The Vikings have been a roll the likes of which haven't been seen around Minnesota since the magical 1998 season, when the team ran roughshod over every team in their path. With a chance to clinch their second straight NFC North Division title with a win against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday and a Green Bay loss to Baltimore on Monday, the Vikings continue their chase of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But getting past the new-look Cardinals is going to be much easier said than done.
The Cardinals were able to put it all together last year in the playoffs after struggling down the stretch of the regular season, winning three playoff games to capture the NFC Championship and come within a minute of beating the Pittsburgh Steelers for the title. That team advanced to the Super Bowl despite some clear deficiencies on offense and defense. The team the Vikings are going to face Sunday night is one that is markedly different from last year and much more complete on both sides of the ball.
Perhaps the biggest question mark heading into the game is who the Cardinals are going to have at quarterback. Starter Kurt Warner suffered a concussion two weeks ago and was held out of last week's 20-17 road loss to Tennessee – a game in which the Titans drove 99 yards on 18 plays at the end of the game to pull out the win. Backup Matt Leinart, who was drafted to be the quarterback of the future, got the start and, while he managed the game fairly well, he doesn't have the explosiveness that Warner brings to the table. A gunslinger in every sense of the word, when given time, Warner can pick any defense apart – much less a read-and-react defense like the Vikings' Cover-2 scheme. He is a glacier in the pocket and takes a lot of hits because of his lack of mobility. The Vikings claim they game-planning against the scheme, not the personnel. But one has to believe they are preparing for Warner and his rifle arm. The key to stopping the Cardinals will be to get early pressure on Warner and force him to get rid of the ball sooner than he wants to. If given time, he will make life miserable for the Vikings defense.
The biggest change on offense for the Cardinals this year has been the emergence of a running game after two of the worst running seasons in recent memory. Since 2004, the average yardage gained per rush by the Cardinals as a team has been 3.5, 3.2, 3.2, 3.6 and 3.5 yards. They had the worst rush offense in the league last year and opponents ran more than 100 times than Arizona did. The run game was so inconsistent that the Cardinals were often forced to abandon the run completely and pass almost exclusively to move the ball down the field. That has changed this season. The Cards are averaging 4.1 yards a carry and have just about as many rushing attempts (249) and their opponents (264). They have accomplished a lot with a two-headed backfield of second-year man Tim Hightower and rookie Beanie Wells. The two have almost evenly split their carries – Hightower carrying 113 times for 465 yards and six touchdowns and Wells carrying 108 times for 489 yards and four touchdowns. Hightower is a between-the-tackles banger who is also one of the team's top receiving threats, having caught 50 passes for 366 yards. Wells is more of a speedster capable of breaking the long touchdown run. The two have co-existed nicely and both will see plenty of action against the Vikings. Fullback Dan Kreider is little more than a glorified blocker – through 11 games, he has no rushing attempts and just three receptions.
As solid as the Vikings receiver corps has been this season, few if any teams can boast the wide receiver trio the Cardinals can throw at an opposing defense. Larry Fitzgerald is as dangerous a wide receiver as there is in the league. With an ideal combination of size, speed and strength, Fitzgerald is an imposing presence. He has 75 receptions for 826 yards and a league-leading nine touchdowns. He is far from the only weapon in the receiver corps. Seven-year veteran Anquan Boldin is second on the team with 56 receptions for 665 yards and two touchdowns, while third-year man Steve Breaston is fourth on the team with 43 catches for 571 yards and three TDs. Between the three of them, they have caught 174 passes for more than 2,000 yards, making them a defensive priority for the Vikings to stop. Depth at the position is very strong with backups Jerheme Urban, Early Doucet and Sean Morey all expected to see some playing time.
Despite a pass-happy offense, tight end remains a question mark position. The Cardinals have three tight ends on the roster – Anthony Becht, Ben Patrick and Stephen Spach – but the three have combined to catch just 19 passes this year. They don't pose much in the way of a receiving threat except in the red zone, where they have combined to score three touchdowns.
One of the biggest differences in the Cardinals offense this season, especially the improved running game, has been the play of the offensive line. A cohesive unit, it faces one of its biggest challenges this week due to a pelvis injury to left tackle Mike Gandy. The Cardinals have made it through most of the last two years with its O-line intact – Gandy and Levi Brown at tackles, guards Deuce Lutui and Reggie Wells and center Lyle Sendlein. However, depth has been an issue here and the injury to Gandy leaves more than a couple of questions as to who will fill in if, as expected, he can't go Sunday. His backup is rookie Herman Johnson, but, when he was injured and left Sunday's game with the Titans, he was replaced by backup guard Jeremy Bridges. If Gandy can't play, look for the Cardinals to use one of their tight ends or a fullback to try to help Bridges or Johnson handle Jared Allen, who has feasted on similar situations this season.
While the offense of the Cardinals has been their calling card, it has been the troubles of of the Arizona defense that has most believing the team will need to improve a lot to again be a playoff spoiler. Far from dominant with the 24th-ranked defense in the league, the Cardinals are 14th against the run and 29th vs. the pass. They have struggled in both areas. Opponents are averaging 4.5 yards a carry and, despite having a prolific pass offense, the Cardinals defense has allowed just about as many passing yards (3,030) as the offense has gained (3,057).
One area of marked improvement this season has been the pass rush. Led by defensive tackle Darnell Dockett's seven sacks, the Cardinals have registered 32 sacks as a team this season, due in large part to the depth on its defensive front. The Cardinals may have as deep a defensive line as any team in the NFC, with starters Dockett and Bryan Robinson at tackle and Calais Campbell (four sacks) and Chike Okeafor (3.5 sacks) at the end spots. However, the Cardinals play a solid rotation at all four line spots, with former high draft pick Alan Branch and Gabe Watson providing backup help at tackle and Bertrand Berry and Kenny Iwebema at the end spots. They are rotated liberally throughout the game and the Cardinals consistently have fresh players on the field. They are capable of wearing down an offensive line by rotating players in an out, but they also lose a little in the way of consistency. They also switch up often between a 4-3 and 3-4 alignment, at which point players like Okeafor and Berry become standup linebackers.
At linebacker, the Cardinals are led by tackling machine Karlos Dansby. Always around the ball, Dansby is a sure tackler with good speed and a high motor that never takes a play off. He is joined by seven-year veteran Gerald Hayes in the middle and 10-year vet Clark Haggans on the outside. Depending on the formation, Dansby moves inside during 3-4 sets and outside in a 4-3 alignment. Depth is an issue with second-year man Ali Highsmith and rookie Reggie Walker being the first line of defense should one of the linebackers go down. Look for Brett Favre to account for Dansby presnap on almost every play. While he is a Pro Bowl-caliber player, this is a group that can be and has been exploited during the season by good offenses.
The Cardinals have a deep and talented secondary that has been built to prevent teams from getting in high-scoring shootouts. It is a ball-hawking defense that has three players with three or more interceptions. At the cornerbacks, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie took over the starting job as a rookie last season and has shown marked improvement in his second year. He is capable of taking on a team's best receiver all game long. He is joined former Steeler Bryant McFadden, who was signed away from Pittsburgh in the offseason to replace Rod Hood in the starting lineup. At safety, Adrian Wilson has been slowed by injuries the past two seasons but is healthy and playing at a high level. A big hitter, Wilson has been likened to being an extra linebacker in the Cardinals defense. He is joined by fifth-year man Antrel Rolle, who leads the Cardinals with four interceptions. When Arizona goes to nickel packages, 10-year veteran and former Viking Ralph Brown gets the call. He has lost a step, but can still make plays in coverage and is adept at jumping routes and breaking up plays.
The Cardinals have struggled at home this season, losing three of their five home games this season. Still, with a win Sunday, they would improve to 8-4 and have a stranglehold on another NFC West title. They will be a stiff challenge for the Vikings, who are looking to knock them off their perch as the defending NFC champion. If the Vikings are to make a deep playoff run, Sunday night will be a solid pre-playoff test against a quality opponent in an unfriendly environment – something the Vikings will have to get used to with teams like the Cardinals, Bengals, Panthers and Giants on the late-season slate. Until they are eliminated, Arizona remains the defending NFC champ and the Vikings are going to approach Sunday's game with that view – to be the top dog, you have to knock the top dog off the hill and, for now, Arizona remains the top dog in the NFC until they are supplanted by the Vikings and/or the Saints.
Cardinal preview: Deeper, more balanced
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