The Cardinals are a good, not great, team. They’ve won four in a row, but against teams with a combined 13-31 record. Sunday’s 40-11 win over the 7-4 Colts was impressive, however. Quarterback Carson Palmer has been on fire the last two games, but he never seems capable of putting three straight strong performances in a row. He has, of course, Larry Fitzgerald (50 catches for 606 yards and eight touchdowns) to throw to. Wide receiver Michael Floyd (49 catches for 761 yards) has asserted himself as a deep threat complement. The Arizona run game isn’t formidable, although Andre Ellington (6.0 yards per carry) has big-play capabilities.
Arizona’s defense is legit. It’s difficult to find many holes. Calais Campbell is one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league. Darnell Dockett isn’t so bad either. Former Falcons 4-3 defensive end John Abraham is now at outside linebacker, but he still generally rushes with his hand in the ground. He leads the Cards with seven sacks and rushes from both sides. Left tackle Jason Peters will see him the most, but rookie right tackle Lane Johnson will be tested. The Eagles offensive line has been decent, but I like the Cards front in this matchup.
Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington are above average inside linebackers and make the defense go. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will blitz them up the “A” gap at any time. In fact, Bowles has sent extra pass rushers on almost 50 percent of opposing quarterback drops. Nick Foles has done well against the blitz this season, but this will be his toughest test in that regard.
When Foles has time, he may not have open receivers. Cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the best in the business. Rookie corner Tyrann Mathieu has been excellent in coverage and will occasionally blitz off the edge. Yeremiah Bell will come at times, too. The veteran is the weak link in the secondary. Chip Kelly may try to find ways to get DeSean Jackson against Bell out of the slot or have tight end Zach Ertz split wide.
The Cardinals have the No. 2-ranked run defense, but the Eagles will need to feed LeSean McCoy and use the up-tempo offense to keep Bowles’ blitz-heavy scheme off balance.
Back to the other side of the ball, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with Bill Davis’ defense. It may be time to just accept a unit that isn’t dominating, but one that is opportunistic and stout in the red zone (the Eagles are sixth in the league). The secondary will have its hands full trying to keep Fitzgerald and Floyd in check. Fitzgerald lines up in the slot about 50 percent of the time, so cornerback Brandon Boykin should see plenty of the future Hall of Famer. Last year, Fitzgerald was targeted four times when Boykin was on him and each time he caught the pass. Boykin was three games into his rookie season, though. He’s among the best slot corners in the league a year later.
Floyd does most of his work in the middle of field. I sense potential danger if either Patrick Chung or Nate Allen is asked to help against the receiver. Ellington has 28 catches out of the backfield. Both DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks have had their issues in pass coverage this year.
If the Eagles can generate some pressure on Palmer, I like the Eagles’ chances. The Cardinals offensive line remains one of the worst in the league. Palmer has already been sacked 30 times. The Eagles pass rush hasn’t been a defensive strength, though. The Birds have the edge here, but need more production from Trent Cole and company to offset the advantage the Cards have in the secondary.
Despite the potential explosiveness of both offenses, I see a relatively low-scoring affair. Special teams could be the difference. Conditions will be seasonable. Cardinals kicker Jay Feely has the luxury of kicking indoors, but I have more trust in the veteran than I do Alex Henery. Arizona wins on a late field goal.
Prediction: Cardinals 23, Eagles 20.
What goes right: Boykin picks off Palmer.
What goes wrong: Foles tosses his first interception of the season.
When I started looking into this game earlier in the week, I expected the Eagles to earn their seventh victory of the season. The more that I watched Arizona, though, I started leaning toward the Cardinals.
This is the Eagles’ toughest game in some time – maybe since the Dallas game, and certainly since the Denver game. The defense that former Eagles coordinator Todd Bowles oversees is impressive, and their receivers make it a strong passing attack.
Let’s start with Arizona’s defense. Patrick Peterson is an outstanding player. He’ll soon become one of the highest-paid players in the league, and it will be merited. I’m curious to see if they have him track DeSean Jackson wherever Jackson goes. It would make sense, given Peterson’s size and ability to bump at the line. Riley Cooper has established himself into a solid receiver this year, and I keep thinking Zach Ertz is bound to break out. But this offense is not nearly as good without a big game from Jackson. The four lowest-scoring games of the season for the offense were Jackson’s four lowest yardage outputs.
One thing to watch: Arizona is susceptible to tight ends. Opposing tight ends have had big games against them all year – from Jared Cook to Jimmy Graham to Vernon Davis. Ertz and Brent Celek could have fine games. I think this will be Ertz’s biggest yardage output of the season.
Nick Foles needs to continue to avoid turnovers. It’s been the single most impressive part of his season. If he continues to take care of the ball, the Eagles will be able to score points. His offensive line needs a big game, because you know Arizona will blitz. Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett can both penetrate on the defensive line, and John Abraham can get to the quarterback on the edge.
I didn’t mention LeSean McCoy, but he’ll get his carries and should be able to get his yards. Karlos Dansby is a sure tackler in the middle of Arizona’s defense and the Cardinals have the No. 2 rush defense in the NFL, although Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore were still able to have productive games.
On the other side of the ball, the Eagles need strong games from Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. It’s not just Larry Fitzgerald they need to worry about – Michael Floyd is a capable player coming off consecutive 100-yard receiving games. This is the most physical group of wide receivers the Eagles have faced in awhile – San Diego and Dallas are the only two teams that compare. Tight end Rob Housler has also been productive in recent weeks.
Arizona’s rushing game is not a strength, although rookie Andre Ellington is a big-play threat. The key for the Eagles defense will be getting to Carson Palmer and trying to force turnovers. Palmer has 15 interceptions, but just two in the last four weeks. He’s playing better, but the turnover margin will be critical on Sunday. The Eagles are plus-10 in victories, minus-6 in losses.
This will be a close game, but Arizona’s defense might prove to be too tough. It’s hard to pick against Foles right now, but this is more of a game that I pick Arizona to win than Philadelphia to lose.
Prediction: Cardinals 27, Eagles 24.
What goes right: Ertz has a big game; the Eagles put good pressure on Palmer.
What goes wrong: Jackson breaks 1,000 yards, but is kept under 100 yards; the Eagles defense allows more than 300 passing yards.