Battle in the Big Easy

The 2009 NFL season is down to the final eight teams kicking off with the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints on Saturday afternoon. The Cardinals come in off a dramatic 51-45 win over the Green Bay Packers while the Saints had a bye week to reflect on their three-game losing streak to conclude the regular season. Arizona looks to ride its recent momentum and pull the upset in the Big Easy.

After racing to a 13-0 start and talks of an undefeated regular season swirled, the New Orleans Saints stumbled down the stretch. The Saints lost their final three games of the regular season including two losses in which starters played throughout. It all started when the Dallas Cowboys came to town in Week 15, spoiling New Orleans' bid at perfection. The following week, the Saints hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers only to lose again to the Bucs who finished just 3-13 on the year.

While New Orleans looked unbeatable at one point – particularly following a convincing victory against the New England Patriots – their struggles began prior to the three-game skid. The Saints should have lost to the Washington Redskins in Week 13 but a missed chip shot by K Shaun Suisham left the door open for QB Drew Brees and company as they pulled out an improbable 33-30 overtime win. In that game New Orleans' defense was torched for 455 total yards, including 367 yards through the air.

The Saints followed that close call in Washington with another slim win against the Atlanta Falcons. New Orleans prevailed 26-23 but was outgained in total yardage by the Falcons who were without both QB Matt Ryan and RB Michael Turner. The Saints proceeded to be outgained in total yardage in their remaining three outings. The low point came against Tampa Bay where they surrendered 439 yards of offense to a team that averaged a mere 288 yards per contest on the season.

QB Drew Brees
(AP Photo)

Although the Superdome will certainly be rocking come Saturday afternoon, the Arizona Cardinals won't be intimated in a hostile environment on the road. The Cardinals won five consecutive games away from home to start the season and finished with a record of 6-2 on the road. Additionally, Arizona dominated the Carolina Panthers a year ago in the divisional round of the playoffs, a game in which the Cardinals were expected to be on the opposite end of the outcome.

On offense, the main difference between this year and last for Arizona is the presence of Beanie Wells and the running game. Wells and Tim Hightower open things up even more for QB Kurt Warner and the Cardinals explosive aerial attack. WR Anquan Boldin is listed as a game-day decision but there are plenty of capable options in the cupboard if he's unable to play. Wideouts Steve Breaston and Early Doucet both excelled last week against Green Bay while Larry Fitzgerald remains one of the league's elite performers.

In addition to the running game, the Arizona defense has played at a higher level in 2009. Similar to New Orleans, the Cardinals will yield points and yardage but is an aggressive, play-making unit. The Saints led the NFL with 39 takeaways while Arizona accumulated 28 takeaways throughout the year. Look for the team who can force the most turnovers to have a major advantage towards advancing to the NFC Championship against either the Cowboys or Minnesota Vikings.

The Cardinals are widely considered the underdog entering Saturday's matchup and are no stranger to that role. However, given its recent struggles, New Orleans could be the one facing an uphill battle even on its home turf. If Arizona finds a way to win, it would be another chapter in a historic two-year run for the Cardinals who would be one win step away from a Super Bowl berth for a second consecutive season.

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