Analyzing the Arizona Cardinals' Early-Season Success
Since Nov. 6, 2011, the Cardinals have quietly won 10 of 12, and it appears that their momentum is still flowing.
It took a while, but after victories against Seattle, New England and Philadelphia—two of which are 2-1, NE is 1-2—analysts now have no choice but to recognize the Cardinals as a major threat in the NFC.
But do they have the goods to keep this up?
In the opening game of the season, fans at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona got to witness a fourth-quarter comeback by their Cardinals, but not with starting quarterback John Skelton.
After an ankle injury took Skelton out of the game, Kevin Kolb, who was named the backup nine days prior, stepped in and threw for 66 yards and a touchdown on the game-winning drive to lead the Cardinals past the Seahawks, 20-16.
Kevin Kolb threw a touchdown pass to Andre Roberts and ran for another one late in the second half to take a commanding 20-9 lead. However, as expected, Brady came firing back with two scoring drives to pull New England within two points of Arizona.
The Patriots could not close the deal, however, as Stephen Gostkowski’s kick sailed wide left of the upright with just a few ticks left on the board.
To complete the 3-0 start, the Cardinals handed the previously undefeated Eagles their first loss of the season, 27-6. Larry Fitzgerald finally emerged after two subpar games by snagging nine receptions for 114 yards and his first touchdown.
With the help of Fitzgerald, the Cardinals offense tore apart the Eagles. Kolb threw for 222 yards against his former team, including two touchdowns.
While all these stats are nice, the offense has merely been a minor part of why the Arizona Cardinals are currently undefeated; the main reason is their defense.
Head coach Ken Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Ray Horton have crafted together a group of players that play incredibly hard and mesh extremely well together.
Through the first three games, Arizona’s defense has been absolutely relentless. Over that short span of time, it has already sacked the quarterback 12 times (second in NFL) and caused six turnovers (tied for the most recovered fumbles with four).
Their physicality and quickness were properly showcased in their recent rout of the Eagles. The Cardinals sacked Michael Vick five times in the backfield and forced three crucial fumbles—one of which was taken back 93 yards for a touchdown to end the first half.
Third-year linebacker Daryl Washington anchors the Arizona defense with three sacks, while linebackers Paris Lenon, Quentin Groves and defensive end Calais Campbell are right on his tail with two apiece.
Who will win the NFC West
With second-year phenom Patrick Peterson and veteran Adrian Wilson roaming the secondary, and Darnell Dockett leading the pass rush, opposing quarterbacks have not had much success throwing the football against Arizona this season. The highest completion percentage the Cardinals have allowed is 60.8 percent to Tom Brady.
Thanks to a heavy pass rush and equally efficient secondary, Arizona has been able to hold teams to 13.3 points per game thus far, good for second best in the NFL.
The special teams unit has been quite the spectacle as well. The Cardinals currently lead the NFL with two blocked kicks this season.
The first block happened as Calais Campbell got a hand on a Steven Hauschka 50-yard field goal against Seattle. Then, in New England, Quentin Groves blocked a Zoltan Mesko punt on the Patriots’ 10-yard line.
On the other side of the ball, dynamic return man Patrick Peterson is bound to break one off for a touchdown after leading the NFL with four punt-return touchdowns as a rookie in 2011.
So what does all of this mean? The Cardinals are 3-0, but how long can they last? Can they withhold the likes of San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC West?
Over the next four games, the Cardinals play four extremely beatable teams.
Following the Dolphins, Arizona plays a Rams team that ranks outside the top 20 in both passing and rushing categories.
In Week 6 the Cards host the Bills, who continue to struggle with major injury problems on offense.
I have a feeling, however, that if the Cardinals defense was able to cause problems for Tom Brady and Michael Vick, they should not have trouble taking Christian Ponder out of his comfort zone.
I predict a 7-0 start for the Arizona Cardinals. But where do they go from there? Perfect season?
Down the road, I see the lack of a good running game becoming a major problem for the Cardinals. Neither Ryan Williams nor Beanie Wells are adequate or dependable enough to carry the workload in 2012.
The San Francisco 49ers rush defense will exploit their weakness in Week 8, thus ending their perfect-season bid.
From then on, matchups against Green Bay, Atlanta and San Francisco again highlight a tough schedule that will bring the Cardinals back down to earth, leading them to a second-place finish in the NFC West behind the 49ers.
Because of their second-half schedule, I expect the Cards to lose six out of their last nine games and finish the season 10-6. Although I don’t see them taking the NFC West, I do plan on watching the Cardinals play in the NFC Wild Card Game.
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