All In The Cards: Arizona-Carolina Playoff Preview

All season long the talk coming from the Arizona Cardinals has been championship or bust but even those with the utmost highest of expectations should understand that there would be no shame in losing this weekend to the Carolina Panthers. However, despite the disadvantages that await, the Cardinals will still have that “championship or nothing” mentality when they take the field at the near-freezing Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. For this week’s preview of All In The Cards, I will list all of the Carolina Panthers advantages heading into this game and explain how the Cardinals will try to counteract them. Plus I will give some matchups that favor Arizona. I hope you enjoy and if you do make sure to follow me on Twitter @QTipsforsports or just search the hashtag #Allinthecards for in-game thoughts and analysis. Now let’s preview the Cardinals playoff match against the Panthers:

Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

Last Meeting: L 27-16 at Carolina (1/3/15)

Carolina advantages and how Arizona plans to counter them:

  1. Panthers have won 12 straight at home: In a season where it seemed that home field advantage meant nothing, the Panthers have been amazing at home. What’s even more unusual is that the Cardinals, a franchise that once threatened the record for the longest road losing streak just a little over a decade ago, finished this season 7-1 in road games and actually averaged better stats than they did at home. The advantage still goes with the Panthers, but these aren’t the Cardinals that historically have played terrible on the road so expect the Cardinals to play just fine.
  2. Cam Newton has thrown 19 touchdowns against the blitz this season: This seems like a big problem for the Cardinals because they blitz more than 45% of the time, the most in the NFL. However, the Cardinals will not shy away from blitzing for two reasons. The first reason is that just like their injured all-pro safety Tyrann “The Honey Badger” Mathieu, Bruce Arians doesn’t care about your stats against the blitz because they’re still going to blitz you. The second and more reassuring reason for Cardinals fans is that they have an X-factor in safety-turned-linebacker Deone Bucannon. Bucannon could either use his speed to generate a faster blitz from the linebacker position than what Newton would be used to or the Cardinals could use Bucannon to drop back into coverage and send a corner or a safety on a blitz.
  3. Panthers have rushed for 100+ yards in 30 consecutive games: Despite the Cardinals being a top-10 run defense, the Cardinals have struggled against the run in all three of their losses. That’s a huge advantage for a Panthers team that consistently runs the ball at a high level. Yet there is a way for the Cardinals to at least slow down the Carolina running game and that would be putting an extra defender in the box and trusting your secondary to shutdown the receivers on any play-action passes. Arizona has more than enough practice putting its cornerbacks on an island as that basically happens every time the Cardinals blitz. The Cards secondary is more than talented enough to blanket the Panthers subpar receivers to let Arizona commit to stopping the run game.
  4. The weather and field conditions: The game temperature is expected to be in the high 30s at kickoff and the playing field, which has been terrible at times this season, is expected to be pretty bad. However, the Cardinals took some advice from the Seattle Seahawks (who just played at Carolina last week) and will bring a couple different pairs of cleats to see which will work best so they don’t slip and fall on the grass like the Seahawks did a week ago. As for the temperature, that narrative is a little overblown as many of the Cardinals’ key players have more than enough prior experience playing in freezing weather (including players like Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald).

Arizona advantages:

  1. Larry Fitzgerald is set to have another big day: In his illustrious career, Larry Fitzgerald only has more receiving yards against the Philadelphia Eagles and the three other NFC West teams than he does against the Carolina Panthers. However if we were only looking at Sunday’s game, Fitzgerald still has a big advantage. The Panthers are missing half of their starting secondary and their all-pro cornerback Josh Norman doesn’t cover slot receivers. Expect Fitzgerald to get a lot of playing time in the slot on Sunday and a lot of targets when he does line up in the slot.
  2. Revenge from last season’s playoff loss: The Panthers eliminated the Cardinals from the playoffs last season so there is definitely a revenge factor. Also important is that Carson Palmer wasn’t playing that game and Arizona still had a chance to win late in the game. It’s up to Palmer to prove he was the difference in last year’s loss by being the difference in a win this time around.
  3. All the pressure is on Carolina: There is a lot of pressure on Palmer to prove he was the reason for last year’s outcome between the two teams, but other than that all off the pressure is on Carolina. Like the Cardinals, the Panthers have also had a magical season where the expectations are championship or bust. On top of that, the Panthers have the added pressure of being expected to win because they are the home team, they just finished a 15-1 regular season, and they have the probable MVP in Cam Newton. The Panthers have thrived as the “no one believes in us” team and now have the added pressure of being the favorite while the Cardinals are finally back in the comfortable role of underdog. Even if the Cardinals deny it, they do have an excuse if they lose while the Panthers do not.

Nothing will come easy for the Cardinals but they know that. This has been a resilient team all year and this will be their toughest test. I would not be that surprised if the Panthers won this game but after following the Cardinals so closely this season, this just seems like a team of destiny that will find a way to win. I have the Cardinals barley holding on for the win to advance to Super Bowl 50.

Game Pick: Arizona 31, Carolina 29


My Wild Card Game Picks:

  • Kansas City 23, Houston – Correct (KC 30-0) (1-0)
  • Cincinnati 27, Pittsburgh 24 – Incorrect (Pit 18-16) (1-1)
  • Seattle 20, Minnesota 17 – Correct (Sea 10-9) (2-1)
  • Washington 31, Green Bay 23 – Incorrect (GB 35-18) (2-2)

My Divisional Round Picks:

  • New England 20, Kansas City 16 – Correct (NE 27-20) (3-2)
  • Arizona 34, Green Bay 27 – Correct (Ari 26-20 OT) (4-2)
  • Carolina 24, Seattle 23 – Correct (Car 31-24) (5-2)
  • Denver 24, Pittsburgh 13 – Correct (Den 23-16) (6-2)

My Conference Championship Picks:

  • New England 24, Denver 16
  • Arizona 31, Carolina 29

Regular Season Record: 159-97 (.621)
Playoff Record: 6-2 (.750)
Total Record: 165-99 (.625)
Perfect Score Predictions: 2

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All In The Cards: Recapping The Stupidly Crazy End To Arizona’s Win Over Green Bay

Anything can happen in the NFL playoffs. If someone ever questions that fact, show them the Green Bay-Arizona game from this past weekend. The amount of insane things that happened in that game still boggles my mind and the mind of many other football fans even a few days removed from watching the spectacle. So for part one of All In The Cards’ coverage of the Arizona Cardinals this week, I will go over every crazy situation, one by one, from the fourth quarter and overtime of Saturday night’s thriller. Prepare yourself for some strong opinions, especially about a certain coin toss. I hope you enjoy and if you do make sure to follow me on Twitter @QTipsforsports or just search the hashtag #Allinthecards for in-game thoughts and analysis. Let’s go over the weirdest hour of sports I can remember:

Start of the 4th Quarter: Green Bay 13, Arizona 10

Palmer’s 2nd INT: This drive started late in the third quarter  and the first play was yet another reminder that the NFL desperately needs to properly define a catch. I personally think that four steps and a knee down should constitute a catch regardless of if the ball came out at the end. I know that in a similar situation last playoffs that Dez Bryant was called for an incompletion but the differing of calls only illustrates why this needs to be fixed, not that the call was wrong.

Now to the interception. While the pass was much shorter than it needed to be, the real cause behind this interception was the fact that Green Bay wasn’t afraid of Arizona running the ball. The play started as a play-action pass that immediately got snuffed out by a blitzing linebacker. It was a good risk considering the Cardinals only rushed for 40 yards on 19 rushing attempts. With the added pressure, Carson Palmer threw off his back foot and was unable to put enough behind his pass as Damarcus Randell incepted a pass that should have been out of his reach. Palmer had some bad throws Saturday night, but this one was a little more understandable. (Green Bay 13, Arizona 10 – 14:10 left)

The tip-drill, go-ahead score: This entire drive was a soap opera. The first play was a miscommunication between Palmer and Andre Ellington, not a great first pass after a back-breaking interception. What does Palmer do the next play? Throw a picture-perfect pass just above Packer linebacker Jake Ryan’s outstretched arms to John Brown. At this point we have now entered into “full gunslinger” mode for Palmer. Two plays later Larry Fitzgerald shakes two defenders and reaches out the ball for the first down marker and barely gets it by the narrowest of margins. Then during the Cardinals’ first play in the redzone, Palmer forces a pass to Michael Floyd that cornerback Sam Shields lets bounce off his hands. That pass was much worse than the endzone interception the previous drive and probably would have ended the game. Yet the game didn’t end as a pass between two defenders to David Johnson gets the Cardinals another first down, this time by an even smaller margin than Fitzgerald’s first down.

The true madness began the next play. Arizona ran a pick play with Jaron Brown to get Fitzgerald open on a slant route in the middle of the field. Yet despite Brown’s best (and probably illegal) effort, a defender was able to get an arm and break up the pass. However, instead of the pass falling to the ground, the ball jumped into the air only to land in Floyd’s hands in the back of the endzone. In the span of a second, it went from being a touchdown, to a probable interception, to a touchdown. At this point it seemed that the Cardinals uncharacteristically lucky season after decades of heartbreak would continue. (Arizona 17, Green Bay 13 – 3:44 left)

Arians passes on 2nd down: Then Bruce Arians’ aggressive approach backfired on him. I was really disappointed in the numerous amount of people who questioned Arians and said the pass was a dumb play call after praising him for doing the exact same thing earlier in the season and succeeding. Should he have run the ball? Of course he should have but this is who Arians is and the Cardinals and their fans know and accept Arians’ aggressive approach. Palmer completes that pass to Fitzgerald (or draws a pass interference call) and the game is over. As Arians says, “no risk it, no biscuit.” (Arizona 20, Green Bay 13 – 1:55 left)

Rodgers throws two Hail Marys: After the Cards finally got their first and only sack of the game, it looked like it was over at fourth and 20. Then Rodgers escapes to his left and, with Calais Campbell chasing him, throws a laser to Jeff Janis who was able to get behind the defense thanks to Rodgers extending the play. Then Rodgers decides not to spike the ball and runs another play which not only runs 20 seconds off the clock but an illegal shift by Richard Rodgers stops the clock and backs the Packers up five yards.

At this point Rodgers has two shots at the endzone. Both times, the Cardinals sent seven men on the blitz to hurry up Rodgers’ throw. The first time it worked perfectly as Rodgers kept backpedaling until he threw it away. However the second time Rodgers escaped to his left and threw up a beautiful pass to Janis for the game-tying touchdown. It should be noted that the reason Janis beat Patrick Peterson to the ball was because earlier in the drive Janis got behind the coverage and played deeper so it wouldn’t happen again. That backfired as Janis was able to get in front of the pass to complete the hail mary.

One thing that should be discussed is whether or not Mike McCarthy should have gone for the win with a two-point conversion instead of opting for the extra point to send the game to overtime. To me, the decision should be based on whether or not you believe in momentum. If you do, then you should go for the kill now immediately with the Cardinals still trying to get their head around the fact that the Packers just scored. If you don’t believe in momentum, then you go with the sure bet and go to overtime. There isn’t really a right or wrong decision; it just depends on your philosophy. (Arizona 20, Green Bay 20 – end of regulation)

The overtime coin toss: This may be the most stupid controversy I have ever seen and the fact that some people think that the coin flip prevented the Packers from winning is so asinine that it had me tearing my hair out just reading and listening to this.

First off, in the NFL rulebook it is not stated anywhere that the coin needs to flip on a coin toss. The referee Clete Blakeman was not obligated to do-over the coin toss but did do it because he thought the first toss wasn’t fair. I personally was okay with doing another toss, but the Packers shouldn’t have acted like it was their right to have a do-over. It was a nice gesture by Blakeman and with the Cardinals winning both tosses, the situation should have ended there.

Then Rodgers made his postgame statements. I met Rodgers for a short time back when he was Brett Favre’s backup and from what I can tell he is a good person. Honestly, I think his remarks after the game were just a result of him being frustrated the Packers lost. That being said, I blame him for making this a bigger controversy than it ever needed to be in the first place. He may have just been letting off steam but he needs to realize that he is one of the key players in the NFL and if he complains about something the masses will respond to that complaint.

Rodgers said after the game that he was upset he didn’t get to choose which side of the coin he wanted on the retry. Rodgers said he chooses which side to call based on which side is showing. On the first flip heads was showing so Rodgers called for tails. Since the coin didn’t flip it landed on heads. When Blakeman went for the second toss, he flipped the coin with tails showing. Because of that, Rodgers said he wanted to change his call to heads. The coin landed on heads again and the Cardinals won the toss again.

Some people think Rodgers should have been allowed to change his call but that’s ridiculous. He was already given a gift in the form of a second toss, so also asking to change your call sounds greedy. Also I’ve watched the whole exchange numerous times and I still don’t see how Rodgers could have had enough time to notice the coin being turned over, think about his coin toss ritual, and try to ask for the chance to change his mind. To me this sounds like hindsight bias, with Rodgers  trying to come up with an excuse for the Packers losing. Again it probably wasn’t intentional but he can’t make those kinds of statements.

Fitzgerald takes over: Then Fitzgerald made overtime end so quickly that now people are complaining that this set of overtime rules are unfair because Rodgers didn’t get a chance to go back on the field. If Rodgers wants to look for an excuse for why the Packers lost, he needs to look no further than his defense letting Fitzgerald turn a 15-yard pass into a 75-yard completion. Fitzgerald is very shifty but for him to get so wide open and then have four defenders fail to tackle him is a complete defensive breakdown. You can be disappointed Rodgers didn’t get a chance to respond, but don’t ask to change the rules because the Packers couldn’t stop the Cardinals from scoring a touchdown.

Fitzgerald ended the game two plays later on unique play design where Palmer ran what looked like an option run but instead threw a shovel pass to Fitzgerald. It capped possibly his greatest postseason performance and that is saying something. Look at his playoff game log:

  • 2008 Playoffs
    • vs. Atlanta – 6 receptions, 101 receiving yards, touchdown
    • at Carolina – 8 receptions, 166 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns
    • vs Philadelphia – 9 receptions, 152 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns
    • vs Pittsburgh – 7 receptions, 127 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns
  • 2009 Playoffs
    • vs Green Bay – 6 receptions, 82 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns
    • at New Orleans – 6 receptions, 77 receiving yards
  • 2014 Playoffs
    • at Carolina – 3 receptions, 31 receiving yards
  • 2015 Playoffs
    • vs Green Bay – 8 receptions, 176 receiving yards, touchdown

His three games with 150+ receiving yards are already the most in NFL playoff history and he’s scored 10 receiving touchdowns in one fewer game than the great Jerry Rice, which is amazing considering two of those games were throwaways because of bad quarterbacks (three quarters of Matt Leinart vs Saints and a whole game with Ryan Lindley vs Panthers last year). Fitzgerald looks like a man on a mission and I don’t know if anyone can stop him.


How I Did With My Divisional Round Picks:

  • Arizona 34, Green Bay 20 (OT) (1-0 this weekend, 3-2 in playoffs)
  • New England 27 Kansas City 20 (2-0, 4-2)
  • Carolina 31, Seattle 24 (3-0, 5-2)
  • Denver 23, Pittsburgh 16 (4-0, 6-2)

Regular Season Record: 159-97 (.621)
Playoff Record: 6-2 (.750)
Total Record: 165-99 (.625)
Perfect Score Predictions: 2

All In The Cards: Arizona-Green Bay Playoff Preview

It has been a magical season for the Arizona Cardinals, one in which almost every positive franchise record was broken. While they have accomplished so much already, the team knows that all of those records will be forgotten if the Cardinals don’t win a single playoff game. The Cardinals’ goal was and still is to win the Lombardi Trophy, but the unpredictability of the one-and-done format of the postseason means anything can happen. That being said, exiting without a single playoff win would be unacceptable. So the Cardinals look to achieve that first goal this Saturday when they host the Green Bay Packers. This week I’ll recap what has changed for both teams in the three weeks since they last played and how those changes will affect the rematch. I hope you enjoy and if you do make sure to follow me on Twitter @QTipsforsports or just search the hashtag #Allinthecards for in-game thoughts and analysis. Now let’s preview the Cardinals playoff match against the Packers.

Green Bay Packers @ Arizona Cardinals

Last Meeting: W 38-8 vs. Green Bay (12/28/15)

Having played each other only three weeks ago, you would think that this week’s matchup between the Cardinals and Packers would go roughly the same way? While there are definitely more similarities in this rematch in comparison to say the Seahawks-Panthers rematch (those teams played back in October), this weekend has no chance of being a repeat of the Cardinals dominating 38-8 win.

Let’s take a look at what has changed for both teams, both positive and negative:

Green Bay changes:

  1. The Packers have a functioning offensive line: It’s no secret by now that part of the reason behind the Packers’ blowout loss last time they played in the desert was because their offensive line was in shambles and got gradually worse when other linemen left partway through the game with injuries. This time around the Packers could possibly have all starting five linemen back if left tackle David Bakhtiari (who didn’t play the first time) is able to play. While Green Bay’s starting offensive line is only average by NFL standard, it will still be a huge improvement over the disastrous group they played the first time.
  2. Aaron Rodgers is playing much better: I’ve written about Rodgers’ body language during the previous matchup more times than I’ve probably needed to, but it’s a fact that Rodgers was not himself during the second half of season. Over his last six regular season games, Rodgers had thrown an interception in all but one of those games and only tossed multiple touchdowns twice. Against the Redskins last week, Rodgers threw two touchdowns and no interceptions. He still completed less than 60% of his pass attempts (something he did in three of his last six regular season games) but the performance was still a net positive, giving Packer fans hope that Rodgers is beginning to play like himself again.
  3. Defense is creating pressure: While the Cardinals’ offensive line is much better than the Redskins’ front five, you can’t ignore that the Packers’ defense looked much sharper last week. Against Washington, the Packers sacked Kirk Cousins six times and hit him 13 times. Compare that to what they did in week 16 in Arizona (two sacks, four QB hits). The big difference between the two games was the play of Clay Matthews. Matthews got 4 tackles and 1.5 sacks against the Redskins but was held without a single tackle against the Cardinals. Don’t expect another donut from Matthews this time around.

Arizona changes:

  1. Cardinals were humbled by the Seahawks: Coming off a blowout win over Green Bay and a Carolina loss, the Cardinals (winners of nine straight) became the talk of the league as possibly the Super Bowl favorite. Then the Seahawks slapped the Cardinals in the face, shoved them in a locker, and took their lunch money. How else do you explain being down 30-6 at halftime in your own building? Obviously the Cardinals are still very confident that they can win a championship, but at the same time it was a reminder that all it takes is one bad game and your season is over. This is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because Arizona can learn from its mistakes and that playoff success isn’t guaranteed, but it’s bad in that opposing teams now fear the Cardinals less.
  2. Pass rush shakeup: Over the playoff bye week, Cardinals outside linebacker Alex Okafor found himself on the non-football injury list with a toe injury. While Okafor’s production can easily be replaced since his level of play was way down from last season, what it does cause is a depth shakeup at Arizona’s weakest position. Second-year pass rusher Kareem Martin will likely start but it may also mean more snaps for Dwight Freeney and newly-signed Jason Babin. While not the end of the world, the Cardinals would prefer to only play them in situational roles so as to maximize their impacts.
  3. Rashad Johnson is back: He missed the first game against Green Bay and if Rodgers is really back, the Cards will need Johnson in the secondary. Besides Tyrann Mathieu, no other player means more in the defensive huddle for Arizona, as Johnson is basically the quarterback of the defense. He’s also played extremely well, intercepting five passes to tie Mathieu for team-high. Whether or not he’s able to perform at a high level could be the difference between whether or not Rodgers can pass downfield on this defense.

Yet at the same time there are quite a few things that haven’t changed. Green Bay’s receivers still have a hard time creating separation. The Packers were able to manufacture some separation against the Redskins by running the ball effectively, but against Arizona’s sixth ranked rush-defense that’s tougher said than done. What happens if the Packers can’t get the running game going? Also the Packers still have a lot of trouble converting on third down. Green Bay went 3 for 11 (27.3%) on third down against Washington, which actually isn’t that far off from how the Packers did during the regular season (33.7%, fifth worst in the NFL). Arizona has only allowed its opponents to convert on 35.7% of third down attempts (eighth best in the NFL) so that remains a huge hurdle for the Packers.

Meanwhile for Arizona, forcing turnovers still dictates team success. In 13 wins, the Cardinals forced 33 turnovers, but the team didn’t force a single turnover in any of their three losses. While Arizona did generate four Green Bay turnovers during the teams’ first game, that looks more like an anomaly than trend as the Packers have only allowed 17 turnovers all season (fourth fewest in the NFL). Can the Cardinals still win if they can’t force any Green Bay turnovers?

The point I’m trying to make is that you shouldn’t expect a repeat of what happened during week 16. That game was a perfect storm for the Cardinals where everything went right and represents the best-case scenario for Arizona in this matchup. However, I really doubt things will go so smoothly this time around. Both Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians still have to get the “first playoff win” monkey off of their backs. The Cardinals as a team will have to deal with being the playoff favorite for the first time after living in the underdog role for so long. Also, Rodgers has experience taking the Packers to a Super Bowl title when Green Bay was a wild card team, like the team is this season.

I still think the Cardinals will win but it will be dogfight, with the Cardinals possibly needing a fourth quarter comeback to win. Yet the Cardinals know that after the season they have had, losing this game is not an option.

Game Pick: Arizona 34, Green Bay 27


My Wild Card Game Picks:

  • Kansas City 23, Houston – Correct (KC 30-0) (1-0)
  • Cincinnati 27, Pittsburgh 24 – Incorrect (Pit 18-16) (1-1)
  • Seattle 20, Minnesota 17 – Correct (Sea 10-9) (2-1)
  • Washington 31, Green Bay 23 – Incorrect (GB 35-18) (2-2)

My Other Divisional Round Picks:

  • New England 20, Kansas City 16
  • Carolina 24, Seattle 23
  • Denver 24, Pittsburgh 13

Regular Season Record: 159-97 (.621)
Playoff Record: 2-2 (.500)
Total Record: 161-99 (.619)
Perfect Score Predictions: 2