Give the Arizona Cardinals this much: When they’re on their game, there isn’t much drama to be found.
True, it’s taken them six games to finally score a first quarter point, which they finally accomplished on David Johnson’s 58-yard scamper 5:09 into their 28-3 systematic destruction of the woebegone New York Jets on “Monday Night Football.” But their three wins on the season have come by 33, 12 and 25 points, none of the contests ever much in doubt.
Granted, their three wins, over Tampa Bay, San Francisco and now the Jets, have come against opponents that are a combined 4-13, but it was difficult to ignore the businesslike, clean, orderly fashion with which they dispatched the Just-End-The-Season gang, with no fuss or muss. Carson Palmer very much took on the “game manager” role, much the same way the Dallas Cowboys have used rookie Dak Prescott, and Bruce Arians seems to have come to the begrudging realization that it’s Johnson’s time to carry the freight for his offense.
That the Cards were able to run through the Jets, even without starting guards Mike Iupati and Evan Mathis — to the degree where color analyst Jon Gruden awarded their understudies John Wetzel and Earl Watford as his “Grinders of the Game” — was a considerable achievement. The line also kept Palmer off the turf all night. However, their performance paled in comparison to the defense, which has been among the stingiest in the league after a couple early hiccups.
The secondary has stabilized, with Marcus Cooper beating out rookie Brandon Williams for the left corner spot opposite Patrick Peterson and safeties Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger — who was a monster against the Jets — have made for a hard-hitting combo. Arizona’s defense is a hybrid to begin with, with safety Deone Bucannon moonlighting as a light, every-down linebacker, and it suits them well in coverage and makes their blitz schemes more unpredictable.
What enables them to get away with it though, is Calais Campbell and Corey Peters being stout enough up front to tie up blockers in the running game and bookends Chandler Jones and Markus Golden providing enough heat off the edge to bother passers. It’s a defense without much depth, where they’re in real trouble if something happens to Campbell or Peterson, in particular, but it’s working for them so far, aided and abetted by Johnson grinding out the clock and keeping them off the field.
The reality is that the Cards likely aren’t as good as they appeared against the Jets. Who can be? But they’re not two touchdowns worse than the Buffalo Bills, either. They’re still trying to find themselves, trying to regain their footing after Palmer’s troublesome start to the season, and doing their best to weather the injury storms that have hit their offensive line and backfield.
They’ve passed a pair of “day of reckoning” tests where a loss to the 49ers or the Jets would’ve all but ensured a quick and calamitous end of their season. The only reward they get for their trouble is another make-or-break game Sunday night, at home against their rivals and NFC West front-runners, the 4-1 Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks look to have a couple of built-in advantages here, despite being the visitors. They’ll have had an extra day of rest and preparation and they’ve already had their “bye,” so they’ll be that much fresher. They’re also coming off a stiffer test, controversial victors over the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, with the Falcons coming into that game having won as many games as all of Arizona’s victims combined.
Several notable performers will be iffy for the game, with ends Michael Bennett (knee) and Frank Clark (hamstring) and safety Kam Chancellor (groin) all nursing injuries. However, confidence probably won’t be much of an issue for Seattle regardless. They only won this fixture 36-6 last January, a game that begat Palmer’s playoff death spiral.
A home loss wouldn’t sink the Cardinals completely. They could still rebound from a 3-4 record to sneak into the postseason tournament as a Wild Card in the top-heavy NFC, but they’d be three losses behind Seattle in the division race with a trip up there still looming. It’s a game that by all rights should have more meaning for them than the opponent, but at the same time the Seahawks will relish the chance to put the division to bed before Halloween and Richard Sherman in particular will be looking to wash the taste of Julio Jones’ exhaust fumes from his mouth.
It looks to be an exciting match-up, but the paradox the Cards have given us through six games is they don’t tend to do well in those. It’s the games that are over midway through the second quarter that are more their flavor.