Arizona defense.
"They're a committed run team," Carroll said. "They've run the ball a lot. Not for a lot of yards but they're really committed to continue to run it. We admire that."
The Cardinals will also look to use the run to set up deep passes to the likes of receivers John Brown, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, the latter of whom caught a 31-yard touchdown pass to beat the Seahawks in Seattle last year.
"They've also been very committed to throw the ball down the field," Carroll said. "They've got very good receivers and a really fast guy John Brown. Can't get any better than Larry [Fitzgerald] and Michael Floyd is a big threat, we know. So they use those guys and they're not at all hesitant with [Drew] Stanton and go ahead and check it and see if he can make the big plays on you. It's a nice mixture of attack from both sides of the ball. You can really feel their attitude."
Seattle has put itself in a dire situation, in terms of the division, by going 3-3 since a 3-1 start, including last Sunday's 24-20 los at Kansas City.
But Seattle players insist their confidence hasn't wavered.
"I don't feel desperate," said cornerback Richard Sherman. "We're going to go out there-it's another division opponent so we're very familiar with one another and it'll be a fun game."
SERIES HISTORY: 31st regular-season meeting. Cardinals lead series, 16-14 and has won three of the last five, including a 17-0 victory at CenturyLink Field last Dec. 22 or what was Seattle's only home loss of the 2013 season.
Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll attempted Friday to douse the firestorm of reports that running back Marshawn Lynch won't return in 2015, saying the team wants him for "as long as he can play."
Carroll reiterated his Thursday comments to USA Today that the Seahawks have not said Lynch won't return for the final year of his contract.
"That came from totally somewhere else," he said of several reports over the past two months that the team has grown tired of Lynch and will move on from him after this season.
"We want him around here as long as he can play," Carroll said. "There's never been any hesitation or thought about that.
"He's under contract for next year. We'd be thrilled to have him playing for us next year. We'll do everything we can to get that done."
That seems to imply that something might prevent Lynch from playing the final year of his contract in Seattle.
Lynch held out for the first week of training camp this year, asking for more money on top of his $5 million salary for 2014. The Seahawks converted $1.5 million in incentives into guaranteed money.
Last week, Carroll addressed his relationship with Lynch, saying, "We're working through it," and admitted the contract is still an issue.
"I think (it) still goes back to summertime, talking about the contract and stuff like that," he said on 710 ESPN. "There was some conversations that not everything always works out exactly the way you want it.
"Years later in the contract, you look at it, well, it's not quite the same deal. I think we had plenty of conversations about that in the summertime. He made his decisions to stay out and we respected that, too. We had no problem with that."
Lynch, 28, is due a $2 million roster bonus next offseason and a $5 million salary.
Asked Sunday about his future with the Seahawks, the running back told NFL.com, "Do I think I'll be gone after this season? I don't know, man. The Seahawks, their front office gets in the media; they talk a lot. I don't talk too much. I just play the game. If they have something going on, I don't know about it."
--Lynch was fined $100,000 on Wednesday for continued non-compliance with the NFL's policy on speaking to the media. Lynch has been threatened with fines over the past year and the NFL decided to levy the fine after he did not speak to reporters following the game at Kansas City. Lynch spoke to reporters Wednesday but mostly refrained from talking football and largely talked about his favorite rappers and cleats.
--Lynch and receiver Ricardo Lockette made national headlines when they returned a lost wallet while on their way home from a visit to a local high school, Marysville-Pilchuck, which had been the site of a tragic shooting last month.
--Lynch was also in the news for not having gone to the locker room at halftime at Kansas City, instead staying on the field to have his back treated. Coach Pete Carroll said there was no act of defiance in what Lynch did and it was solely related to his health and offensive line coach Tom Cable backed that up during the week saying any suggestion that what Lynch did was for any reason other than his health was "ridiculous."
BY THE NUMBERS: 19-7 --- The record for both the Seahawks and the Cardinals in the regular season since the beginning of the 2013 season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: :They're pretty confident now. Our guys are still confident. They're holding on to the hope that we can continue to play good football and the chance to finish the season in great fashion. They're going to be very strong about going after this game right now. They realize how crucial it is right now as the division begins. You feel better when you do well, that's part of it," -- Seattle coach Pete Carroll, saying he doesn't think the Seahawks have lost any of their Super Bowl swagger.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
OFFICIAL FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
--Out: DT Ed Stinson (toe)
--Questionable: WR Larry Fitzgerald (knee)
--Probable: LB Sam Acho (neck), LB Lorenzo Alexander (knee), RB Andre Ellington (hip, foot), LB Larry Foote (hip), RB Robert Hughes (hamstring), S Rashad Johnson (back), DT Dan Williams (elbow)
--Out: CB Marcus Burley (hamstring), LB Kevin Pierre-Louis (shoulder), C Max Unger (knee, ankle)
--Doubtful: DE Demarcus Dobbs (knee)
--Questionable: G James Carpenter (ankle)
--Probable: DE Michael Bennett (not injury related), LB Brock Coyle (glute), RB Marshawn Lynch (back), CB Byron Maxwell (calf), G J.R. Sweezy (thigh), LB Bobby Wagner (toe)
--RB Marshawn Lynch did not practice Wednesday sitting out with a back injury that has plagued him all season. He also is dealing with calf and rib injuries. But while he may not practice much the expectation is that he will play.
--MLB Bobby Wagner, who missed five games with a torn ligament in his toe, practiced Wednesday and may be back on the field Sunday against Arizona. Wagner said prior to practice he thought he had a good chance to play.
--G James Carpenter, who has missed two straight games with a sprained ankle, was back to practice on Wednesday on a limited basis as he works toward getting back against Arizona.
--C Lemuel Jeanpierre, the team's backup center the last three years before being waived in September with an injury settlement after suffering stingers, was re-signed by Seattle on Tuesday. Jeanpierre may not start Sunday with Patrick Lewis possibly to get the call. But he adds needed depth with starter Max Unger out at least 3-4 weeks with ankle and knee injuries and backup Stephen Schilling already out for the seaon with a knee injury.
--DT Travian Robertson was signed by Seattle off of Atlanta's practice squad. The 324-pounder plays nose tackle an the team sees him as an option to help replace Brandon Mebane who is done for the year with a torn hamstring.
GAME PLAN: Defensively, the Seahawks need a return-to-form against the run, something that could be easier to do against an Arizona team that ranks 30th in the NFL rushing at just 79.8 per game. Seattle gave up a season-high 190 rushing yards at Kansas City last week, and were kept off-balance with the Chiefs' traps and other mis-direction style runs. The Cardinals are sure to try to copy some of that and Seattle will have to be better-disciplined in its approach.
Offensively, expect Seattle to try to hit some deep shots to make Arizona pay for what is almost certain to be a lot of blitzing. The Cardinals bring pressure about 40 percent of the time, content to leave their corners in man coverage. Seattle has struggled against man coverage of late as the passing game has not managed more than 200 yards in four straight contests. But Seattle knows it has to make something happen deep against Arizona. One candidate to get more involved in that way is speedy receiver Ricardo Lockette, whose time on the field has been limited of late (he was thrown out of last week's game in the second half for throwing a punch). But Seattle has to try something to penalize the Cardinals for their aggression.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch vs. Cardinals LB Larry Foote.
Defending the run is obviously a team-wide task. But the fabulous comeback season for the 34-year old Foote is regarded as a huge key for Arizona's run defense, which ranks third in the NFL allowing just 80.5 yards per game. Lynch, meanwhile, is on pace for more than 1,300 yards, the second-highest total of his career. But he's also battling a variety of nagging injuries and Seattle is in the middle of a stretch of 13 games in13 weeks due to having an early bye.
--Seahawks WRs Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse vs. Cardinals CBs Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie.
Arizona is likely to play a lot of man against the Seahawks, and Seattle has to make some big plays happen to try to get Arizona to play the pass more honestly. Otherwise, Arizona will be able to devote extra defenders to stopping the run. Baldwin and Kearse are Seattle's top two receivers and while they have made some plays, they have had trouble consistently getting open against man coverage against better defenses this season. Those two need to be on against Arizona.
--Seahawks pass rush vs. Cardinals QB Drew Stanton: The biggest question mark for the Cardinals going forward is how they respond with backup Stanton taking over at QB for the injured Carson Palmer. Stanton has a strong arm and likes to throw deep. But he's susceptible to interceptions and has made just eight career starts. If Seattle can get pressure and get the CenturyLink crowd into the game, Stanton could be coerced into a few mistakes. The 6-3, 243-pounder is not known for his mobility, so Seattle has to keep him in the pocket and unnerve him and let the Legion of Boom do its thing.