Is another Super Bowl run in the cards for Arizona?
Can the Arizona Cardinals duplicate last season’s playoff success starting on Sunday afternoon against the Green Bay Packers at University of Phoenix Stadium?
Based on the way the club ended the regular season — and the team’s Jekyll and Hyde persona throughout the year — one should have some serious doubts.
But if we think back to last season, did anyone give the Cardinals any chance whatsoever in their wild-card matchup with Atlanta? The rejuvenated Falcons were the talk of the league, hitting the jackpot with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, first-year head coach Mike Smith and running back Michael Turner. The Cardinals, meanwhile, were dubbed one of the worst teams to even make the playoffs — considered by many to be a sure first-round exit after winning the weak NFC West. All the Cardinals did against the Falcons, however, was start their incredible run to the Super Bowl with their first playoff win since 1998.
What about against Carolina in the divisional round — before we knew that Jake Delhomme was capable of throwing five interceptions in a playoff game? The prevailing sentiment was that the Panthers’ backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart would have a field day against the soft Cardinals defense. Take away a 31-yard run by Williams, and the duo rushed for just 44 yards on 14 carries in a home loss to the Cards.
Certainly we thought that Donovan McNabb and the playoff-tested Eagles were going to steamroll the Cards in the NFC championship game, right? Larry Fitzgerald had other ideas, as the beastly wideout caught three touchdowns to help ‘Zona advance.
By the time Super Bowl Sunday rolled around, you would have been foolish to not expect the valiant effort the Cards put up in falling short against the Steelers in the final game of their storybook run.
So as we look towards the start of the 2009 postseason, can the Cards recapture the magic?
We have seen the good Cardinals many times this season — and we have seen the bad Cardinals, as well.
We saw them storm into the Meadowlands on a Sunday night and out-tough the New York Giants — a Giants team that was 5-1 and playing very good football at the time. In the victory, the Cards proved that they could win a physical road game in a hostile environment. However, that was followed up with a bad home loss to the Panthers, a game in which quarterback Kurt Warner tossed five picks.
The next week, the offense completely reversed course, as Warner tossed five touchdowns and the Cards rolled the Bears at Soldier Field. They didn’t miss a beat in another Sunday night showcase in early December against Minnesota, as they received another strong effort from Warner. But it was the defense that won the game against Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson and the Vikings.
Yet, the team played stunningly awful the next week on Monday night in a 24-9 loss to the 49ers — completing San Fran’s season sweep.
So the question is, after another listless effort this past Sunday against the Packers — albeit with their backups taking the majority of the snaps — what Cardinals team is going to show up in Glendale this coming Sunday afternoon?
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is nursing a sprained left ankle, but the Cards have proven that they can win without him being 100 percent — and win outright without him, as they’ve gone 5-1 in the past two seasons without his services. With a renewed running game thanks to the emergence of Beanie Wells, an argument can be made that the Cards are more balanced and even better offensively than their playoff team last season.
Perhaps more important, though, is the health of defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt was initially optimistic the two would be ready to go by Sunday, which is critical as the Packers offense seems to be clicking on all cylinders. Running back Ryan Grant looks to be running with more authority, Aaron Rodgers put together a stellar season in his second full year as the starter, and the offensive line seems to finally be a cohesive unit.
Rodgers-Cromartie missed practice yesterday with a bruised left kneecap and said that he needs at least some practice to prepare for the Packers. Campbell practiced on a limited basis with a broken left thumb.
Despite not putting up eye-popping numbers, Bill Davis’ aggressive defense — with three Pro Bowl selections in safety Adrian Wilson, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and Rodgers-Cromartie — has proven in high-profile matchups this season that it could complement and even overshadow the Cards’ high-powered offense. A fourth player, safety Antrel Rolle, was named an alternate selection for the NFL’s all-star game.
Could this defense be the key to another long run in the postseason, especially if the highly skilled offense runs into one of its head-scratching droughts?
While the defensive numbers aren’t spectacular — 20th overall in total yards, 23rd against the pass and 17th against the run — Arizona is 14th in points allowed this season at 20.3 per game, and they’re sixth in the league on third-down, allowing opponents to convert only 35.3 percent of the time.
In addition, their red-zone defense has been consistently outstanding all season, and they rank sixth in the NFL with 43 sacks — the most for the franchise since 1984. How much pressure the front four applies — especially if Michael Adams is pressed into duty at Rodgers-Cromartie’s cornerback spot — could go a long way in determining the outcome on Sunday against Green Bay’s offensive weapons.
Regardless of how great or how terrible Arizona has looked at times this season, none of it matters anymore. On Sunday afternoon in Glendale, the one-time laughingstock of the league looks to not only prove that last year wasn’t a fluke, but also show that these Cardinals have the goods to deliver the franchise’s first league title since 1947.
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