Photo credit: Todd Jones
Author: Joey Carr
For the past few years, the NFC West has been one of the better divisions in all of football, sending a team to the Super Bowl the past three seasons. Since the early 2000’s with the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams, to the recent dominance of The Legion of Boom in Seattle, the NFC West has always been one of the more fun and competitive divisions to watch. However, the trend for the past decade in the NFC West has been a change in first place every few years, and with the Seahawks at 1-2 and the Cardinals at 3-0, Arizona has a prime opportunity to capture their first division title since 2009.
In the past, the Cardinals have been known as a “fluke” team, which is a team that has a respectable record but only because of luck and/or a favorable schedule. Last year was a great example of this: Arizona did do some damage against legitimate teams (Cowboys, Eagles, Chargers), but for the most part got pummeled by squads with some real talent. They put up a combined 9 points in two games against Seattle, and got shook up by Denver, allowing 41 points. They did manage to make it to the playoffs but only by a slim margin due to the fact that Carson Palmer was sidelined with an ACL injury. The 7-9 Panthers destroyed them in the first round, however, and that was the telltale sign indicating the Cardinals were nothing more than a fluke team. Sure, with Carson Palmer maybe they could’ve beat Cam Newton and Carolina and added to their win column in the regular season, but that question will always remain a distant thought in the minds of the Arizona faithful. This year, however, Arizona is the real deal. It might be hard to accurately judge them based on their schedule thus far (San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans), but they’ve shown on offense and defense that this year is their year to create some pandemonium in the NFL rankings . Since 2008, when they lost the Super Bowl to Santonio Holmes and the Steelers, they’ve managed to skate by because of a few talented players on both sides of the ball, but didn’t have much else to complement those playmakers. This year, they’ve got more weapons than they know what to do with. Let’s start with the leader and play-caller, Carson Palmer. Besides Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, it’s hard to argue against the fact that this quarterback is the most valuable player to his team. Without him last year, they went 3-4 down the stretch, getting outscored 129-87 and eventually getting embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs. In 2015, they’re 3-0 and have scored 126 points in three
games, which is tied for the fourth most points in NFL history through three games. There’s no denying that Palmer is vitally important to the Cardinals, and with the talent he has surrounding him, you better believe the Cardinals are going to give Seattle a run for their money.
One of the main reasons Arizona has done so well to start the season is due to the amount of playmakers they have, both on offense and defense. Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson lead the defense while Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, and now, surprisingly, Chris Johnson head the offense. It’s safe to say that no one thought CJ2k would have the kind of impact he’s having on this Arizona rushing attack after being released by the Jets last season. While Andre Ellington has been out with a leg injury, Johnson has proved he can still be the workhorse that he used to be in his hay day, tearing up the field with 182 yards rushing over two games, along with two touchdowns. With him running the ball so effectively and Palmer making crisp passes, there’s no telling what that offense can do. Adding to their high-powered offense is rookie running back David Johnson, who surprised everyone in week 1 after he sprinted for a 55-yard touchdown. He was a bit subpar in week 3, but in the first two weeks combined he accumulated three total touchdowns, including a 108-yard kickoff return. His speed is something to marvel at and if Arizona can use him correctly, they will have a deadly weapon at their disposal.
However, maybe the key reason for their success so far has been the reemergence of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is on pace for a monster season. After Kurt Warner retired in 2010, Fitzgerald didn’t have a quarterback that was able to get him the ball like he had become accustomed to with Warner, downgrading to his numbers to average at best. Fast-forward to today and it’s like those 5 years never happened. Number 11 for Arizona has 5 receiving touchdowns on the season (1st in the NFL) and 333 receiving yards (5th in the NFL), and he doesn’t seem to be pushing the brakes anytime in the near future. He’s running and catching like he did back in 2009 and his connection with Palmer is only getting stronger by the week, which should definitely frighten the rest of the NFL.
Every team knows, however, that to go along with a number one receiver, you need a couple of other pass catchers to make some plays when the main target is double teamed or jammed at the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals have three speedy, great handed receivers in John Brown, Michael Floyd, and Jaron Brown to complement
Fitzgerald. They haven’t made too much of an impact in the passing game yet, only combining for two touchdowns thus far, but they provide solid and reliable options when Palmer is scrambling of the pocket and looking for a receiver down field. Also, in addition to the depth at wide receiver, Arizona has equipped themselves with running backs that can catch the ball almost as well as they run the ball. For example, David Johnson caught a 55-yard touchdown in week 1, but it wasn’t a lengthy wheel route along the sideline or a blown coverage play; it was a pass that traveled maybe 5 yards before Johnson hauled it in and took off like a mongoose down the field, blowing by the secondary of New Orleans. In week 3, Chris Johnson caught a 40 yard pass that was almost a touchdown if not for a speedy cornerback. On that pass, Johnson was knocked down a couple times by defensive lineman before looking up to find the ball in the air half way to him after Palmer was chased out of the pocket. He sped down the sideline and made a classic old school Chris Johnson cutback move before being tackled near the goal line. To be able to have those kinds of weapons and that kind of depth on offense is a rare and valuable asset, and Arizona will continue to take advantage of those playmakers at the expense of the opposing defense all season long.
While the Seahawks are at 1-2, they look to be on the rise again, at least defensively. Kam Chancellor is back at strong safety after a two-week holdout, shoring up the defense for the time being. But Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson can’t seem to find a steady rhythm on offense, as they are ranked 18th in the league in total yards. Their offensive slump really showed last week, when they had a hard time getting capitalizing in the red zone efficiently, something like the Cardinals did with ease in week 2. Seattle needs to start gelling sooner rather than later or else the Arizona Cardinals will become the new NFC West champions, which won’t make the 12’s too happy. Arizona has the arsenal of talent to make a deep playoff run, especially with so few good teams in the NFC this year. The number one priority is health, shortly followed by the second priority of not taking their foot off the gas. Head Coach Bruce Arians has this team hungry and if they can manage to accomplish both of those things, the NFC Championship game is not off the table.
Charity of the day: Global Fund for Women
Go donate! www.globalfundforwomen.org