However, the road to the playoffs won’t be an easy one for the Cardinals. Aside from finishing the year undefeated, they need the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers to self-destruct. Why? Because the Panthers and 49ers currently own the final two wild-card spots in the NFC.
The good news is Arizona’s defense is allowing the fifth-fewest yards in the NFL, while its offense is putting up 247.7 yards per game through the air. Yet, the bad news is its running game is the 25th-best rushing attack in the league, and defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is scheduled to miss the rest of the season with torn ligaments in his knee.
For those of you who missed the announcement, head coach Bruce Arians confirmed on Monday that Mathieu tore his ACL and LCL versus the Rams. Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com believes the rehab process will take longer than normal due to the fact the LCL was torn in addition to the ACL.
Mathieu’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time.
The rookie out of LSU was putting together a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Through 13 games, the 186-pound ball hawk had amassed 68 total tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one quarterback sack.
Additionally, the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had Mathieu graded out as the second-best cornerback in the league at the end of Week 14. He has been sensational against the run, top-notch in coverage and above-average in pass-rushing situations.
Without a doubt, he was one of the most complete corners in the NFL before his injury.
Nonetheless, the Cardinals aren’t in a position to look back. They have to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize and find a way to replace his production in the starting lineup. The only problem is it’s hard to replace the production of a player who meant so much to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' defense.
One player won’t be able to reproduce what Mathieu did on the back end of Arizona’s defense—it will take a collective effort. As it stands right now, Rashad Johnson will return to his role as the team’s starting free safety, while veterans Javier Arenas, Bryan McCann, and Antoine Cason will pick up the slack in the slot.
Yet, it would be foolish to think Arenas, McCann and Cason will immediately step in and dominate the way Mathieu did. The three players mentioned above have tallied 134 defensive snaps and 15 total tackles.
Johnson, on the other hand, has had a more fruitful campaign in 2013. In 501 defensive snaps, he has garnered 44 total tackles, five passes defended and three interceptions. Furthermore, he has earned a plus-5.4 rating from the folks at PFF.
To be blunt, the Cardinals should be far less concerned about the free safety position than the nickel corner position. Arenas, McCann and Cason have a lot more to prove, from now until the end of the season, than Johnson does.
This, in turn, leads me to one simple question: Will Mathieu's injury destroy the Cardinals' playoff ambitions?
Some may be quick to jump the gun and answer “Yes” to this question, but before they do, let’s not forget Arians’ bunch has shown resiliency all season long. Whether it was losing first-round pick Jonathan Cooper to a broken leg or overcoming a 3-4 start, the Gridbirds have found a way to rise to the occasion when their backs were against the wall.
Fortunately for Arizona, it can thank Arians for this mentality.
Back in September, All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald told Bleacher Report that, no matter the situation, the 61-year-old coach makes it tough on the players. He pushes them to their limits and challenges the squad on a daily basis. He simply doesn’t have time for excuses.
Honestly, that’s the way it should be. Injuries are a part of the game, and coaches have to go into battle with the players they have at their disposal. No one feels sorry for a particular team when it accrues more injuries than the next, so it’s a good thing Arians and the Cardinals have a next-man-up mentality.
Still, the right mindset doesn’t automatically translate into wins. Arizona still has to go out and perform over the course of its next three games. With matchups versus the Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks and 49ers, Mathieu’s absence down the stretch may prove to be the difference.
First and foremost, winning on the road is no easy task, but it becomes that much tougher when a team is asked to go to Seattle and secure a victory at CenturyLink Field. Moreover, cornerback Patrick Peterson can’t be expected to shut every playmaking wide receiver down. Obviously, he can only cover one receiver at a time.
So, who is going to cover Kendall Wright, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree? Right cornerback Jerraud Powers has played well at times this season, but he’s not good enough to take away any of the aforementioned names when Peterson is locking down the left side of the field.
The Cardinals had a good run in 2013, but Mathieu’s injury was the straw that broke the camel’s back. If Arizona was in the AFC, there’s no question it would capture the sixth and final playoff spot. Yet, the NFC has proven week in and week out that it’s too damn good.
We could easily see two wild-card teams lock up the final two spots in the NFC with 11-5 records.
Arians and general manager Steve Keim have the organization headed in the right direction, but their shot at playoff glory will have to wait another year. Even though that notion stings at the moment, there are still plenty of valuable lessons to be learned in Weeks 15, 16 and 17.
The Cardinals can either choose to learn from those lessons or ignore the opportunities to garner invaluable knowledge and experience.
Based on Arians’ coaching style and the way he conducts himself, it’s safe to say Arizona will reap the benefits and prosper in the long run.