NFL Handicapping: Seven Reasons the Cardinals Can Win
by Trevor Whenham - 01/15/2009
The impossible has happened. The Arizona Cardinals are in the NFC Championship Game. This isn't a franchise that has made a habit of making the playoffs, never mind winning games when they get there. This is their first trip to a championship game since 1948. They lost that game, incidentally. To Philadelphia. If revenge is best served cold then this would certainly qualify.
It's tempting and not particularly tough to make fun of the Cardinals. They play in a terrible division, they were awful down the stretch, their QB is a retread that has been written off as washed up at least twice, and they are laughably weak on the road. That all combines to make it easy to overlook Arizona, and the public seems to be doing just that - the line opened with Philly favored by 2.5, and has moved to four in the face of strong action on the Eagles. It remains to be seen if that is the right call. What is clear, though, is that the Cardinals aren't as bad as people think they are. In fact, they aren't bad at all. Here are seven reasons to at least consider that they have a legitimate chance of winning this game:
1. Kurt Warner. Warner is a very interesting character, and there are lots of reasons not to like or trust him. Here's the thing, though - he knows how to win. He has a Super Bowl ring in his pocket, and he came darned close to collecting a second one. He's playing well right now, and he has a ridiculous arsenal of weapons at his disposal, led by wideout Larry Fitzgerald. There's another aspect here, too - Warner and Donovan McNabb have met in a playoff game before. It was the 2002 NFC Championship, and Warner and the Rams won.
2. Larry Fitzgerald. This guy is red hot. In his last three games he has 397 receiving yards and four touchdowns. For more than half of that time Anquan Boldin has been injured and out, so teams have been free to cover Fitzgerald closely. Now Boldin should be back, and Fitzgerald is dialed in. That could spell trouble for the Eagles. Asante Samuel will likely be charged with covering Fitzgerald for much of the game. That matchup should be a classic.
3. Ken Whisenhunt. He's an inexperienced head coach, but he has a Super Bowl ring on his finger. He was a key part of Pittsburgh's championship in his role as offensive coordinator. Not only that, but he showed impressive creativity under pressure - he designed and called the play in which Antwaan Randle El became the first wide receiver in Super Bowl history to toss a TD. Whisenhunt has quickly proven his worth as a head coach, and he is familiar with the pressure he faces.
4. Defense. You don't often think of Arizona and defense in the same sentence, but they are certainly in a zone right now. In two playoff games they have seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Those nine takeaways are even better than Baltimore in the playoffs, and the Ravens are getting all sorts of credit. Jake Delhomme is no John Elway, but the Cards made him look like a bumbling fool. Donovan McNabb is playing very well right now, but one thing we have learned over the years is that McNabb can lose his composure in a hurry.
5. Offensive balance. Arizona still isn't a running machine, but they are running the ball much better in the playoffs than they were in the season. They averaged less than 75 yards per game on the ground during the season. They are up to 115.5 yards in the playoffs, and they had 145 against Carolina. The Eagles have played two very good rushing teams, and they haven't held up well defensively. Arizona could do some damage on the ground. That balance would make them even more dangerous offensively.
6. Home field. This is new territory for the Cardinals, and the fans are excited about it. That's an understatement - the game sold out in just six minutes. The stadium is going to be in an absolute frenzy, and it is going to be very loud. This will be the biggest boost that the Cardinals' franchise has ever had.
7. The Eagles. The Cards are coming off a blowout loss to the Eagles back in November. Since then the Eagles have been almost unbeatable. There's an important thing to remember, though - before that win at home over Arizona, the Eagles were on the verge of self-destructing. Both Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid seemed to be on their way out of town. They are in a good place right now, but they aren't necessarily a significantly better team than the Cardinals. Remember, they both only have nine wins. The Eagles are probably a better team, and certainly a more experienced one, but they were only 3-4-1 on the road, and that tie came against the lowly Bengals. Arizona need not be intimidated here. Whether they will be or not is a different story.