Most remember the Arizona Cardinals from their horrendous Thanksgiving game against the Eagles, where they completed only three of 10 third downs, turned the ball over four times, and the vaunted offense had half the time of possession as Philadelphia. It’s small wonder the team dropped off national radar.
But under scrutiny, Arizona has had exactly two bad games this season. Both were on the East Coast, and both followed weird weeks. The Eagles game came not just with McNabb and Reid’s backs against the wall, but Arizona having played a lights-out game against the Giants just four days earlier on the other side of the country. Technically, that’s a "let down game."
So here’s the scoop from someone who’s watched every play every game without a turkey hangover.
A high-powered pass offense, an unappreciated run defense, an emerging secondary against the pass, and veteran Super Bowlers in the form of Warner, Whisenhunt, and Grimm.
The Cardinals have three—count them, three—receivers in the top 10 (receptions). No other team has two. Warner is a serious contender for League MVP, both Fitzgerald and Boldin should add another Pro Bowl to their resumes, and Boldin deserves Comeback Player of the year after his face restructure from Week Six.
They’re a very healthy team for this point in the season. And note that the defense has 26 turnovers—only one less than the league-leading Bears.
Their punting game, a tendency to out-smart themselves defensively, and a complete absence of a running game (unless they play the Rams). Clancy Pendergast, the defensive coordinator, shows a brilliant mind one week in holding a Giants running game (which had surpassed 200 yards for three weeks in a row) to a mere 87 yards.
The very next week Pendergast schemes without considering Brian Westbrook.
The same can be noted of their tackling. One week the defense sticks like glue to whoever they hit; the next week no one can wrap up a tackle.
The Cardinal punter has been upgraded. In his one game, Graham punted a 50-yarder and two short high ones to force the opposing team to fair catch within their own 20.
Perhaps more importantly, Graham has a smooth, speedy motion to catch and field the long snap for kicker Neil Rackers. When Rackers is comfortable, he’s been known to set records.
The running game is unlikely to get fixed in December. But when a team plays to its strengths, they often win; and if anyone can win in the air it’s Kurt Warner.
The last factor is the emotional factor—which is both tough to quantify and the key to victory. Many teams new to the postseason show "playoff jitters" that takes them out of their game. Whisenhunt, Grimm, and Warner may offset some of that. And then again, they may not.
SO, let’s consider the likely possibility that Arizona becomes the third seed and finishes the last three games without a serious injury.
80 percent chance the Cardinals win their first playoff game at home. This team rarely loses in University of Phoenix Stadium—and whoever comes in, it won’t be the Giants.
The second playoff game will be away and very likely on the East Coast. Arizona won’t be coming off a short week, however, and despite the Thanksgiving perception, the Big Red will play hard.
If they play south of the Mason-Dixon line, I’ll give them a 50 percent chance to win. (If it’s Dallas, make that 60 percent. If Romo spends time with a blond under 30, make it 75 percent.)
If it’s north of the Mason-Dixon, the odds are 40 percent. If they beat the Patriots next week, raise that to 45 percent.
Which brings us to the NFC Championship Game. If Arizona gets this far, Whisenhunt has found a way to win on the road. I’ll give them a straight up 50 percent chance to win against anyone but the Giants and 40 percent chance to win in New York.
If, somehow, it comes down to the Super Bowl, then put Arizona at 50 percent chance to win. To earn the right to play in Tampa Bay in February means the Cardinals will show up with more than their suitcases. They’ll compete with anybody.
The bottom line
If Warner is off his game, it will be a short trip for Arizona—though they will win their first home game. But if No. 13 hits his stride, and that rosy playoff emotion doesn't hinder the rest of the team, the Arizona Cardinals will be a lot of fun to watch.