It's a tough start for Amazon's "Thursday Night Football" with a third straight game featuring teams with a .500 record or worse. Both the New Orleans Saints (2-4) and Arizona Cardinals (2-4) are coming off tough losses where they combined for a total of three fourth-quarter points.
That falls far short of expectations for two of the league's better offenses on paper. The Saints have wasted a top-10 rushing attack as they struggle through a quarterback juggling act in the post-Drew Brees era. Year 2 has seen Andy Dalton start in place of the injured Jameis Winston the last three weeks, while third option Taysom Hill has been limited in his utility man role (even listed as a tight end in some fantasy formats). No one has truly taken charge here, creating a sloppy start where the Saints have turned the ball over a league-high 13 times.
Over in Cardinals land, there's quarterback Kyler Murray, who's struggling to ace his "homework" while leaving his team's season hanging in the balance. Arizona has been getting pummeled in the first half, outscored 89-29 while trailing in all six of their games this year. Although Murray's late-game magic has saved them twice, you can't do that every week, leaving head coach Kliff Kingsbury sitting on the hot seat.
Can both teams find the right formula to save their season? A year of parity in the NFL has cut them both a break, neither team more than a game behind in two divisions where no one has a winning record. The talent is there, in each case, to push these playoff-caliber teams back into contention.
Who gets themselves back on track Thursday night?
Thursday Night Football: New Orleans (2-4) at Arizona (2-4)
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Kyler Murray put together a complete game?
Through six games, Murray's yearly stat comparison should raise eyebrows after being signed to a five-year, $230.5 million extension from his rookie contract.
- 2021: 6-0, 1,741 yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs, 5 games with a passer rating above 100
- 2022: 2-4, 1,463 yards, 6 TDs, 4 INTs, 0 games with a passer rating above 100
Murray did lose top target Christian Kirk (77 rec., 982 yds.) to free agency this past offseason. But replacement Marquise Brown has been no slouch, on pace for similar numbers through six games (43 catches, 485 yards), although he'll be out up to six weeks after suffering a foot fracture last Sunday.
That'll make it tougher for Murray to throw the deep ball, a skill that's taken a back seat in 2022. In fact, he's averaging just 5.8 yards per attempt this season; through six games in 2021, he never had a game where he dipped lower than 7.6. The Cardinals did trade for deep threat Robbie Anderson, although the 29-year-old has been held under 40 yards per game in each of the last two seasons.
Murray and Kingsbury let loose this week, frustrated after failing to score an offensive touchdown for the second time this year in a 19-9 loss to Seattle. Murray said it was the most frustrated he'd been since earning the starting job as an NFL rookie.
"That's the last time s***'s felt this hard," he explained. "We just feel it's tough out there right now. Tough. That's what it feels like. A lot of it, it's self-inflicted, put it on ourselves. Gotta get better."
Murray's right in that the offense starts off slow, not just in the first half but also on first and second down. Third-and-long situations have left them converting on just 34 percent of third downs, ranked 28th in the NFL, while their 4.81 yards per play ranks 31st. Arizona has kept its offense afloat by being aggressive on fourth down; they've gone for it a league-high 22 attempts and converted 12 times. But New Orleans could present a tough challenge in that department.
The Saints' defense has struggled in terms of allowing points but does excel on both third- and fourth-down conversions: they're tied for fifth (33.8 percent) and second (25 percent) in those categories, respectively. It's a good matchup for them against an offense that doesn't feel like it's been in rhythm all year.
That's where Murray is always the wild card. When released into desperation mode, in two games against the Raiders and Panthers, he's been sensational: 46 points in the second half of those games, six total touchdowns and no turnovers. But for some reason, the offensive plan doesn't get playground-style loose until the Cardinals fall into a deep hole. Will they find a way to adjust?
2. Which injured quarterback will start for the Saints?
All indications are it's Dalton, not Winston or Hill, who will start Thursday night for the Saints. "Andy's done a good job when he's been in there," head coach Dennis Allen said this week. "We've produced and scored some points."
Both men were limited in practice this week, Dalton suffering through a back injury while Winston could miss a fourth straight game with a combination of back and ankle problems. Through it all, Allen has been hesitant to install Hill under center; he's thrown a total of just five passes for 38 yards after starting four of the final five games in 2021.
Where Dalton has excelled for the Saints is cutting down on those turnovers; he's just got one interception through three games compared to Winston's five. The team has also been more prolific on offense, scoring an average of 30 points per game in Dalton's time as the starter versus 17 with Winston at the helm.
Neither one has had all the pieces in place as the Saints resemble the walking wounded. A whopping 14 players made the injury report for Tuesday, 10 of them from the offensive side of the ball. Among those who didn't practice are former Pro Bowl wide receivers Michael Thomas (foot injury, out the last three weeks) and wide receiver Jarvis Landry (ankle, out the last two weeks), along with tight end Adam Trautman (ankle, status uncertain for Thursday).
Luckily for the Saints, first-round draft pick Chris Olave has stepped into the void, posting 389 yards in five games before he missed last week against Cincinnati with a concussion. That meant Dalton went to battle without his top three receivers, putting up respectable numbers nonetheless (162 passing yards, one touchdown, and zero turnovers).
Dalton deserves a chance with more weapons in play, including star running back Alvin Kamara (302 yards in four games despite nagging injuries). The Saints' depth showed itself Sunday, scoring 26 points against the Bengals, and a healthier team Thursday night, with Olave on the field, should produce a better outcome.
3. Special teams
Both teams have struggled through their share of problems in the kicking game. The Saints have one of the strongest legs in the league, Wil Lutz, but he's just hit 69 percent of his attempts this year (9 of 13), well below his career average of 85 percent. It's fair to point out that one miss was a 61-yarder, a tough double-doink that came off the crossbar and would have sent their London game to overtime against the Vikings.
The Cardinals could only wish for that type of success rate the past two weeks. With Matt Prater out with a hip injury, they've turned to Matt Ammendola with limited success. He missed a 43-yard field goal against the Eagles to send that game to overtime, missed an extra point against the Seahawks, and hasn't hit a field goal longer than 23 yards. The team passed up on several other attempts, acknowledging the weakness of the kicker position.
In what's expected to be a close game, another missed field goal could make the difference and it's no certainty Ammendola will even start after the team signed Rodrigo Blankenship to the practice squad. It's another crack in the armor of an Arizona offense that's lost its way.
The Saints, overall, have looked more put together than the Cardinals this season, their four losses coming by a total of 25 points. Dalton has shown he can put points on the board while the rushing trio of Kamara, Mark Ingram II, and Hill can uplift the offense when used correctly.
It's not the type of team you can fall behind on big in the first half. That continues to be the Cardinals' problem and sleepwalking through another slow start is what I expect will do them on Thursday night. Could that cost Kingsbury, an offensive mastermind, his job with a 10-day layoff looming?
Prediction: New Orleans 31, Arizona 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
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