How the (NFC) West Could Be Won
It’s like the football gods want Bruce Arians to show off now.
It’s not enough that the Cardinals made the playoffs in the talent-laden NFC West and tenuously hold the NFC’s top seed after losing standouts Darnell Dockett, John Abraham, Andre Ellington, Tyrann Mathieu and Daryl Washington (suspension). Now Arians has to take on the hard-charging Seahawks with his No. 3 quarterback (whomever that may be) since starter Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton are on the sidelines.
You won’t find many people who give Arians and the Cardinals a chance on Sunday Night Football in the de factor NFC West title game. Seattle won the first matchup 19-3 on Nov. 23 with Stanton at quarterback for the Cardinals. Now, in front of a national television audience, either Ryan Lindley or Logan Thomas will make his first career start against a Seahawks defense that is playing at the same level as their Super Bowl-winning unit—in the last four games, Seattle has given up an average of 6.8 points. Even Las Vegas doesn’t think Arizona has much of a chance. The Seahawks have been installed as a seven-point road favorites.
Yes, it’s going to be extremely difficult for the Cardinals to beat Seattle on Sunday, but… it could happen. Here’s how:
1. Start Lindley. The San Diego State product was drafted by Arizona in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, cut this past August, and signed off of San Diego’s practice squad one month ago when Palmer went down. He did not inspire confidence with his performance in Thursday night’s relief appearance against the Rams (4 of 10, 30 yards, 47.9 rating). But, trust us, it was worlds better than Thomas’s showing earlier this season in a loss to the Broncos (1 of 8, 81 yards, two sacks). Thomas’s one completion was a close-your-eyes pass; he threw short into coverage, and Ellington did most of the work for a touchdown. Other than that, it was a debacle. I know Arians told The Boss in MMQB that they may have a package for Thomas because he can move, but I don’t see how that will help. Lindley moves better in the pocket (Thomas is big and takes a while to get going) and gives the team the best chance for victory. Yes, Lindley looked wide-eyed and jittery against the Rams, but that’s going to happen in your first big spot against a defense as good as St. Louis's (good practice for the Seahawks). He’ll now to have an entire week of reps and a game plan that will take advantage of his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. Lindley has good feet and a quick release, but he has little awareness of how coverages operate (yes, that’s a big problem). Arians can help with that. Thomas is slow at everything and needs another two years of development. Arians can’t help that.
2. Follow the same blueprint as the first matchup. The Cardinals stayed within striking distance in the first game at CenturyLink, but they made mistakes they couldn’t afford. Consider that Arizona missed a field goal, allowed a blocked punt, threw an interception and dropped a touchdown pass, and Seattle’s only touchdown came when TE Cooper Helfet, of all people, caught a ball at the line of scrimmage and four Cardinals defenders failed to tackle him along the sideline. If the Cardinals make similar mistakes, they’re going to get a similar result. Arizona, which sacked Russell Wilson seven times, basically played the Seahawks except for two blown plays: a 48-yard Wilson pass to Ricardo Lockette (coverage bust by safety Rashad Johnson), and a 40-yard read option run by Wilson when the end crashed the running back. Other than that, the Cardinals were right there in the game. Take what Seahawks defense gives you: Arians loves to dictate to a defense, but he just can’t with Lindley. It took Arians until the final drive of the first half against Seattle to get in a play-calling groove. It was heavy on the run and short, safe passes. The result was a 15-play, 74-yard drive that ended in a field goal after Jaron Brown dropped a wide-open touchdown. Lindley can and will learn from Stanton’s game. Stanton got in trouble by trying to make plays against the Seahawks. You can’t stare down receivers or reload to allow a receiver to get open. If anything, it will help the Seahawks make plays. Against Seattle, Lindley has to have the mentality of getting to his drop and either throwing or running. It has to be three steps, out; or five steps, out (Arians should just toss out the seven-step drops).
3. Do the same thing defensively: The Cardinals were all over Wilson and Marshawn Lynch (15 carries for 39 yards) in the first matchup. Tony Moeaki led the Seahawks with four catches. Arizona will miss Mathieu, who continues to battle a thumb injury. He was a big key in the run defense. They could also stand to spy Wilson a bit better; along with the 40-yard read-option run he also had a killer 15-yard run on third-and-long on the play that preceded the game’s only touchdown. The score never would have happened if Wilson had been accounted for. Calais Campbell (three of the team’s seven sacks) was huge. Arizona kept sending extra players, daring Wilson to beat them. He just couldn’t.
The first matchup showed that the Cardinals, who didn’t play close to a perfect game, could stay with Seattle. If they do that again, at home this time, anything can happen. Considering all the injuries they’ve had, nobody though Arizona would even be in this position, one win away from clinching the NFL’s toughest division. It would be foolish to start doubting them now.
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