The Arizona Cardinals and the Atlanta Falcons have a lot of things in common: bad defense, good offense, one win each, and both named after birds. But the Falcons and Cardinals are two teams trending in different directions.
The Falcons are now eons away from “28-3” in Super Bowl LI and are fading faster than John Travolta’s and Nic Cage’s movie careers after “Face/Off.” Dan Quinn is on the hottest seat in the NFL after the Falcons' disastrous 1-4 start to the season. After last week’s absolute thumping from the Texans, it's safe to say that Quinn’s tenure running the Falcons is now on a week-to-week basis.
Last week, the Cardinals were able to hang on for a 26-23 win against the Bengals and earn the first win of the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray era. It’s been a rocky start in the desert, as Kingsbury and Murray are both figuring out this whole NFL thing as they go. But the Cards and their ridiculously handsome head coach have shown flashes that they are starting to get the hang of it. Slowly, but surely.
Atlanta at Arizona
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 13 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Falcons -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Matt Ryan... lots and lots of Matt Ryan
The Falcons as a whole may be rather lousy, but Matt Ryan has shown this season that he is still a pretty darn good quarterback. Last week, Ryan might have been the lone bright spot for the Falcons, as he threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns in the lopsided loss against Houston. The seven interceptions this season are worrisome, but he still sits second in the league in touchdown passes (11) and third in yards (1,655) and completion percentage (70 percent). Not bad for a fella who is slinging the ball more than 44 times per game.
Sunday, Ryan will be looking across the line at a Cardinals defense that is filled with rookies in its secondary, with no Patrick Peterson, and ranks 29th in TD passes allowed (12) and 30th in QB rating allowed (116.1). Look for Ryan to keep up the pace and attempt more than 40 passes against the Cards’ young secondary, targeting Julio Jones over, and over, and over, and over...
2. Cards' offense finding form?
Like any new couple, Kingsbury and Murray have been figuring out how they fit together. It’s been a process, but week-to-week growth from both Kingsbury and Murray has been evident. Last week, Kingsbury took the pressure off of Murray, as the Cardinals finally ran the ball more times than they threw it (38 runs, 32 passes). Not coincidentally, the Cards earned their first win as running backs David Johnson and Chase Edmonds combined for 159 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. The ability to open up the ground game allowed Murray to create for himself, both through in the air and the ground. Murray threw for 253 yards and ran for another 93 and a touchdown. On the season, Murray has combined for more than 1,500 total yards through the first five games.
Murray faces an Atlanta defense that last week allowed Deshaun Watson to go off for 426 yards through the air, with five touchdown passes and a perfect passer rating (158.3). If the Cards can establish a running attack on Sunday, Murray could be in for another game of visible growth.
3. Can Cards' secondary hang on?
The Cardinals' young secondary has yet to face a premier receiver this season — but that all changes on Sunday when Julio Jones comes to town. With star cornerback Patrick Peterson on the shelf for one more week as he serves his six-game PED suspension, and starter Robert Alford likely out, a trio of rookie DBs will be called upon to stop one of the best pass catchers the game has ever seen. Cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. and safeties Deionte Thompson and Jalen Thompson are going to get a first-hand education in the awesomeness that is Julio Jones.
Even when facing Peterson in the past, Jones has destroyed the Cardinals. In four career games against Arizona, Jones has 23 receptions for 339 yards and two touchdowns. With no Peterson in the lineup and a green secondary that has yet to intercept a pass, the Ryan-to-Jones connection could flourish. If veteran edge rushers Chandler Jones (4 sacks) and Terrell Suggs (3.5 sacks) can find a way to disrupt Ryan’s timing, that would go a long way in helping the Cardinals' unproven secondary.
The Cardinals and the Falcons have produced very similar on-field products this season. The difference between them is that the Cardinals were supposed to be bad and the Falcons weren’t — which makes Sunday’s game all the more important for Atlanta. One more loss could very well spell the end of the Quinn era, which makes me believe the Falcons are playing for just a little bit more than the growth of a young team.
Prediction: Falcons 31, Cardinals 28
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.