The NFL is now as close as ever. In fact, it’s so close that I would go as far as saying that almost any given team can win or lose on any given day.
So what is it that separates a team that is undefeated, to a team that is struggling to get off the ground?
If you ask me, the best teams are the ones who can win close games. It’s those teams who can stuff the opposing Running Back at the one after the siren (Packers), or those teams that can turn around a 20 point deficit to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (Lions). It’s quite simply those teams who are ‘clutch’.
The Cardinals are just eight points off heading into Minnesota undefeated. Sure their Offensive Line is shaky, and their Secondary has been unspectacular, but those eight points, and three losses could quite simply be eradicated if the Cardinals could be ‘clutch’.
Most of you are probably peering into your computer screens thinking, “What on earth does it really mean to be ‘clutch’?” Well, I can answer that here and now.
Being ‘clutch’ is all about making that crucial play, at that crucial time. It’s as simple as that.
‘Clutch’ is sinking that basket on the buzzer, kicking that field goal after the siren, and leaping into the air to snag that impossible ball in the back of the end zone.
Now that photo right there, is the definition of 'clutch'.
It’s this ability that the Cardinals have been missing above all else this season.
So where has this ability to be clutch been absent so far this season?
The most notable instances where clutch was absent, was on the three late drives against the Redskins, Seahawks and Giants, which all could have led to Arizona victories.
Against Washington, the Cardinals had 1:45 left on the clock, and one timeout to charge into the Redskins territory for what could have been a game winning field goal. Instead, Chansi Stuckey lost a fumble on the first play of the drive to gift the Redskins the victory. Not clutch.
Against Seattle, the Cardinals had 2:57 and two timeout’s remaining, needing a field goal to tie the game. The Cardinals drove well into Seattle’s half, only to be halted just outside of field-goal range by Kam Chancellor’s interception, which practically guaranteed a Seattle victory. Not clutch.
Finally, after some clutch play by Eli Manning (7/8, 126 yards and two touchdowns between 5:16 and 2:46 in the Fourth Quarter), the Cardinals offence had a shot at eradicating the defence’s poor showing late in the game. Yet once again the Cardinals were unable to come up with points, and failed to convert a 4th-and-2, to grant victory to the Giants. Not clutch.
The Cardinals are good enough to stay in games deep into the fourth quarter, and there will surely be many more potential game-winning drives to come. If the Cardinals are to improve, they will need to be clutch in these scenarios.
Being able to complete plays on third-down often determines the outcome of a game. As a result, it should come as no surprise that the 4-0 Packers have completed over 50 percent of their third-down plays so far this season.
It’s on third-down that as a player, you must really step up to the mark and make the play, and this cannot be truer when speaking about plays that are 3rd-and-short.
The number of times the Cardinals have been unable to convert plays on third-down where they need less than five yards to pick up the first-down is astounding. In fact, it has happened nine times (including an incomplete 4th-and-1) over the past two games alone.
Two of these unconverted third-downs took place inside the Giants’ 10-yard line, and these are both plays that could well have resulted in touchdown’s instead of field-goals.
The Cardinals inability to make big plays in 3rd-and-short scenarios is by no means clutch.
Yet it’s not just the offence that is failing to make plays in 3rd-and-short scenarios. Defense’s usually thrive in these scenario’s; the crowd gets behind them, and they have a shot to really show the opposition who is boss.
Hence, with the fiery spirits of Dockett, Wilson, Rhodes and Peterson on our defense, it comes as quite a shock that we haven’t been able to shut down teams on 3rd-and-short.
Over the past three games, the opposition have completed thirteen 3rd-and-short plays. If the Cardinals want to win these close games, they must begin shutting down the opposition on these plays.
It’s here that they really need to make the big plays. In other words, it’s here that they need to be clutch.
Special Teams has been relatively impressive so far this season, although the game against Seattle showed the importance of a Special Teams unit that is clutch.
Jay Feely missed two crucial field goals (51, and 49 yards) that were the difference between a win and a loss for the Cardinals. Not clutch in the slightest.
The importance of these clutch plays is evidenced by Peterson’s punt-return for a touchdown against the Panthers. Without this clutch Special Teams play, the Panthers could well have won the game, and we could be in the thick of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.
The Cardinals now find themselves with a 1-3 record heading into Minnesota, and they will need to show that they can be clutch when it matters most if they are to come away with the win prior to the Bye.
With tough matchups against the Steelers and Ravens following the bye, it is going to be critical that the Cardinals take advantage of late drives, 3rd-and-short plays and opportunities on Special Teams if they are to put themselves in the right position to make a play-off run.
If not, we could be looking at another top 10 pick when the 2012 NFL Draft rolls around.
If you have any additional thoughts on where the Cardinals need to improve, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comment section below.