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Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Picking apart Giants-Cardinals showdown

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

 
 Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE and Rich Kane-US PRESSWIRE
 Will the Giants running game be able to keep Kurt Warner and Arizona's explosive receivers off the field?

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Arizona Cardinals keep taking steps.

They finished 8-8 last season, their best record since 1998.

They outlasted Dallas in Week 6 this season when the Cowboys were 4-1, an outcome that helped establish Arizona as tough to beat at home.

They gained confidence on the road during a 27-23 defeat at Carolina in Week 8. Arizona has outscored opponents by 37 points over its last 14 quarters away from University of Phoenix Stadium.

The Cardinals have exorcised demons in prime time and at Seattle's Qwest Field over the last two weeks.

Podcast: Football Today
Today's focus is on the Cardinals as Jeremy Green talks with Mike Sando, who tells us Arizona could be the first team since 1998 to clinch a playoff spot with only eight wins.

The next step -- finding a way to beat the 9-1 New York Giants on Sunday in Glendale -- might qualify as a leap if the Cardinals can make it happen.

"I'm picking them over the Giants this week because they possess the ball and their defense is never on the field for sustained periods," said ESPN's Trent Dilfer, the last quarterback to beat the Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. "They don't get to third down. You see defenses change and Kurt Warner and [offensive coordinator] Todd Haley have an answer. You see perfect defensive plays against them and it's a 12-yard gain."

That's all good, but the Cardinals haven't faced an opponent as complete as the Giants.

"I don't think the Giants are going to have much of a problem," said Tag Ribary, who joined Scouts Inc. this year after evaluating talent for the Carolina Panthers in recent seasons. "What they did to Baltimore doesn't get enough credit at all. The No. 1 run defense in the league and they put 200 up on them. It's unthinkable, almost."

Until recently, unthinkable meant the Cardinals having a shot at clinching a playoff spot in Week 12. A victory over the Giants could make it happen. At 7-3, Arizona stands third in the NFC with six games to play.

"If they can beat the Giants and then get the Eagles on Thursday night, they could be in the hunt to play at home through the playoffs," Keith Kidd of Scouts Inc. said. "I don't think that will happen, but they could be the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. They can win a playoff game at home." (Read Kidd's take on the matchup between the Cardinals' defense and Giants' offense here.)

The Cardinals arguably haven't had a game as meaningful as their Giants matchup in a decade. Dilfer, Ribary and Kidd joined Hot Topic respondents in helping us break it down 10 ways, and then some.

1. A case for the Cardinals.

Dilfer: "I think at home the Cardinals match up pretty darn well in this football game. I'm a Cardinals hater. I thought they stunk forever. I'm the last guy to beat them at home. That's saying a lot about how bad they [have been], but I'm a believer now because of what they have identified as their strengths and weaknesses."

Arizona has built its offense around Warner's ability to get rid of the football quickly and the receivers' ability to win individual matchups. The Cardinals don't pretend to be a power running team. They throw short passes instead.

Dilfer compares the Cardinals' offense this season to the one New England fielded in 2007. He sees Larry Fitzgerald as Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin playing Wes Welker's role and Steve Breaston as Jabar Gaffney or Donte Stallworth. And he sees Warner getting rid of the football with accuracy before even unblocked defenders can reach him.

"The Giants blitz you, but they still cover the flats," Dilfer said. "The Cardinals eat up the middle of the football field, where you are vulnerable when you fire-zone [blitz]. Aaron Ross and Corey Webster and those guys cannot just cover man-to-man all day. They have to rely on scheme, and scheme works to Arizona's advantage right now. The defense has to show their hand a little bit."

Two traits stood out to Dilfer when he studied great offenses over the past decade. Most had outstanding lines. Most also forced defenses to defend the field from sideline to sideline, not just vertically. Arizona lacks the great line, but few teams can stretch defenses as well horizontally. The combination should give teams problems until opponents take a harder look at solving Arizona come playoff time.

"Inevitably it's going to come down to, you have to block people," Dilfer said. "Kurt can't continue to get rid of the ball [as a substitute for pass protection].

"I don't think at this point in the season teams will devote enough time and energy to the game plan to stop it. The Giants will have a great plan, but it's a different thing in the playoffs. Kurt is being careful with the ball."

2. A case against the Cardinals.

Ribary sees an Arizona team that has beaten up on a weak division while needing two special-teams touchdowns to defeat the Cowboys when Dallas was beginning to slide.

He doesn't buy the idea that Tim Hightower's emergence at running back will give the Cardinals a legitimate ground game against good teams.

"They don't move anybody off the ball," Ribary said. "They are always tricking people. It's a delay or a draw or a misdirection or a toss. It's something to catch them off-guard. It's not imposing our will and making you curl up in a ball. They are not that at all.

"Seattle is not even stout up front and they could at least hold their own against them. I'm watching and saying they have three receivers and a good quarterback. Outside that, I'm not sure what they have besides a creative coordinator on defense. They don't scare you."

Ribary thinks young running backs make Arizona vulnerable in pass protection against a coordinator as skilled as the Giants' Steve Spagnuolo.

"People are trying to make it sound like the Cardinals have found the answers," Ribary said, "but you can see the confusion they have with stunts and then the running backs. Spagnuolo will have a field day with those guys.

"I would overload [Hightower's] side and even bring weak-side stuff to make him cross Warner's face. Seattle did it and they didn't have a full arsenal and they confused him. You could see him blowing assignments and releasing into routes [at the wrong time]. Spagnuolo will see that and start salivating."

3. What the Giants do better than anyone.

Dilfer: "They are very good in the interior [offensive] line, but where the Giants kill you is on the edges. They crush people in the C gaps. I have never seen a team run better off tackle. Kevin Boss has been a huge addition. Their guards are incredible on the tight pulls. They punish you when they do it."

4. Why Arizona might win anyway.

Dilfer: "The Giants' argument is to keep the Cardinals' offense off the field. That is hard to do on the road. The Giants ran the ball against the Browns but made some mistakes. It only takes one Eli Manning interception, one fumble and one big penalty during the course of the game. All Arizona has to do is capitalize on those and continue to play the way they are playing offensively. Suddenly it's 31-20."

5. Which Arizona players are in for long days?

Kidd: "To me, [Cardinals linebacker] Gerald Hayes has to be a guy that has to concern you because he has to play well and above his capabilities. He is a good player, but that is a position that can be kind of rough depending on how that [Giants] line can create the movement to create those inside seams. What Arizona has to do is attack them and get guys going up the field and bring Karlos Dansby and bring Hayes to get the bubble to go back where the line of scrimmage is on the negative side. If the running game is going, I don't want to be Hayes."

Ribary: "I wouldn't want to be [defensive tackle] Darnell Dockett because you know you are just going to get pounded on. Chris Snee and those guys are going to come off and double-team you and stay on you and then with the chip blocking they'll do when you try to get to the quarterback, it's not going to be a fun day for him."

More Ribary: "I wouldn't want to be [cornerback] Rod Hood out there trying to play with some [injured] ribs going against Plaxico Burress. I wouldn't' want to be [right tackle] Levi Brown with Justin Tuck lining up against you. [Brown] is a lazy-footwork guy and Tuck's work ethic is just going to wear him down."

6. Which Giants players will have it rough?

Kidd: "I don't want to be one of those corners going against Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. If I'm one of those corners, I'm trying to put as much extra cash in my defensive linemen's back pocket to get upfield and get pressure. 'Please help me.' Because Warner is playing at a level where he is not only getting it out of his hand quickly, but he has that uncanny accuracy.

"The speed of the game is so fast and your ability to process has to be so much quicker, the ball has to be going to an area before the receiver gets his head around. That is what makes Drew Brees so special and Tom Brady so special. And Warner is doing that. You look at things to try to get him off-kilter. You have to attack the interior part of the pocket, but it's so quick out of his hand that it's not even funny."

7. How far can the Cardinals go this season?

Kidd: "This year is so crazy. At one time I thought there would be three teams out of the NFC East, but now I'm not so sure. The Eagles and Redskins are probably going to fade. The Redskins could lose to the Seahawks this weekend. If the Cardinals can beat the Giants and get the Eagles on Thursday night, they could be in the hunt to play at home [throughout] the playoffs. I don't think that will happen. They could be the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. They can win a playoff game at home."

Ribary: "This is a game where Arizona finds out where they stand in the scheme of things. They've been beating the Rams and the Seahawks and the 49ers. They went out and played a decent game against Carolina. Carolina didn't play great by any means and still pulled it off. I don't think the Cardinals are with the elite teams yet. ... I think Atlanta and Tampa Bay would go in there and whip up on them."

8. A word on the Cardinals' defense.

Dilfer: "Defensively, [coordinator] Clancy Pendergast was one of the real creative guys. They are so simple now. There are a lot of yards to have out there against them, but they don't give up a lot of touchdowns. Antrel Rolle is settling in at safety. The rookie corner [Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie] is coming on. Dockett can get to you."

9. What if Giants RB Brandon Jacobs doesn't play?

Ribary: "I think it means the same formula, only Derrick Ward is doing what Jacobs would do. They may not come out and just run 12 of the first 18 plays like they have been, but enough so that Arizona cheats up and then they can start picking at them on the back end off play action."

10. The last word(s).

azcardsfan6202: "The Giants have not played 1 team with an offen
se remotely close to the Cardinals. They played the Cowboys w/o Romo. Every other team they have faced has been flawed offensively. The Cardinals have only turned it over 2 times at home all season, don't expect a bunch of gifts, Giants fans."

Soverbaby: "With the tendency of the Cardinals D to get sloppy with their tackling as they get tired and the size of Jacobs and the depth and combination of strength and speed the Giants have at the running back position, I see the Giants dominating in time of possession. This will keep Warner and the offense in check by keeping them on the sidelines. As the game wears on, the Cards D will wear down and, when the Cards offense does get the ball, they may turn the ball over in desperation. The solution to preventing this time of possession domination is for the Cards' D to create some turnovers which are most likely to occur early in Giants' drives when Manning can look a little stiff and be off target with his passes. Turnovers are the great equalizer."

windknot02: "Let's dispense with the myth of the soft schedule for the Cardinals -- the Cards have played four games against the NFC West and the Giants have played three games. Both teams have benefitted from the weak NFC West. On an overall basis, the Cardinals have played a more difficult schedule to date than the Giants (based on opponents' winning percentage)."

Deanrosewa: "Warner said it himself that a team that can rush 4 and get consistent pressure will doom him. I think Edge will be back in the lineup as they need some consistent pass protection to do what the cards do best. The giants are not a big offensive team that will put up huge rushing numbers if they are to compete with the Cards' pass attack. The Cards' offense is hot right now and when you have two players with +10 catches and +150 yards there is not much anyone is going to do to stop you. The Giants D is good but they allowed a hurt [Derrick] Mason to have a decent game. Imagine what Breaston/Boldin/Fitzgerald/RB catching the ball will do. I see some picks but I see Warner throwing 45-50 times to win."

cyclonem31: "Most of the recent games the Cards have played have ended with them with a big lead early, then the game getting close at the end. Looking back at these games: Carolina, SF, and Seattle, I would say that the Cards are good at getting up early then struggling in the 4th. The difference in the Seattle game and SF game was that the D stepped up. In the Carolina game this did not happen. If the Cards are to beat the Giants they must come up with a big play on D in the 4th quarter. A sack/fumble by ADub or Dockett or a pick by DRC or ADub late in the game will mean victory for the Cards. Without it, the Giants will win after being down in the first half."

Mr_Zero: "Everyone in the South West has been yapping it up lately about how great the Cardinals are this year, this weekend we will find out if they are who you think there are! We already know the Cardinals can't run the ball, so they have to pass. The Giants are #2 against the pass and #4 in sacks. The Giants also have four 6 ft+ DB's that will be able to go up and battle for the ball against the Cardinals receivers. Solid pass rush/ coverage = a long day for Warner. ... If the Cardinals win this game I will think they have a shot at the Super Bowl, if they lose they will probably win their first playoff game and go home after the second game."

CardsfaninBuffalo: "I can't remember the last time I've been so pumped for a game.....well, Cards/Bills I was this pumped for only because I live in Buffalo. Time of Possesion will be huge. Whoever holds the ball longer will be the victor. The Cards cannot be counted out of any game they play due to their offense. The Giants because of their defense. Either way it's going to be a great game. I doubt the Giants are taking the Cardinals as lightly as some of the fans on here are. I'm sure they don't want a repeat of Cleveland or Cincy."