FanHouse Preview: Cardinals at Saints
The Arizona Cardinals are coming off a historic win, and now must face the New Orleans Saints, a team looking to turn around their history and make their first Super Bowl appearance ever. News broke early last Sunday that Kurt Warner was leaning toward early retirement; Warner then went 29-for-33 for 379 yards and five TDs. You're reading that right -- the man had more touchdown passes than incompletions. Warner later debunked the retirement rumor ... for now.
Arizona's 51-45 overtime win over the Packers marked the first time in league history two teams have scored 96 points in a playoff game. What's scarier is that the New Orleans offense is the best in the league at scoring points and gaining yards. Could a 100-point game be in the cards this weekend?
New Orleans, despite those league-leading offensive numbers, finished the season on a three-game losing streak after starting the season 13-0. Still, a late-season swoon by the Minnesota Vikings handed the Saints the No. 1 seed, preventing a rematch against the Cowboys, at least for one week. Dallas, of course, is the team that handed New Orleans its first loss of the season. Should the Saints succumb to looking ahead, they could find themselves upset by Arizona.
Three Key Questions:
1. Have the Saints cured the problems of the season's last three weeks?
2. Will the Arizona defense come together after a terrible Wild Card-round performance?
3. Anquan Boldin -- it seems like he'll be out, so can Steve Breaston and Early Doucet step up again?
Player in the Spotlight: New Orleans defensive end Bobby McCray. Will Smith leads the Saints in sacks with 13 in 2009. Second on the team is Charles Grant, and the two have been bookends for this defensive line since 2005. Grant suffered a season-ending injury in Week 17 and was placed on injured reserve, elevating McCray to the starting lineup. McCray does have starting experience, even recording double-digit sacks as a member of the Jaguars in 2006. A pass-rushing specialist, McCray will have to keep the pressure on Warner, who is extremely dangerous when he has time to throw. The new starter will also have to play the run well, which has been his Achilles' heel in his career. His performance could mean the difference between a 20-point and 40-point Arizona performance.
Arizona's Path to Victory: Score early. If the Saints get ahead at the beginning of the game, they'll be able to move the chains with the run and take some shots down the field once the Cardinals start bringing an extra man in the box. This should cause coach Ken Wisenhunt to empty the playbook early, doing everything in his power to get the ball in the end zone right away. When your team gives up 45 points at home one week, then goes on the road to play the league's best offense the next week, you must pull out all the stops. If the Cardinals can go into halftime with the lead, Beanie Wells can take over in the second half. Defensively, the Cardinals have to get to Brees, whether it be by blitzing linebackers and safeties or by disguising coverages in an attempt to confuse him throughout the game. This Saints team is only going as far as Brees takes them, so if the Cardinals can force him into a bad performance, they can pretty much bank on a repeat trip to the NFC Championship.
New Orleans' Path to Victory: Offensive balance. You may think of the Saints as a purely passing team, but their rushing offense ranked sixth in the league during the regular season. But in Weeks 13-15, which featured near-losses to Washington and Atlanta and a loss to Dallas, the running game failed to gain 100 yards on the ground. You can throw out Week 17's resting-the-starters loss to Carolina and the fluky loss to Tampa Bay, but those three previous games speak volumes about why the Saints have struggled in December. It is interesting that even though Pierre Thomas is probable for the game, the Saints signed Deuce McAllister on Friday. On defense, the Saints must stifle the Cardinals' early attempts at a quick score, and then keep the pressure on Warner throughout the game. The wild card here is Drew Brees, who has earned his spot as one of the NFL's elite QBs in the regular season but has no playoff experience on which to hang his hat.
Prediction: Look for both teams to come out swinging. Most of the game's points should be scored in the first half, as both New Orleans and Arizona will do everything possible to get to halftime with a lead. Whomever has the lead at the half dictates the pace of the game in the second half. With how effective these passing games are, both at moving the chains and at scoring from anywhere on the field, a halftime lead may not mean much in the long run. I think Arizona will have a small lead in the fourth quarter, and it will be on Brees to prove himself and take the team down the field yet again. I bet he comes through in the clutch, and Darren Sharper picks off a pass to seal the game. New Orleans 35, Arizona 31.