The crazy NFC playoff picture will get a little clearer this Sunday when Arizona tries to clinch the West Division title, while surprising Philadelphia looks to build on a two-game winning streak that has put it back into contention in the hapless East. A month ago, this looked like a walkover for the Cardinals, but Philadelphia’s mini-resurgence has given the contest plenty of extra interest, enough to lead NBC to flex the game to Sunday night.
The Cardinals’ offense remains the league’s most imposing and leads the NFL in yards per game, while ranking second in points. That was supposed to be what Philadelphia would do with its high-speed attack, but now that teams have figured out to control the Eagles’ tempo, they have leaned on special teams (in the win over New England) and defense (in last week’s triumph over Buffalo) to overcome a lack of significant offensive production.
Arizona at Philadelphia
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Arizona -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Sudden Sam
When Sam Bradford went 10-for-10 passing against Green Bay in a preseason game, Eagles fans thought the team had the perfect player for Chip Kelly’s system. But that wasn’t the case during the first half of the year. Bradford had trouble starting games quickly, and he threw 10 picks in his first seven contests. He missed a pair of games with concussions but has returned to play quite well, leading the Eagles to a 3-1 record in their last four games and throwing just one interception. Bradford isn’t getting the ball downfield all that often, although his long TD pass to Nelson Agholor last week against the Bills was nice. But he is more accurate and confident, and the Eagles are reaping the benefits.
2. Can’t Wait
One would imagine the Eagles’ secondary would have to pay close attention to Larry Fitzgerald, simply because the standout receiver has caught 96 passes and scored seven times this year. But Fitzgerald is particularly deadly against Philadelphia. In seven games against the Eagles in his career, he has caught 47 passes, scored 11 times – including at least once in every game – and averaged a whopping 17.1 yards/catch. That’s quite a stat line and one that means the Philadelphia defensive backs had better be ready to go Sunday night.
3. Championship Chase
If a team is going to stagger around throughout the season, it is best advised to do it when the rest of the division is a disaster. That’s how the Eagles have rolled this year, and they find themselves in great position to win the NFC East, something that seemed ridiculous on Thanksgiving, when the Lions were carving them up. But Philadelphia is tied with Washington and New York “atop” the East with a 6-7 record, and though Washington has the tiebreaker now, a win by the Eagles next week at home would give them the upper hand, thanks to a better division record. It would be nice for Philadelphia to win Sunday against Arizona, but if the Eagles beat Washington and the Giants to close the season, it’s likely they’ll win the division, since New York must face Carolina and Minnesota before Kelly and company in the season finale.
Arizona is an offensive juggernaut, and those who remember how Tampa Bay and Detroit rolled through the Eagles’ defense can only imagine what the Cardinals could do Sunday night. But Philadelphia has tightened things up the past two weeks and could be a tougher challenge than some think. And with Arizona defensive backs Rashad Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu hobbled, the Cards could be susceptible to the passing game, something Sam Bradford has mastered of late.
It’s hard to know which Philadelphia team will show up. Is it the one that allowed 10 TD passes in two weeks to Jameis Winston and Matthew Stafford, or the one that whipped New England on the road? The Eagles are on a mini-roll, but Arizona is a definite step up in class.
Prediction: Cardinals 27, Eagles 24
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.