Falcons-Cardinals: Wild Card Preview

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IJanuary 2, 2009

It's kind of ironic that the Falcons are considered by many to be superior to the Cardinals, yet Atlanta doesn't get home-field advantage for their wild-card playoff game against Arizona.

The Falcons' offense is one of the best in the league, and is led by their Big Three: Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Roddy White.  The trio combined for 6,521 yards, 40 touchdowns, and 280 points in the regular season. 

Look for the Falcons to establish a methodical air attack, using short passes to a variety of receivers (of which the Falcons have a multitude, including not only White but also Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas) as they look to overwhelm the Cardinals' below-average pass defense, which doesn't give up a lot of long pass plays.

Plus, Atlanta will want to keep Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner and WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald off the field as much as possible.

Then there's Pro Bowl reserve running back Michael Turner, a powerful downhill runner who was one yard shy of 1,700 this season and scored 17 touchdowns. 

Turner's backup, Jerious Norwood, a threat in the passing game with a team-third-best 36 catches for 338 yards, and in the running game averaging 5.1 yards per carry, is no slouch, either. 

Atlanta's offense should get a boost from its special teams, all of which are better than the Cardinals'. This should result in better field position.

The Cardinals need to pray they win the coin toss.  Otherwise, very early in the game, they'll have to somehow find a way to stop a Falcons team that has tremendous offensive balance. 

If they don't, it's much more likely that they will lose, because Atlanta was 11-0 in the regular season when they scored first.

The Cardinals' offense is just as proficient as the Falcons', but it's less balanced.

Arizona has the second-best pass offense in the NFL, inferior only to the New Orleans Saints.  That's mostly because of the renaissance of old-timer QB Kurt Warner, who last played as well as he has this year in 1999, the year he took the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title.

But Warner, unlike Drew Brees of the Saints, has plenty of help at WR.

Arizona receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald are the top receiving duo in the NFL.  They combined for 187 receptions, 2,469 yards, and 30 touchdowns this season.  Both players have great strength, hands, and speed (particularly Fitzgerald regarding speed).  

The Falcons will have their hands full with Warner, Fitzgerald, and Boldin.  There's no way around it.  Those three will do some damage.  But, as good as the Cardinals are at passing, they're just as bad at running the ball. 

Arizona averages 73.6 yards per game on the ground.  That figure ranks dead last in the NFL.  The Falcons can play drop six or seven defenders into pass coverage, and that's exactly what I expect them to do. 

It should be easier to keep everyone dropped back against the pass because there's no reason for the Cardinals to even think about trying to use the run to set up play-action. 

The Cardinals have a highly dangerous pass offense.  But where Arizona's ground attack is woeful, whereas Atlanta's is one of the three best in the NFL. 

Plus, Atlanta's defense improved continuously throughout the second half of the regular season.  Arizona's defense worsened, especially in the last month of the season. 

Look for Atlanta to find itself in the division playoffs next week.