Make no mistake about it, this Arizona Cardinals team belongs to Larry Fitzgerald. He is the heart, soul, spine, and other crucial body parts of this team. Without the will power of Larry Fitzgerald, this team wouldn’t have been very successful at all. An 8-8 record in the NFL is absolutely nothing to be scoffed at, and some of the teams that the Cardinals defeated over the course of the season are very good teams (defeated the Dallas Cowboys and NFC title game participant San Francisco 49ers. Even in losing half the time, the team showed tremendous fight, and weren’t blown out the way you may expect a team like this to have been. They also have some very talented players at important positions, giving them good matchups especially on the defensive side of the ball. With the addition of Michael Floyd, their offense becomes a little more capable. This is a team that could do great things. This game will be no cake walk for the Falcons.
Here are some of the matchups to keep an eye on:
Cardinals Defensive line Vs. Falcons Offensive line. The Cardinals defensive line is really quite good. It is led by outstanding players in Darnell Docket and Calais Campbell. When the Cards run a 3-4 defense, both will be defensive ends and eat up blocks, allowing the sub-par linebacking corps to make tackles. I personally think the matchup becomes more difficult if Arizona uses a 4-3 front. With Docket lining up at DT and Campbell playing 4-3 DE, this team can really get pressure on the quarterback and get in the backfield to make plays in the run game. They are not only big and strong, but they are fast and agile enough to beat blockers. The Falcons o-line unit will have their hands full with the Cardinals d-line, and will not have an opportunity to take plays off. The linebacker level may not be ultra-talented, but they do have some young players who could make an impact, and they along with the d-line are very scrappy. Combine two very talented players with guys who are solid, scrappy players, and the Falcons o-line will have to bring their A-game yet another week to keep Matt Ryan upright.
Cardinals Wide Receivers Vs. Falcons Defensive Backs. It was either this matchup, or the o-line vs. d-line macthup, but I feel confident that the Falcons d-line can win the battle in the trenches. The key will be if they can lock down Larry Fitzgerald, Early Doucet, and rookie Michael Floyd. It really doesn’t matter if Fitzgerald is double or even triple covered, he will get his catches, yards, and perhaps a touchdown. The key for the Falcons is A) locking down the other two starting receivers, and B) not giving them too much attention so as to be distracted from covering Fitzgerald. When it was only Fitzgerald and a platoon of Doucet and Andre Roberts lined up wide, the Cards still found ways to get the ball to Fitzgerald. With a solid #1/great #2 type receiver in Floyd lined up across from him, teams may be tempted to rotate more coverage toward Floyd, and away from Fitzgerald. My theory is to make Floyd and the rest of the receiving corps beat us. Floyd is a rookie, and the rest of the unit is inexperienced or not a huge threat. Until they prove that they can consistently beat our defensive backs unit (which is improved over our 2011 unit), I say double Fitzgerald. If that play goes poorly, we are in for a long day.
Falcons Receiving Corps vs. Cardinals Defense. Let’s face it, the Cardinals are very strong in this department as well. They have an excellent CB in Patrick Peterson who will likely go up against Roddy White, and may win most of the battles the rest of the day. They also have a safety tandem in FS Kerry Rhodes and SS Adrain Wilson that is among the best in the league. Rhodes is a fine FS when healthy, and Wilson does well batting down passes. The key for the Falcons will be beating the Cardinals No. 2, 3, 4 CB. After Peterson, the pickings at corner are slim. A guy like Julio Jones could brutalize Arizona’s corners who aren’t named Peterson; a guy like Harry Douglas would certainly be able to get open as well. Tony Gonzalez will likely attract the attention of Rhodes or Wilson (with the Cards looking to have a DB with a good size/speed matchup) that may allow a WR to get deep and make things happen. They Falcons have an abundance of receiving weapons, and if they use them properly they can do good things. However, it would be unwise to underestimate Arizona’s playmakers in the secondary. They have three really good players.
In a nutshell, the Falcons need to win in the trenches on both sides of the ball (like basically EVERY week against pretty much EVERY team) and get more plays from their receiving corps than Arizona gets from their receiving corps. With what I see as a Falcons team with overall superior talent level across the board (prominently at QB, RB, and TE), I think the Falcons ability simply overwhelms the Cardinals, and allows for an Atlanta victory. But mark my words: this will be a hotly contested game throughout. It will not be a 41-7 drubbing like we saw the Falcons win in 2010 over the Cards. I would like to see that, but its not going to happen. While the Falcons should win this game, this Arizona team is much improved, and if the Falcons overlook them for one instant, they could lose this ballgame.