The playoff chase is upon us, and many people may be surprised to see the Cardinals right in the thick of it. As of Sunday November 24, the Cardinals are at 7-4, on a four game winning streak, and own the sixth seed in the NFC, though a win by the 49ers on Monday Night Football swings it away.
Looking at the Cardinals last five games, they travel to face the Eagles, Titans, and Seahawks and host the Rams and Niners. I would say they are all winnable games, but only because the NFL has shown time and again that any game is winnable. In realistic terms, the Eagles, Rams, and Titans are all decent matches, but nothing the Cards can’t handle, given the way they’ve been playing. We can count a visit to Seattle as a probably defeat. It will likely come down to the Week 17 matchup against the Niners, with the winner clinching the 6th seed and the loser being eliminated.
All in all, it looks like the Cards will have to end up 11-5 to make the playoffs. Here’s a countdown of five things that the Cardinals need to do, or rather continue to do, to make that a reality.
#5: The running game has to be consistent
Nov 24, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall (28) runs for a 5 yard touchdown as Indianapolis Colts strong safety Antoine Bethea (41) defends during the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
I made the argument a couple of weeks ago that Andre Ellington, not Rashard Mendenhall, should be the primary running back for the Cards. I stand by that entirely. He’s younger, faster, better as a receiver, and just more explosive than Mendenhall.
That said, Mendenhall found his stride against the Colts. He had 13 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown. Not eye-popping, but probably his best day as a Cardinal.
What’s really important is that the Cardinals need to be able to run the ball consistently, regardless of who is carrying it. Arians loves to air it out, and that’s great, but a good running game is at least the best crutch if passing doesn’t help
#4: Continue getting Michael Floyd a large role on offense
Nov 24, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd (left) catches a pass under pressure from Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Davis in the first half at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Floyd was taken with the 13th pick in the 2012 draft to be the man opposite Larry Fitzgerald. He hasn’t been awful, but he hasn’t turned many heads in his one and a half years in the league.
Then the Cardinals went to play Jacksonville.
Michael Floyd caught six passes for 193 yards, including a fantastic 91 yard TD reception, against the Jags. He followed that up in the Cards 40-11 drumming of the Colts by catching seven passes(on as many targets) for 104 yards.
In the days of the Kurt Warner- Larry Fitzgerald-Anquan Boldin triangle, the dynamic was that defenses couldn’t only focus on Fitzgerald because Boldin was near as, if not just as, dangerous. Seeing as Carson Palmer has thrown many interceptions trying to force the ball to Fitz, the emergence of a powerful second option is critical to improving the passing game.
Michael Floyd looks like he fits that bill nicely.
Nov 24, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) avoids a tackle by Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker John Abraham (55) during the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
#3: Someone else besides John Abraham needs to pressure opposing quarterbacks
Against the Colts, the Cardinals managed to sack quarterback Andrew Luck only once. Between Weeks 8 and 11, which was only three games because of their Week 9 bye, the Cards managed nine sacks. What’s the problem? Only two came from players that weren’t named John Abraham.
It was by pure luck (no pun intended) that the lack of pressure didn’t hurt the Cardinals too much. Over the next three games, the opposing quarterbacks will be Nick Foles, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Kellen Clemens. No elite names come up there, but the Cards will need to get to all three of them to seal victories. Then there’s Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, both of whom are threats in the air and on the ground. The Cardinals have to generate pressure on both of them to even have a chance in those games.
Someone besides Abraham needs to get to the quarterback. it’s that simple.
#2: The defense has to continue to dominate
Nov 24, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (right) celebrates with linebacker Daryl Washington after tackling Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Colts 40-11. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Cardinals defense has been a force for the past couple of years, holding the team up when the offense fell flat. This tear, the unit ranks 8th in points allowed, 16th in passing yards, and 2nd in rushing yards. This is especially interesting because three of the Cardinals linebackers, two of whom are starters, are on Injured Reserve.
It’s no surprise why. The unit is stacked with depth and talent. The DE duo or Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell is a formidable force, and the linebacker paring of Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington is downright scary for opposing offenses. Add Patrick Peterson at cornerback and rookie Tyrann Mathieu at safety, the Cardinals boast a mighty defensive unit.
This unit will need to shut down the run and slow down the pass for the next five games for the Cardinals to reach the postseason, and there’s no reason to expect that the defense won’t succeed.
#1: Carson Palmer needs to continue his current level of play
Nov 24, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer throws a pass in the first half against the Indianapolis Colts at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Carson Palmer looked like a wash in Arizona until the month of November came around. In November, he’s completed 76 of 111 attempts( 68.5%) threw six touchdowns, one interception, and has a 110 passer rating.
Whether it’s because of the emergence of Michael Floyd, or because the offense has found its familiarity, or because of Palmers cool new mustache, he’s been on fire recently.
He really is the deciding factor. If he plays well, moves the ball, and avoids turnovers, the Cardinals are in the postseason with a chance to make some noise. With Fitzgerald and Floyd at his side, and the defense remaining strong, the most important thing that needs to happen for the Cards to reach the playoffs is that this Carson palmer needs to stick around.