After starting the season with a disappointing—and in many ways heartbreaking—1-2 record, the Arizona Cardinals are fast approaching their season's do-or-die time.
It is inconsequential that this game, which could either turn the tide of a flagging season or put the proverbial nail in the coffin, comes against a resurgent New York Giants team.
The Cardinals must find a way to win or risk a record that puts them on pace to fall short of last year's underwhelming performance.
With that in mind, here are some potential difference makers to watch for during the game on Sunday. If even a few of these imperatives are met, we could see the Cardinals upset the Giants. Otherwise, we may be in for a long, excruciating game.
The offense's inability to capitalize on the (frankly) surprising plethora of opportunities that the defense has handed them in the two losses is the No. 1 reason why the Cardinals are not 2-1 or even 3-0 going into this game.
The Cardinals’ defense has done their part in the turnover game, sort of. They’re nowhere near the best in the league, but they've handed the ball back to the offense four times so far this year on turnovers and another 29 times on good old fashioned third-down stops.
The offense, on the other hand, has been utterly counterproductive to the defense’s efforts. They’ve scored just 59 points total to date this season.
More importantly, they’ve failed to keep the defense off the field; they control the ball for just under 27 minutes per game on average. Those extra minutes add up quickly for defenders. Keep in mind that the Cardinals blew a late lead against the Washington Redskins when their offense was unable to stay on the field for more than a minute or two at a time.
The Giants are not invincible defensively. They've suffered injuries that may eventually prove to be catastrophic despite having scraped by the past few weeks.
Still, until the Cardinals can figure out how to finish their drives with points on the board on a more consistent basis, the Cardinals will never win.
And let's face it: whether some of us want to admit it or not, Kolb was brought in to be a franchise quarterback. There was no other reason to give up a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to acquire him.
So far, Kolb has been a disappointment. Sure, he's bonding with his teammates and showing flashes of greatness on the field. On the other hand, though, he's not performing to expectation. Not even close.
Of all the offensive players on the Cardinals, Kolb above anyone else has been a turnover machine. He's had a lost fumble and three interceptions in just three games. For every opportunity the defense has given Kolb's offense, he has single-handedly created at least one opportunity for the opposition.
That's a dual bite. He's robbing his team of much-needed opportunities to gain points, and at the same time, he's handing scoring opportunities to the other team
Larry Fitzgerald is a phenomenal athlete and arguably one of the best wide receivers in the league. He can't keep carrying the team on his back.
Where are the other wide receivers or tight ends for that matter? Isn't this single-minded targeting of Fitzgerald the behavior the Cardinals should be trying to avoid.
Even when the ball isn't thrown his way, Fitzgerald is an asset on the field. The defense must give him respect, which generally means double-coverage. That means that somewhere on the field there's an unguarded body that Kolb could be throwing to.
Arizona may not have any other superstar wide receivers, but they wouldn’t be on the field if they couldn’t get the job done.
The Cardinals’ offensive woes are not all Kevin Kolb’s fault. Part of their recent slump can be directly attributed to the injury that kept Beanie Wells on the sidelines last week.
This week, Wells says he will definitely play. He may be the key to their offense against the Giants.
Thanks to injury, the Giants’ run defense is in shambles. They’ve given up an average of more than 100 yards per game on the ground, and they are showing no signs of being able to stop the bleeding any time soon.
If Beanie Wells can come in and have his way with the Giants’ defense, he will single-handedly give his team a serious advantage. He’ll take the pressure off of Kolb by forcing the Giants to play a more balanced defense, and he’ll chew up the clock while he’s doing it to give the defense some much-needed rest.
Despite some weaknesses in the secondary, the Arizona defense hasn’t been terrible this year.
Really, it hasn’t.
The 397 yards per game that they’ve given up on average are misleading. What’s more important is the 56 total points they’ve given up—good enough for 8th in the league going into Week 4.
Aside from a collapse against the Redskins that was largely fueled by the offense’s inability to stay on the field, the defense has stood surprisingly strong in the face of a lot of adversity. They’ve been able to keep the Cardinals in the game; it isn’t on them that the offense hasn’t been able to seal the deal.
Excuses aside, though, the defense has given up crucial points in the second half of both losses.
Whether or not the offense is helping them out, the defense must get closer to being as good at the end of the game as they are in the beginning.
Defensive leaders Darnell Docket, Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson must take this opportunity to step up and make plays late in the game. With better leadership, the younger players on the defensive side of the ball will surely follow suit.
The Cardinals’ defense may be somewhat acquitted in their poor overall rankings based on their ability to at least keep the game close, but they clearly need to do more to help their team achieve wins.
They can start by getting to Eli Manning this Sunday.
It’s no secret that Eli Manning, despite his Super Bowl ring, is not quite a member of the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the NFL. He can be dangerous if he’s comfortable in the pocket, but when he’s disrupted, he has a tendency towards self destruction.
Putting pressure on Manning to the tune of knockdowns, hurryups and sacks will be a huge step towards victory for the Cardinals.
What was the difference between the Cardinals’ win and the Cardinals’ two losses?
Special teams production.
After a game-winning start to the season when Patrick Peterson returned a fourth-quarter punt for a touchdown, the Cardinals’ special teams have stalled.
The returners have done practically nothing for the past two games, delivering poor starting position for offensive drives and failing to make big plays.
Against Seattle, the field goal part of the special teams unit cost the Cardinals the game. Missing a single field goal in a game is unfortunate but understandable. Missing two field goals in a game against the Seattle Seawhawks is inexcusable.