Arizona Cardinals: 7 Ways to Stay Relevant in Latter Part of Season

Luke Bunger@LukeHBCardsCorrespondent IIINovember 30, 2011

Arizona Cardinals: 7 Ways to Stay Relevant in Latter Part of Season

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    Following an impressive, nail-biting and once again closely contested victory against the St. Louis Rams, the Cardinals have plenty to be thankful for.

    Ace return man Patrick Peterson equaled an NFL record, and running back Beanie Wells had a career game, setting a new Cardinals rushing record in the process.

    Looking at their record, their remaining schedule and their numerous issues, it would be easy to suggest the Cardinals have nothing left to play for, but anyone doing so would be sorely mistaken.

    While the postseason is realistically out of reach, as the Cardinals season enters the home stretch, there is still plenty that the team can do to stay relevant.

    There is potential for the Cardinals to upset the balance, get some players noticed and build towards a 2012 season where they can once more challenge for the NFC West title.

    So what can the Cardinals do to remain relevant during their final five games? Join me as we take a look.

Settle Some Scores: Go at Least .500 in the Division

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    The Arizona Cardinals have already swept their division rivals the St. Louis Rams and lost one each against the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.

    They currently sit at .500 in their division and would be able to take a lot of pride at holding at least that record by season's end.

    The Cardinals play both the 49ers and Seahawks in Glendale during the last four weeks of the season and will look to grab at least one win in these two games.

    The Cardinals nearly grabbed a win against the Seahawks in Seattle earlier in the season, so the smart money says that if it's going to happen, it will not happen until the final week of the season against the Seahawks.

    But if the Cardinals want to stay relevant, and I mean really relevant, then what better way to do so than by grabbing a win against the 49ers in Week 14?

    The 49ers are Super Bowl contenders, and no matter how the season ends, nothing will give fans and pundits more to talk about than handing a rare loss to a playoff hopeful and divisional rival, perhaps sending them into the Wild Card Round and costing them home-field advantage down the stretch in the process.

    By Week 14, the 49ers will have probably already clinched the NFC West title with an all-but-guaranteed win against St. Louis in Week 13, but handing them a loss would be sweet revenge following the Cardinals' humiliation in San Francisco.

    Is it likely? Probably not, but the 49ers are beatable, as proven by the Baltimore Ravens, a team that the Cardinals very nearly beat themselves, so they can but hope.

Protect the Nest: Reward Cardinals Home Fans with Vital Wins

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    Four of the Cardinals' last five games are in Arizona.

    In spite of a very disappointing season in 2010 and a below-par 2011, Cardinals fans have always stepped up, even when their team has not. Though better teams in bigger markets have all suffered multiple blackouts throughout this economic downturn, Arizona Cardinals fans have ensured that their team has not fallen prey to this.

    In fact, the Cardinals' sellout streak now stretches back 59 games, including every one in University of Phoenix Stadium.

    What better way to repay these fans than with some much-needed home wins?

    There are lots of metrics by which you can measure success, in its varying degrees, and while it would be the height of optimism to hope for a winning season outright, a winning home record is not an impossible goal.

    The Cardinals will need to win three of their remaining four home games to end with a winning season, two for a .500 season.

    It is not unrealistic to hope that the Cards can best the Seahawks at home, and the Cleveland Browns have won only one game out of five on the road—against the winless Indianapolis Colts—so they should be beatable as well. However, to get a winning record at home, the Cardinals will need to upset either the 49ers—as discussed on the previous slide—or the Dallas Cowboys.

    Unfortunately, both games come in the next two weeks and will be played with question marks about the preparedness of Kevin Kolb hanging over the team, but one win in the next two games will give the fans plenty to cheer about and will likely also silence some of Kolb's critics to boot.

End the QB Controversy: Decide If Kolb or Skelton Is the Future in Arizona

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    The Cardinals entered 2011 with something the team had not had since the retirement of Kurt Warner—clarity at QB.

    Kevin Kolb was brought to the team in the blockbuster trade of the summer, and everyone in Arizona believed he would be the guy to lead the Cardinals back to their winning ways and the NFC West title.

    That proved not to be the case when ineffective play cost the team, and eventually a turf-toe injury sidelined Kolb for the last four weeks.

    During that time, second-year backup and fan favourite John Skelton led the Cardinals to a 3-1 record, and ignited somewhat of a controversy in the desert. His impressive record, if not his on-field performances, led some—myself included—to believe that Skelton, not Kolb, is the Cardinals' future and should be allowed to close out the season for the Cardinals.

    It now looks clear that once cleared to play, Kolb, not Skelton, will get the nod no matter what, but whatever happens, the Cardinals need to settle this QB controversy by season's end. They simply cannot enter another season with question marks around such a key position and hope to win long-term.

    Both players look like projects at this time, so the Cardinals need to decide now which project they are going to run with and stick with it.

    My belief is that if you are going to develop a QB, you go with the younger, more cost-effective guy—Skelton in this case—rather than breaking the bank to bring in a guy who appears only a little more prepared to play than your average rookie, and much less so than some of the best rookies—like Cam Newton and Andy Dalton—who are making waves in 2011.

    Whatever they do, the Cardinals need to answer this question sooner rather than later. It may not keep them relevant on a national scale but is about the most relevant thing they could hope to do for their local fanbase.

Set an NFL Record: Get Patrick Peterson at Least One More TD

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    Tying an NFL record as a rookie is impressive. Smashing it keeps your team on the highlight reels for years to come.

    Right now, Patrick Peterson has tied the NFL single-season record for punt returns for TDs, and what's more, he has done so while fielding every one of them inside the 20—contrary to conventional NFL wisdom.

    He is probably singlehandedly responsible for more of the Cardinals' wins this season than anyone else and will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the NFL's elite return men.

    However, a tied record is much less impressive than a broken one, and the Cardinals now have five games to try to do just that.

    Doing so won't be easy—teams are already aware of Peterson's explosive nature and are, wherever possible, not giving him a chance to field any of his punts, choosing to kick them out of bounds instead. However, when you have Peterson's prodigious skill, five games may just be enough to do it.

    A record like this may be thought of as an individual achievement—after all, people speak about Devin Hester's return skills, not the Chicago Bears' special teams—but it really is a team effort.

    For one, Peterson will only get the chance to field punts if the rest of his defense is able to force them, stopping teams on third down outside of field-goal range.

    Fortunately, the Cardinals defense appears to be coming together and is looking much more impressive now than it was earlier in the season.

    Next, while Peterson has shown the ability to shed tacklers on his TD runs, his special teams unit need to hold up the punting team just enough to get him that first step. A step is usually all he needs, but that is very'll never get a touchdown on a fair catch, after all.

    Peterson reinvents the rules of punt returning, fielding kicks few other return men would dream about, but that alone makes it all the more tempting for punters to angle their kicks towards the sideline.

    Therefore, the Cardinals must finally put just enough pressure on the punter that he is not able to think too much about where exactly the punt is going to end up in the hope of keeping it inbounds for Peterson to return.

    All in all, it's not an easy record to break, but if anyone can do it, it's Patrick Peterson and this Cardinals special teams unit.

Keep Pounding the Ball: Make Sure Teams Respect Beanie Wells as an Elite Rusher

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    Beanie Wells had a career game against the St. Louis Rams in Week 12, rushing for 228 yards and a touchdown, and looked every bit the big, bruising, elite rusher the Cardinals hoped he would be when they drafted him in 2009.

    Unfortunately for the Cardinals, games like that have been few and far between for Wells. His development has been hobbled by injury, hampered by his subpar offensive line and further slowed by the Cardinals' play-calling.

    Early in his career, he was also known for ball-security issues, which continually allowed Tim Hightower to get those all important third-down and goal-line carries.

    However, throughout 2011, although battling yet another injury, Wells has really shown his toughness and resilience and is now looking like the featured back the Cardinals need him to be.

    Wells now ranks eighth in rushing yards, ninth in yards per game and third equal in touchdowns amongst all running backs in the NFL, yet teams still do not consider the Cardinals running game a legitimate threat. In the remaining five games, Wells has to change that perception.

    While 228 yards is impressive for any running back in any game, against a Rams team which is the worst in the NFL, it is somewhat less of a feat.

    In his final five games, Wells will face the stingy 49ers, whose run defense is the best in the NFL in terms of yards allowed, a Bengals team which ranks fifth, a Cowboys team which ranks 10th and the 11th-ranking Seahawks, all of which give up, on average, 101 yards per game or less, and three of which—the 49ers, Bengals and Seahawks—have given up just 12 touchdowns on the ground combined.

    If Wells can come anywhere near 150 yards against these teams and get a couple of touchdowns against them, while also punishing a soft Cleveland Browns defense which is nearly as weak as the Rams, Wells could quite easily become a top-five running back this season.

    This will also make a huge difference in the way teams view the Cardinals running game, and what's more, it will upset those strong teams' records, making the Cardinals truly relevant.

Air It Out: Ensure Larry Fitzgerald Breaks 1,200 Yards, 10 TDs

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    If Beanie Wells is fighting to become a top-five RB, then Larry Fitzgerald should be pushing to be a top-three WR and Pro Bowl lock. 

    Fitzgerald is now sitting well outside of the top three in every metric, and it seems impossible that he will get to that position, which is unfortunate.

    However, in the final five games, the Cardinals need to prioritize getting Fitzgerald up to at least 90 catches, 1,200 yards and 10 TDs, his averages from 2006-09, when the Cardinals were on the rise.

    In order to do so, the Cardinals need to find a way to get the ball to Fitzgerald on average eight times a game for an average of 65 yards per game and a TD in all but one game—though more likely, multiple TDs against the Cardinals' weakest opponents, the Seahawks and Browns.

    These numbers do not seem unreasonable for a receiver of Fitzgerald's skill, considering Fitzgerald has spent much of the season in double and triple coverage—especially in the red zone—because teams have not been given any reason to fear those WRs lining up opposite him.

    Also, Kevin Kolb showed hesitance to put the ball in his direction in such circumstances. Looking increasingly likely to take over running the offense, those numbers are certainly not a given.

    Today, 1,200 yards and 10 TDs seems to be the benchmark for a truly elite WR in an NFL which is becoming increasingly pass-oriented, and with three players already in sight of 1,500 yards receiving, it is the least that the Cardinals should be looking to send Fitzgerald's way if they hope to keep him at the heart of the NFL's growing group of All-Star receivers.

Dominate on D: Produce at Least One Defensive Showcase

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    The Arizona Cardinals defense is slowly, but surely, slotting into place. The truncated preseason and significant personnel changes both on the field and in numerous coaching positions meant that the Arizona Cardinals defense took several weeks to really click.

    However, now that it is, you can see why the Cardinals stuck at it when others would have given it up as a lost cause.

    The Cardinals defense is young and is hardly the complete package yet, but it has looked fearsome at times throughout the season and is improving every game.

    Young players like Dan Williams, Daryl Washington, Sam Acho, Patrick Peterson and O'Brien Schofield have made their presence felt and will only improve with time, and more established players like Calais Campbell and Adrian Wilson have cemented their positions in spite of question marks which at times threatened to derail their seasons.

    Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they have still yet to put on a decisive defensive performance through four quarters of football.

    Sometimes they have played well for two or three quarters, only to fall apart completely in the fourth; other times they have played well against the rush all game but failed against the pass, or vice versa; and still others they have managed to stop the opposition but have lost focus for a few moments and given up vital penalties which end up costing the team the game.

    That as many games have been separated by only a few points is more testament to how well the defense has actually played, especially when you look at numbers like time of possession or total offensive yards.

    But the fact remains that the Cardinals defense has yet to put it all together and produce a real defensive showcase that really shows fans what this team can do.

    Missing have been the big-play moments, the interceptions returned for touchdowns; missing have been the big stops on third down, the sacks for huge losses, the forced fumbles. Missing has been the ability to end the drive decisively, get off the field quickly, regroup and recover and then come back and do it all over again.

    We've seen the spark of these things on occasion, but never on a sustained level. In the Cardinals' final games, the defense needs to find a way to do all of these things, consistently, and prove to the fans and coaches that this defense can work well going forward as the Cardinals look to regroup and challenge for an NFC West title again in 2012.