In Sunday’s victory against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium, the Cardinals looked very different from the squad that crushed its rival nine weeks ago.
When these teams first met, Arizona won by 40 points. Sunday’s effort was just a tad bit closer as the 49ers were in position late in the game to potentially steal a victory and only lost by six points, 19-13.
Any coach, especially head coach Bruce Arians, will say any win is a good win, particularly on the road against a division rival.
“We finally won in [San Francisco], that’s the lesson,” Arians said, per Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Paul Calvisi. “It’s never easy. This was no trap game.”
Even the team’s Twitter feed rationalized Sunday’s effort:
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) November 30, 2015
After all, the NFL is a bottom-line league. However, coaches aren’t wired to dwell on what already happened. They’re always looking forward to next week. What happened in the first month of the season isn’t as important as what comes next.
For example, the fact the Cardinals won their first three games, including the initial 49ers contest, by a total of 77 points no longer matters.
What matters is playoff positioning and how Arizona stacks up against the competition. At 9-2 overall, Arians’ squad currently owns the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
The Minnesota Vikings (8-3) are only one game behind the Cardinals, though. And the Green Bay Packers (7-4) own plenty of talent, but they’re are still finding their way.
Both of those teams could legitimately threaten Arizona’s standing as the NFC’s second-best squad. It just so happens the Cardinals face both teams in the coming weeks.
Each presents problems for Arizona.
The Vikings will likely use the same blueprint as the 49ers. San Francisco prevented long passes for the most part and played smart and efficient offensive football.
Minnesota, however, is far more talented at key positions to make this strategy potentially work when it travels to University of Phoenix Stadium.
Shaun Draughn played a fine game and gained 51 yards on 15, but he’s no Adrian Peterson, who currently leads the league in rushing yards. While Blaine Gabbert is currently experiencing a career revival, the Vikings’ Teddy Bridgewater is one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks against pressure. Plus, head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense is currently ranked fifth overall in pass defense because of its talented defensive backs.
The Packers, meanwhile, will be a completely different obstacle. The Cardinals’ upcoming contest with the Pack could quickly develop into a shootout. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers continues to play at a level far below expectations, but no one denies his ability if he gets help from the team’s skill positions.
Carson Palmer might have produced 271 yards Sunday, but he missed multiple throws he made earlier in the year. The 49ers made the quarterback earn every yard. In fact, Palmer’s performance against San Francisco was his worst passing effort of the season. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time this year, and he averaged a season-low 6.78 yards per pass.
The 49ers took away his ability to stretch the field, which limits the team’s play-calling. Arians wants to push the ball downfield. His offense is built around the concept.
“Observing Arians as the [game] plan is being finalized, you realize there is no secret to the plays that are his pets,” MMQB.com’s Peter King wrote last week. “There is a section smack-dab in the middle of the white board headed HOME RUN. It means exactly how it sounds: big shots, far downfield.”
This is what makes Palmer such a wonderful fit in Arizona. His touch coupled with more than enough arm strength to consistently complete deep passes make him an ideal fit in Arians’ plans. When he can’t, the quarterback starts to press. There were instances Sunday when Palmer forced passes that were clearly poor decisions.
For example, Palmer gift-wrapped an interception to 49ers defensive back Tramaine Brock, who dropped the pseudo-punt. Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson provided video of the pass:
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) November 29, 2015
Vance McDonald and Blake Bell combined to make nine catches for 138 yards. McDonald’s 71 receiving yards were a season high, while Bell—a collegiate quarterback turned tight end—set a career high with three catches and 67 yards.
Also, the Cardinals’ No Fly Zone allowed Torrey Smith behind the defense, and the only reason the Maryland product didn’t score a touchdown was due to a poorly thrown pass. His speed certainly proved more than enough to take the top off the defense despite the talented secondary.
When Peterson talked about “small things” the defense needs to work on, these were the primary issues Sunday.
Injuries have also taken a toll on the Cardinals. The team didn’t didn’t leave Sunday’s contest unscathed.
Cornerback Jerraud Powers injured his leg. The extent has yet to be determined.
“Hopefully, (it’s) just a calf strain.” Arians said, per Weinfuss.
Powers is a big part of the team’s defense, but he isn’t one of the NFL’s top performers at his position. Running back Chris Johnson is. The veteran didn’t perform particularly well Sunday before he injured his knee—he carried the ball 12 times for 17 yards.
Since taking over as the team’s lead back, Johnson once again became one of the league’s top rushers. His career seemed to receive a spark by being in the desert.
His potential absence would be a big blow to the offense.
Fellow running back Andre Ellington continues to deal with injuries, while rookie David Johnson may be forced into a bigger role if both Johnson and Ellington miss time over the next five weeks.
A limited offense, a few defensive lapses and injuries nearly cost the Cardinals their ninth victory of the season. At this point, the team simply isn’t going to look at crisp as it did in September against a division rival.
These same issues provide reasons to question the Cardinals’ overall potential as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
At this point in the season, the ability to survive and advance is all that matters…until the playoffs arrive. Those teams who usually make deep runs in the postseason are playing better at the end of the year than they are at the beginning.
The Cardinals are currently finding ways to win—five straight games, in fact—but they’re not the same dominant team that opened the season.
At first, Arizona beat up inferior opponents. During the team’s current winning streak, the Cardinals defeated four opponents with records of .500 or less at the time of their meetings. Four of those games were decided by one score, and the Cardinals trailed at halftime in the fifth contest.
Arians should be proud of his team’s resiliency, but it’s not clicking on all cylinders at this point in the season. With vital upcoming games against the Vikings and Packers, the Cardinals still have an opportunity to prove they’re the NFC’s second-best team.
They’ll need to play better than they did Sunday, though.