The Saints are plummeting toward their third straight non-winning season. They have dropped four of their last five games. While the defense improved in keeping opponents at 28 or fewer points per game in the last eight, the offense has been limited to 23 or fewer in six of those contests. New Orleans trails Atlanta and Tampa Bay in the NFC South by three games and has lost to both already.
Similar to the Saints, the Cardinals are staring at the likelihood of a losing campaign. The Seahawks clinched the NFC West with Thursday night’s win over the Rams, and Arizona currently trails five other teams in the wild card hunt. Sunday also marks the Cardinals’ final home game before finishing up with trips to Seattle and Los Angeles.
Arizona leads the all-time series against New Orleans 15-13. The Saints have lost three straight out in the desert with the last win coming in October 2009.
New Orleans at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 18 at 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Saints +2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Reappearance of the Saints’ offense?
A glance at the current NFL statistics might make the reader assume that the Saints are continuing to roll along and over opponents. The 49-point mirage versus the Rams in Week 12, however, cannot hide the precipitous decline of the offense. Excluding that game, New Orleans has scored fewer points over a four-game span – 23 vs. Denver, 20 at Carolina, 13 vs. Detroit and just 11 last week in Tampa Bay. The Saints managed just one touchdown in the home loss to the Lions and none against the Buccaneers. They also failed to rush for more than 50 yards in either game. Drew Brees has thrown six interceptions and zero touchdowns in the last two games, contributing to the slump.
Despite the recent offensive struggles, New Orleans still leads the NFL in total yards per game (418.3) and passing yards per game (313.9). The Saints are tied with Raiders for second in scoring offense (27.5 ppg). Even with their recent failures in running the ball, they are in the middle of the pack in rushing offense at 104.4 yards per game (18th).
A rebound for New Orleans’ offense on the road against Arizona will not be easy. The Cardinals have been eliminated from playoff contention, but their defense leads the league in yards allowed per game (298.5). Arizona also ranks second in fewest first downs (17.4), passing yards (201.8) and touchdown passes (1.0) allowed per game. Arizona also is 10th against the run (96.7 ypg), so the Saints’ offense will clearly need to put forth a better performance against the Cardinals if they have any hope of turning things around.
2. Are the Cardinals capable of protecting the ball?
While not as highly ranked as its defense, Arizona’s offense does find itself in the upper half in several categories. The Cardinals are 11th in rushing (110.6 ypg), 13th in passing (253.2 ypg), 10th in total (363.8 ypg) and 15th in scoring (23.0 ppg) offense. David Johnson has been Arizona’s best player throughout the season, as he’s third in the NFL in rushing (1,085 yards) and leads the way with 15 total touchdowns. Moving the ball has not been the Cardinals’ biggest issue this season.
Protecting it has been. Arizona has lost eight fumbles and the quarterbacks have thrown 15 interceptions. Those 23 total turnovers place the Cardinals seventh in the league, which is one of the reasons why they must win out to finish the season at .500.
Arizona’s offense will look different the rest of the way following the release of Michael Floyd, who was claimed on waivers by New England. Floyd was third on the team in receptions (33), receiving yards (446) and tied for second with four touchdown catches. Johnson has more than done his part as a receiver out of the backfield and the reliable Larry Fitzgerald is the team’s most productive target. But the Cardinals need J.J. Nelson or John Brown or Brittan Golden to step up and fill Floyd’s role. Until that happens, expect New Orleans to focus their attention on limiting the damage done by Fitzgerald and Johnson.
3. Protecting Carson Palmer
Another reason for the Cardinals’ losing record is the lack of protection for Palmer. Opponents have sacked him 37 times, the second-highest for a quarterback this season. Those 261 lost yards are the most for any team. The constant pressure on Palmer has contributed to his 60.9 percent completion rate, seventh lowest in the NFL.
Although the Saints’ defense has improved over the course of the season that has not translated to increased pressure on opposing passers. New Orleans has recorded 26 sacks (20th), and has not been able to make up for this deficiency by forcing an abundance of turnovers. The Saints have just seven interceptions in 13 games, only three teams have fewer.
Will Arizona’s offensive line give Palmer enough time to pick apart one of the most generous pass defenses? New Orleans is 29th in the league against the pass, giving up 268.3 passing yards per game. It may be now or never for Palmer and the Cardinals’ aerial attack.
Since the Seahawks defeated the Rams on Thursday evening, this game is pretty much just for pride for the Cardinals. And likewise, the Saints enter this game with their playoff hopes still technically intact but highly improbable. New Orleans must win out to have any shot of catching Atlanta or Tampa Bay, and even then the Saints would need their division rivals to lose their remaining games.
So considering the circumstances, what sort of effort will Arizona put forth at home? Meanwhile, New Orleans appears to have more reason to win, which is enough to give the Saints a slight edge out in the desert.
Prediction: Saints 24, Cardinals 17
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.