Will Sunday be the Cardinals' last stand?
The loser of last year’s NFC Championship Game, Arizona ended last season just one more win from making it to the Super Bowl.
Now? The Cardinals are just one more loss from playoff elimination.
Sitting at 4-6-1, one of the NFC’s big disappointments must win at home this afternoon to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive. Their opponent, the Washington Redskins, currently sit in the second wild card spot at 6-4-1. A loss by the Cardinals drops them the equivalent of four games back with four to play, and on the wrong side of the head-to-head tiebreaker. It also puts Arizona at least three games behind Seattle in the NFC West. A late run to catch the Seahawks is already a long shot; lose Sunday and it’s virtually impossible.
This matchup centers around two quarterbacks heading in opposite directions. Kirk Cousins is on the rise, utilizing a variety of weapons in fighting back from an awful start to his season. Carson Palmer has been hurt, inaccurate and forced to rely on the running game to help salvage what’s been a disappointing offensive effort all around.
Series History: Washington leads 74-45-2 and has won eight of the last nine meetings.
Washington at Arizona
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 4 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Cardinals -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Palmer’s Mistakes vs. Cousins’ Perfection
Carson Palmer’s play has puzzled observers one year after an MVP-type season where he hit career highs in touchdowns (35), passing yards (4,671) and QB rating (104.6). Palmer, despite being hurt and missing time this season, has as many interceptions (11) to this point as he did for all of 2015. Five of those picks have come after the Cardinals’ bye week, a time where he was supposed to get healthy but instead has struggled mightily against teams like the lowly San Francisco 49ers (1-10).
Compare that to Kirk Cousins, peaking at the right time after a sloppy start. The last three games have been arguably the best stretch of his career – 1,086 passing yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions. His performance in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day kept Washington in that game. He’s also been more aware in the pocket (sacked just six times in last seven games) as he’s spread the ball around to unexpected targets like wide receiver Jamison Crowder and tight end Vernon Davis.
If both men keep heading in the same direction, this game could turn into a blowout, and not for the home team. The pressure is on Palmer, at age 36, to prove he’s not in the twilight of his career – a frightening prospect considering Arizona signed him in August to a one-year extension that takes his contract through 2018.
2. David Johnson vs. Washington Rushing Defense
If the Cardinals have a bright spot on offense, it’s Johnson. Second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage and tied for the lead in touchdowns, Johnson remains a dynamic weapon in a year where the team’s wide receivers (yep, even Larry Fitzgerald) have been wildly inconsistent. When the offensive line struggles, Palmer has turned to Johnson as his safety valve and the dynamic back has responded – 206 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the last three games.
On the ground, though is where Johnson will try and pound through the Redskins’ 25th-ranked rushing defense. Ezekiel Elliott’s 97 rushing yards and two touchdowns were keys to Dallas’ win on Thanksgiving, but Washington still has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher since Week 4. A strong start by Johnson could not only possibly put an end to that streak, it also could also help Palmer and the receivers discover their rhythm in the passing game.
3. Who Replaces Jordan Reed?
Reed put forth a gritty performance on Thanksgiving Day, recording a season-high 10 passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns despite a shoulder injury. Unfortunately, the grade 3 AC joint separation that he suffered in his left shoulder will keep him out of this game, if not more.
So who steps up in Reed’s place? The aforementioned Davis is the obvious answer and he chipped in 68 yards last week. But a more promising sign for Washington was the performance of DeSean Jackson, who has been dealing with his own injuries. He finished with a season-high 118 receiving yards, including a 67-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Jackson has had 10 days to recover from that game and hopefully get back closer to full strength. With Reed’s injury, Jackson’s re-emergence as a big-play threat will be critical for the Redskins’ playoff aspirations.
The Redskins are just 2-2-1 on the road but that record is better than it appears. The two losses were to Detroit, courtesy of a vintage two-minute drill orchestrated by Matthew Stafford, and in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day where Washington gave the Cowboys all they could handle. The Redskins should make easy work of a Cardinals team that’s in need of a reboot.
Prediction: Redskins 27, Cardinals 14
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.