It's quickly becoming make or break time for the Arizona Cardinals.
The Red Birds commence the second part of their season this Sunday against the 8-1 Atlanta Falcons and know how important every game is from here on in. Arizona is mired in a five-game losing streak and needs a win desperately. It certainly won't be easy against one of the top teams in the entire NFL – a team that will be fired up following a tough loss to the Saints last Sunday. Let's preview Sunday's contest:
The Falcons are looking to capture their ninth straight at home but may be without two of their top players. Julio Jones (ankle) and Michael Turner (groin) are both listed as questionable and may be game-time decisions. If Turner misses the game it would not be a great loss for Mike Smith's squad because Jacquizz Rodgers has been playing well lately at running back. It will be a bigger deal if Jones misses the game because he can stretch the field vertically with his blazing speed – he averages 16 yards a catch and has scored five touchdowns so far.
Quarterback Matt Ryan is enjoying his finest season and is fourth in the league with a 102.6 passer rating. He's thrown for 2,771 yards and is coming off a career-best 411-yard performance against the Saints last week. He's tossed 20 TD passes and has just seven interceptions.
Even if Jones can't go, Ryan throws to two of the best weapons in the league in WR Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. Patrick Peterson will probably be assigned to White, who is fifth in the NFL in receiving yards (823) and is tied for 10th in receptions (54). The ageless Gonzalez, at age 36, is having another Pro Bowl season and is very dangerous down the middle of the field on seam routes. He ranks sixth in catches (61) and has tallied six touchdowns, including two last week against New Orleans.
Defensively, the Falcons ranks very close to the Red Birds. Atlanta allows 19.2 PPG, Arizona allows 19.3 PPG; Atlanta allows 130 rushing yards a contest, Arizona allows 126; both teams have recovered seven fumbles each. The Falcons have six less sacks than the Cards (27 to 21) but these teams are almost mirror images of each other on that side of the ball.
The big difference is, of course, offensively – the Falcons average 27.4 PPG; the Cardinals just 16 PPG. Atlanta has converted nearly half of their third down attempts; the Cardinals just 30 percent. The Falcons have allowed Ryan to be sacked only 19 times while Arizona quarterbacks have been sacked a whopping 41 times, worst in the NFL.
Coming off their bye week, the Cardinals will be looking to avoid their second six-game losing streak in as many years. It won't be easy.
Arizona will once again need to establish a viable running game, which has been very difficult to do this season. The Cardinals rank dead last in the league in rushing (76.2 YPG) and need to run the ball to set up play action for quarterback John Skelton. Skelton has done a decent job filling in for the injured Kevin Kolb, who may return as early as next week.
LaRod Stephens-Howling will once again get most of the carries. He leads the team in rushing with just 184 yards, a scant 2.7 yards a tote. William Powell should see some carries as well.
In order to win the Cards will have to convert some passing plays down the field and will have to create some turnovers defensively. Expect Larry Fitzgerald (51-585-4) to be double-teamed once again so Andre Roberts (40-540-5), tight end Rob Housler (24-271-0) and the improving Michael Floyd (18-207-1) will have to step up their production. Rookie Nate Potter is expected to start at start at left tackle in place of D'Anthony Batiste as Arizona tries to shore up their porous offensive line. The Cards did allow just two sacks in their last game against the Packers so perhaps the offensive line is finally starting to improve.
One other area the Cardinals need to improve on is their tackling, a key element that defensive coordinator Ray Horton realizes needs work.
It appears defensive end Calais Campbell (37 tackles, 3.5 sacks) will miss Sunday's tilt with a right calf injury. He'll be sorely missed.
Prediction: Wow, what a tall order for the Cardinals. They have to face a high-powered offensive team coming off a bitter loss to their arch rivals, a loss that ended any hopes of an undefeated season. The Cardinals will have to create some turnovers if they're to have a realistic chance of winning. Bottom line is that Matty Ice, Roddy White and Tony G. are just too much to handle. Arizona drops its sixth straight. Atlanta 27, Arizona 13.
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