In many ways the fate of the 2016 Arizona Cardinals has mirrored that of the Minnesota Vikings. Coming off a 13-3 season, the Cardinals were the favorite of many to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Instead, the Cardinals got off to a 1-3 start – a hole they are still trying to dig themselves out of.
The Cardinals have largely beaten the teams they should beat – their four wins have come against San Francisco (twice), Tampa Bay and the Jets and their non-wins have included losses vs. New England, at Buffalo and at Carolina and a tie with Seattle.
Part of the problem has been the offense getting off to slow starts. Last season, heading into the final week of the regular season, the Cardinals had more touchdowns than punts – something even the most prolific offenses hadn’t achieved. This year it has been very different. The Cardinals have been notoriously slow starters. Through nine games, they have scored just 14 points in the first quarter, often finding themselves trailing early and forced to come from behind in more games than not – a problem the Vikings offense has found itself in. The difference, however, is that the Cardinals have one of the most potent offenses in the league.
A year ago, Carson Palmer threw for 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns and a passer rating of 104.6, at or near the top of the rankings in all three categories. This season, he has still piled up a lot of passing yards (2,444), but through nine games has just 11 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 86.0. He has been sacked 26 times, which has already eclipsed the total number of sacks he took in the entire 2015 season. If opponents are going to disrupt the Cardinals offense, getting to Palmer has proved to be the key ingredient to getting that job done.
One of the elements of Arizona’s offense that makes it so dangerous is its ability to remain balanced. Unlike the Vikings, the Cardinals have one of the league’s strongest running backs in David Johnson. He has rushed for 760 yards and nine touchdowns – almost 80 percent of the team’s rushing yards and 90 percent of its rushing touchdowns. As if that wasn’t enough, he is the team’s second-leading receiver, catching 40 passes for 453 yards and another TD. Few running backs are as critical to an offense as Johnson is to Arizona’s.
If the Vikings can bottle up Johnson, it doesn’t make the Cardinals any less dangerous offensively. They have multiple passing weapons at their disposal, headed up by future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is second in the league in receptions and is on pace to set a personal high with 120 receptions in his 13th season. He does a lot of the dirty work underneath, while Michael Floyd and John Brown provide the home run threats that can take any play the distance for a score. The Cardinals don’t use their tight ends in the passing game that often, but they have talent in Jermaine Gresham and Daniel Fells, both who have solid pedigrees in the red zone.
The difference between the Cardinals and a lot of the other playoff contenders in the NFC is that they can win games with a high-scoring offense or win them with a stifling defense. In the five games that the Cards have either won or tied, they have allowed 21 points or fewer in all of them and have allowed seven points or less in three games. They have talent at all three levels of the defense and can do their share of damage.
Up front, the Cardinals have a formidable threesome in ends Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker and nose tackle Corey Peters. Campbell is a dominant defender who is gigantic at 6-foot-8, 300 pounds, and Peters does a very good job of bottling up middle runs, but he won’t play against the Vikings.
What makes any 3-4 defense work is its linebacker corps and the Cardinals have one of the most diverse groups in the league. Chandler Jones was acquired last season in a surprise trade with the New England Patriots (nothing new or unique for the Pats). He seems to be the missing piece to a group that Arizona has invested in heavily. The team used a second-round pick in 2013 to take inside linebacker Kevin Minter, a first-round pick in 2014 to add linebacker hybrid Deone Bucannon and a second-round pick in 2015 to draft Markus Golden. All four of them are good at getting their specific jobs done, but Jones, who leads the team with seven sacks, and Bucannon, who is viewed as a prototype for the future of the linebacker position, are the most dangerous.
In the secondary, things won’t get any easier for Sam Bradford and the offense. At cornerback, the Cardinals have one of the best corners in the league in Patrick Peterson, who has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his five seasons. He is flanked by Marcus Cooper, who was acquired in a trade with Kansas City. At safety, they have one of the game’s elite playmakers in Tyrann Mathieu. The Honey Badger has missed time due to injury, but is questionable and will do for the Cardinals defense what Harrison Smith does for the Vikings. He is joined by Tony Jefferson, who has showed a lot of improvement this season as he gives Arizona a second strong safety option.
At this point of the season, the Cardinals-Vikings matchup looked to be one pitting teams with 6-3 records or better. The Vikings held up their end of the bargain early, but have lost four straight. The Cardinals are at 4-4-1 and still looking to reclaim their season after a 1-3 start. Both teams are in dire need of a win to keep their hopes of a Super Bowl alive and Sunday’s game could well have a playoff feel because, while the loser won’t be done, it will be a nail in the coffin that they will need to remove before the lid closes.