Behind Enemy Lines: Part 2

Our team insiders get inside the NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals, who have overcome the traditional hangover that hits the Super Bowl losers. Plus, we have a couple names to watch in case the Cardinals decide to rest their key players.

We continue our Behind Enemy Lines series with Amberly Dressler of

Bill: Obviously, the Cardinals are talented or they wouldn't have reached the Super Bowl last year or gone 10-5 entering this game. But Super Bowl losers generally struggle the next year. Heck, the Bears haven't been back to the playoffs since losing to the Colts a few years ago. How have the Cardinals avoided that funk?

Amberly: The Cardinals' ability to win on the road this season helped avoid the post-Super Bowl funk. Prior to Week 12, Arizona remained undefeated in away games. Once the Cardinals were able to figure out how to win at home, where they were once unstoppable, they evened out and started adding more wins to the left-hand column. The Cardinals were also able to win big games such as the New York GIants and the Minnesota Vikings. Those noteworthy victories went a long way in terms of confidence for this Cardinals team.

In fact, too much. Following the Giants win, the Cardinals lost a should-have-won game against the Carolina Panthers at home. It was the same story line after the Vikings win. The Cardinals lost to their NFC West rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, on Monday night. The matchup had division implications, but the Cardinals were embarrassed in front of a national audience instead. These two losses are examples of the Cardinals ‘major inconsistencies. But their manageable schedule has helped fill many voids.

Bill: We know about the big guns for Arizona, but with the possibility that some of them could either be given the day off or make just a cameo appearance, who are some of the other players to watch?

Early Doucet
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Amberly: Second-year receiver Early Doucet should have a big-time game, assuming the Cardinals are in position to rest their key players. He scored his first career touchdown last week against the St. Louis Rams and continues to emerge as yet another threat for the Cardinals' offense. He's long been toted as a player who will have longtime contributions to the franchise, but he hasn't been able to show off his skill set in games, partly because of the stacked receiving corps. He finally showed off his elite skill set in a game situation last week. Expect Doucet to earn the bulk of the Cardinals' receptions.

Assuming they're not playing for a first-round bye, Matt Leinart will likely be throwing the passes Doucet's way for much of the game. Leinart has earned more chances this season to try out for his old job once Kurt Warner throws in the towel. Earlier in the season, Leinart's game-time chances were limited to times when the Cardinals ran up the scoreboard or were too far behind to make a difference. The opportunities didn't yield much of a return. Leinart received a major opportunity when concussion symptoms benched Warner in the Cardinals' loss to the Titans. Leinart didn't throw a touchdown pass, but he didn't throw a pick, either. The Titans game was in the bag until Vince Young marched his team 99 yards in the final seconds to a game-winning touchdown drive. Sunday's game against the Packers is another chance for Leinart to show the Cardinals that he can lead this team. 

Bill: So I'm looking at the Cardinals' stats and trying to figure out why they're 10-5. The offense is good but not as great as I thought. The defense is a little below average. They're losing the turnover battle. And then there it is: The Cardinals score touchdowns on almost 70 percent of their trips in the red zone. The Packers have surged to ninth but they're a distant 54.4 percent. What's been the secret for success?

Amberly: Two words: Kurt Warner. The likely future Hall of Famer is clutch. He knows how to put the ball in the hands of his playmakers and score touchdowns. Coach Ken Whisenhunt trusts that Warner will execute, which allows Warner the free range to find his open man or utilize his backs. If the Cardinals opt to run, second-year player TIm Hightower has a nose for the end zone. Among runners with at least eight carries inside the 3-yard line, Hightower leads the NFL with touchdowns on 77.8 percent of those carries (7-of-9).

Bill: I ask because there's a possibility the Packers will play the Vikings next weekend. How did the Cardinals beat the Vikings, and what did they do to frustrate Brett Favre so much? He was amazing in leading Minnesota to a regular-season sweep of Green Bay.

Bertrand Berry sacks Brett Favre.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Amberly: The Cardinals' win over the Vikings came down to protecting their quarterback. The Cardinals' often-shaky offensive line saw a change at left tackle, due to injury, and the lineup change improved Warner's protection 10-fold. Menacing Vikings defensive end Jared Allen was kept off the box score. Warner finished the game with neither a pick nor a sack. The Vikings-Cardinals matchup was Warner's first week back after lingering concussion symptoms, so the added protection was a must. Warner threw himself a welcome-back party with three touchdown passes to his favorite targets (Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald) and 285 yards. The Cardinals' offense was able to successfully throw the Vikings' defense off-balance with an array of exotic blitzes and schemes. The Cardinals' defense did its part as well. Arizona kept Adrian Peterson to just 19 yards and proved it had Brett Favre's number. The Cardinals picked off the legend two times and earned a hat trick with three sacks. 

Bill: The one thing the Packers don't have in the backfield is a real change-of-pace guy. The Cardinals seems to have that with Tim Hightower and first-round pick Beanie Wells

Amberly: The Cardinals' relatively new two-back system is working. Hightower surprised the masses with an 11-touchdown rookie season, but the Cardinals needed another dimension to their dead-last running game. Enter Beanie Wells, the first-round pick from Ohio State. He's the missing link in terms of power and speed. Wells' workload continues to increase — he averaged 85.7 rushing yards in his last three games with a touchdown in all three — and he will be a force in the playoffs. They combined for 1,348 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry and 15 touchdowns, and Hightower has added 61 receptions.

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