Arizona Cardinals Need Road Win over NFC-Leading Atlanta Falcons to Save Season

Shaun ChurchContributor INovember 12, 2012

Cards QB John Skelton has been sacked less often than Kevin Kolb in 2012.
Cards QB John Skelton has been sacked less often than Kevin Kolb in 2012.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The statement, “The Arizona Cardinals need a win this week” does not quite do it. Yes, they do need to beat the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta to salvage what was a great start.

However, more could be at stake if the team loses a sixth-consecutive game Sunday.

Head coach Ken Whisenhunt is the Cardinals’ franchise leader in wins, with a record of 48-47 (playoffs included). With the help of quarterback Kurt Warner, he maneuvered the franchise past its losing ways and into the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, reaching Super Bowl XLIII to face his old team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Cardinals, of course, lost that game and, since Warner’s retirement following a 10-6 season in 2009, have returned to those losing ways, collecting more Ls than Ws—just 17-24 in two and a half seasons.

What is more troubling, however, is not that the team must travel to face the NFC’s top team at a venue in which they rarely lose (30-6 in regular-season games since drafting quarterback Matt Ryan), but that the Cardinals under Whisenhunt are 1-4 following a bye week.

The only win came in a 2009 Week 5 home game against the Houston Texans, a game the Cardinals only won because cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie intercepted Texans’ QB Matt Schaub and took it 49 yards to the house with 2:30 left.

The pick-six gave Arizona a 28-21 victory.

Whisenhunt’s team has faced four eventual NFL division-winners of the five they have faced following a bye week—Pittsburgh in 2011, the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, the Carolina Panthers in 2008 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2007. The Houston victory came against a team who finished 9-7, second to the 14-2 Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts.

It has been nothing but difficult matchups for Arizona following a bye since Whisenhunt took over. Those teams were a combined 49-31 the year they faced the Cardinals after their bye week.

It gets no easier, obviously, as that opponents’ record will improve as the 2012 season closes.

Atlanta will have the NFC South division crown in hand before too long, and the likelihood they finish with less than 10 wins seems slim to none.

What, then, does another loss mean?

Dropping to 4-6 means a possible spot in the basement of the NFC West, behind the St. Louis Rams, who somewhat miraculously tied the San Francisco 49ers Sunday—miraculous because they should have won on numerous occasions. Last in a division in which they held a one-game lead just six weeks prior would be devastating to players, coaches and fans of the franchise.

Last is unacceptable.

But does it also mean Whisenhunt and other coaches could be on the chopping block at the end of the season? Things could not have looked better after a 4-0 start despite signs of the offensive line being among the NFL’s worst.

Two quarterback injuries, two running back injuries, three offensive line injuries and more on defense have helped stall what could have been a historic season for the team. Does that give the coaching staff a pass?

The line has been historically bad all on its own this season. B/R Atlanta Falcons Featured Columnist Scott Carasik used the word “vomitus” when describing the Cards’ line—and my peanut butter, banana and mustard sandwich, for what it's worth. It was a combined description.

"Here's a word that can describe both that sandwich and the Cardinals' offensive line: vomitus," Carasik said.

Though he is not wrong (about the line), they have improved since John Skelton was forced back into the lineup during the overtime loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Kevin Kolb has been under some kind of pressure 92 times out of 217 drop-backs. That is 42.4 percent of all drop-backs. 27 of those turned into sacks (12.4 percent).

Skelton has been under pressure 69 times out of 188 drop-backs, good for 36.7 percent of all drop-backs, and 14 of those turned into sacks (7.4 percent).

With the same line, Skelton gets pressured and sacked less than Kolb. It is true, he has not thrown enough touchdowns and has thrown a pick in 11 straight games in which he has played. But while Kolb is always considered the better escapee, it is Skelton who does better under pressure (avoiding it, anyway).

That comes from getting rid of the ball faster, for one. Entering Week 10, Skelton was No. 8 in the NFL at getting rid of the ball, averaging 2.50 seconds from time of snap to time of release (per ProFootballFocus)—Kolb was No. 20, at 2.59 seconds. And Skelton's awareness in the pocket to step up rather than roll out is another reason.

Will, “they did what they could with the situation they were given” save Whisenhunt, offensive line coach Russ Grimm and offensive coordinator Mike Miller if the team loses 10 games this year?

These questions will remain unanswered for now, but one thing is certain: a victory over a very good—but very beatable—Falcons team Sunday wipes away the majority of these harping questions.

I will have your weekly “Keys to Victory” column out Friday. Until then, keep it Cards.