On Monday the Arizona Cardinals face the San Francisco 49ers in the first of three back—to—back home games.
It is the very definition of a must win game.
Monday night, prime time, at home, against division rivals, with an inseparable record.
The winner can potentially tie for second, and draw within one game of the Seattle Seahawks, while the looser will almost certainly fall out of contention.
For the Cardinals, a win would also snap a five game loosing streak, their worst in four years.
On the evidence of recent form, neither team enter as clear favourites, however, baring a significant improvement, it is hard to say that home advantage benefits the Cardinals in any significant way.
So, what must the Cardinals do to give themselves the best chance of winning against the 49ers?
I know, I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but it needs to be said.
I said it last week about the Chiefs game, I wrote an article about it a few days ago, and I will say it again today.
Arizona need to run the ball.
Our passing game has suffered immensely from the loss of Kurt Warner. In the absence of an experienced QB, everyone had expected Beanie Wells and the running team to benefit.
They have not.
They need to.
Now. Let me explain something. I am a Cardinals fan, not a Giants or Ravens fan in no small part due to the fact that I dislike the run—first offence. I am a relative newcomer to the NFL, having been born in the UK. Growing up, my experience with Gridiron Football was that of most people abroad, too stop—start, too many short runs and overall kind of boring.
My first real experience of American Football was while living in Canada in 2002, and I was sold. The CFL is a pass—heavy league, and I loved it.
When It came to choosing an NFL team, unshackled by geography, I was free to choose any of the leagues 32 teams, and the Cardinals played the most pass oriented game of anyone I had seen.
So you know that when I suggest Arizona migrate from their pass heavy offence, to a distinctly run oriented offensive strategy it is coming from a place of desperation.
Our pass game is not dependable, and will not win us games. On the other hand our run game is more promising, and the 49ers run defence is pretty ineffective too. They have given up, on average, over 100 yards per game, and last week against the Buccaneers gave up over 160.
They are not the worst in the league, but they are far from the best either, and given how poor our passing offence has been, there is no reason not to try and force the issue on the ground. Their passing defence is also poor, so a good running game should also really open things up down field.
I am certain that, if Arizona continue to put the ball in the hands of Beanie Wells, and run it right into the heart of the San Francisco defence, and allow LaRod Stephens-Howling to use his speed around the outside, given a little patience, it will pay dividends.
I really want to see both players getting at least double digits touches, ideally around 20 for Wells, and at least 12-15 for Stephens-Howling.
Derek Anderson is no longer an NFL calibre quarterback, and robs the Cardinals of any chance of winning. What's more, he puts their receiving corps in danger.
His passes are consistent in only one way. They are consistently a few feet too high, a few steps too long and a few miles per hour too quick. It is only due to our fantastic receivers that he has completed any passes this season, and the ones he has made have often put them in jeopardy. He is solely to blame for the injury to Early Doucet last week, and nearly injured Andre Roberts and Steve Breaston in similar ways.
No receiver should be hit so regularly in the air, yet that is what he forces them to do by constantly throwing overly high balls to covered players.
So, who should take his place? I think, of all the Quarterbacks who played during the pre-season, Skelton looked the best.
I liked his arm, I liked his composure, and I liked the rapport he seemed to have developed with the receivers.
I have no idea what must have happened behind the scenes to loose out to Anderson and Hall, but whatever it was, surely the time has come to give him another chance.
Reports suggested that Skelton had difficulty learning the play-book, but, since the playbook needs to be rewritten to accommodate the run more anyway, Skelton should have a much simpler passing playbook to learn.
In fact, I suggest that the passing plays can be stripped back to just a dozen or so plays. A couple of screens, a couple of 10 yard plays, a couple of deep plays and a half dozen or so play action passes or trick plays.
That's all he needs. Every one of his receivers are looking fantastic. Larry Fitzgerald will catch any ball that is remotely catchable, as will Steve Breaston, who has been, in my opinion, Arizona's best player when he has played.
Early Doucet, if he is fit to return from the concussion suffered in Kansas City is the sort of player anyone would want at third on the depth chart, and Andre Roberts is quickly developing into an exciting prospect in his own right.
And our Tight Ends and Running Backs have shown ability to catch passes too.
These players, and twelve plays gives Skelton more than enough options when it comes to passing, and, so long as he is able to get the ball near the players, not five feet above their heads, the Cardinals, lead by Skelton should have a more than serviceable pass game, especially against the 49ers generous secondary.
The Cardinals may not have one of the best defensive records, but their defenders are certainly amongst the most feared, especially by quarterbacks.
Normally, the level of pressure they apply to a quarterback is a sight to behold. On a normal Sunday, it is rare to see the opposing quarterback throw while not being hit. Some QBs are fine with this. Troy Smith is not really one of those quarterbacks.
He does not like being pressured, and throws a good number of wayward balls when he is. He has a quick release, but forcing him to use it resulted in the interception thrown against the Buccaneers. Smith has also fumbled the ball twice in his starts for the 49ers.
And let's not forget that San Francisco's offensive line is nearly as appalling as Arizona's own.
Against the Chiefs, Matt Cassel, was given free reign to throw pass after pass with practically no pressure applied.
I am not sure heard Darnell Dockett's name mentioned at all, except to when the commentator pointed out that he hadn't said Dockets name yet.
Giving the QB time is fine, if it means that your defensive backs have every receiver under lock and key, but that was not the case either, and Cassel was still able to hit his target more often than not. Arizona did not have a single pick, or sack all night.
Against the 49ers, however, pressure needs to be applied to the QB, and it will result in sacks, and interceptions. If I was Billy Davis, I would be blitzing on most plays. I would blitz corners, safeties, linebackers, everyone.
Not everyone on every play, no, but I would allow the receivers a little space at times, and challenge Troy Smith to make good reads with Adrian Wilson and Darnell Dockett in his face.
Another area of concern was the Cardinals Red—Zone defence. Up until last week, it had been one of the few positives in Arizona's season. Against the Chiefs, it was like they stopped trying.
Arizona need to find a way to keep up their intensity, especially on the goal line. There is a bi difference between a three point field goal, which you know you stand a chance of blocking, and seven points. Holding a team sitting on your goal line to a field goal try is a big win, and it is imperative that the Cardinals are able to continue doing that against San Francisco.
We all know Ken Whisenhunt misses Todd Haley. He needs someone else to take on the role of offensive play caller next year. Until then, however, Whisenhunt needs to call plays like he's playing Madden, or perhaps like his son Kenneth Jr is playing Madden.
He needs to try a Hail Mary on third—and—one, and then go for it on fourth down if that doesn't work, he needs to run it on second—and—20, and call exciting trick plays. He needs to try a surprise onside kick to open the game.
He needs to do something to change the complexion of the game, and get the team fired up.
I have said before, Arizona need to treat the rest of the season like they're already out of it, to try things that they wouldn't otherwise do, and just have fun.
Who knows if Jay Feeley can kick a 65—yard field goal. I don't, but we never will if he never get's to try.
I honestly believe if the players are given permission to fail, they are more likely to succeed at this point in the season. If the pressure to win the division is removed, and instead they are allowed just to have fun, then I suspect that they are much more likely to win.
If nothing else, creative play calling will keep the 49ers guessing, and against a porous defence like that of the Niners, that can't not play into the Cardinals favour.
One thing Todd Haley did very well was taking risks, and making them pay off. Whisenhunt is not that sort of play caller, but for the remaining six games, he needs to be, before the Cardinals are forced to find someone else who is.
The Cardinals have never been a conservative sort of team. They aren't built that way, and the fans don't want them to become that way. We want to see crazy plays that just shouldn't work. We want to see Steve Breaston attempting to complete a pass to his quarterback, we want to see defenders running in interceptions for touchdowns, even though we really know that they should secure the ball, go to ground and run out the clock.
We love that sort of thing.
I don't care if they loose, so long as they are having fun doing it. Loosing hurts a lot less if you've had a blast watching them try.
If one thing has plagued the Cardinals more than anything this year, it has been their attitude.
Throughout their history, the Cardinals have been known as the scrappy underdogs, with a never—say—die attitude, admirers, even if not always games.
Coming back from a double–digit deficit is nothing new for the Cardinals. Rallying is what they do.
That is, until this year.
In 2010, as soon as the opposition score you get the feeling that the game is out of reach. The team stop playing, and right then and there, the game gets out of reach.
And even when they are winning, they seem all too eager to abandon play calling that is working in favour of something that is not.
But, as the final drive of the Chiefs game showed, it doesn't have to be that way.
Now you can argue, and I probably would, that giving up a single touchdown after the game is already won was the right thing for the Chiefs to do. You could argue that the best thing to do was allow Arizona to complete short passes in bounds, and force the Cardinals to burn their remaining time—outs and run the clock.
You could argue that because the Chiefs were allowing them to complete passes, the drive, and resulting touchdown don't count.
And you'd probably be right, but the point remains that the Cardinals still turned that into a touchdown and extra point. Small conciliation, for sure, but points none the less.
It happened, in no small part, because the Cardinals continued playing until the final seconds ticked off the clock. As long as the Cards keep playing, and do not allow the opponents scoring to distract them from their own goals, then they can win any game and beat any team.
As long as Arizona keep doing whatever is working and force their opponents to prove that they can stop it before moving on to the next plan they give themselves every chance to control the pace of the game.
They must maintain focus, and not allow mental errors to creep in just because they are behind.
This of course appears to fly in the face of everything I said about being allowed to make mistakes, and have fun, but I don't see it.
Being allowed to make mistakes and wanting to are two very different things. Being allowed to make mistakes simply frees you to be less conservative, and try big, exciting things, remaining focused allows those things to pay off.
If the Cardinals can do these things, especially against weak NFC West rivals, the game is theirs for the taking.