The Arizona Cardinals have planted themselves firmly in the race for an NFC playoff spot.
But a slip-up Sunday against the 1-8 Jacksonville Jaguars would quickly change that.
Jacksonville is coming off a 29-27 road win over the Tennessee Titans in which it racked up only 214 total yards. But the Jaguars’ defense forced four turnovers and accounted for nine points — a fumble return for a touchdown and a safety — to bail out an offense that found the end zone just once.
Arizona, meanwhile, has won its last two after dropping a pair of division games to the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. For the most part, the Cardinals have won the games they’re supposed to win and lost the ones they were expected to lose. That trend needs to continue Sunday or the Cardinals will face an uphill battle to get back into the wild card picture.
Here’s a look at what each team needs to do in Sunday’s game, which kicks off at 11 a.m.:
Keys for the Cardinals offense:
1. No turnovers: One way to keep an overmatched team in the game is to turn the ball over — and yes, the Cardinals are significantly better than their opponent for their first time in a long time. The only way the Jaguars have a chance Sunday is if the Cardinals turn the ball over or allow a defensive score.
2. Be unpredictable: Part of avoiding turnovers — especially with an interception-prone quarterback like Carson Palmer — is being unpredictable. If Arizona falls into a pattern of running on first and second downs to set up a third-and-long, even an overmatched Jacksonville team has a pass rush that can get to Palmer. But if Arizona is effective in its execution and doesn’t let the Jaguars feel confident about what’s coming, the Cardinals should win without a problem.
3. Get Fitz going: This is secondary to executing offensively and winning the game, but the Cardinals have got to find a way to get Larry Fitzgerald the ball and let him make plays. He’ll be a focal point of Jacksonville’s defense, but there will be times when Fitzgerald is in one-on-one coverage or has a big cushion at the line of scrimmage. It’s important that Palmer gets him the ball whenever possible without forcing it and making a bad decision.
Keys for the Jacksonville defense:
1. Get to Carson Palmer: The Cardinals want to pass the ball to set up the run, and the most effective way to disrupt that is by pressuring Palmer. He’s shown that he’ll make mistakes over the course of the game and like the vast majority of quarterbacks, he struggles without enough space to step into a throw.
2. Make something happen: Whether its an interception, fumble or a few stops in a row, Jacksonville’s defense is going to have to be what gives the Jaguars some sort of spark. If they can create energy off a big play early, it could help breathe life into the team and home crowd. But if the Cardinals have early success and get a couple scores, the chances of a Jacksonville upset will be somewhere between slim and none.
3. Limit chunk plays: The Arizona offense is at its best when it’s creating big plays, whether it’s via the passing game to Michael Floyd or Fitzgerald or by getting the ball to Andre Ellington in various ways. But if Jacksonville can limit those chunk plays, the Cardinals have shown that putting together a series of lengthy, mistake-free drives is a challenge.
Keys for the Jacksonville offense:
1. Create something positive: The Jaguars offense has been abysmal this season. It has the league’s second-worst rushing offense and its 22nd-rated passing offense. Jacksonville lacks star power, especially without receiver Justin Blackmon. But momentum in football is a weird thing, and if the Jacksonville offense can get something positive going early, it might be enough to lead to at least a couple scores to put pressure on Arizona.
2. Establish MJD: Maurice Jones-Drew has been the lifeblood of Jacksonville’s offense for the past several years, but he’s averaging just three yards per carry this season. The Cardinals enter the game with the NFL’s third-rated rush defense, allowing just under 86.9 yards per game, but establishing Jones-Drew as a threat out of the backfield will be key to Jacksonville having any success offensively.
3. Get creative: Bad teams are desperate teams, and the Cardinals will likely see some form of trickery on Sunday. Whether it’s trick plays, new packages or fake punts, Jacksonville needs to try something — anything — to move the ball offensively and score points.
Keys for the Cardinals defense:
1. Stop the run: The Jaguars haven’t been able to run the ball at all this season. They rank 31st in the league with 65 yards per game, and the once-electric Jones-Drew has taken a step back on a bad team. There’s no reason that Jacksonville should be able to run on Arizona. But if it can, the Cardinals will be in trouble.
2. Get to the quarterback: It’s very likely that Jacksonville will find itself in an early hole and be forced to throw a lot in an attempt to climb back into the game. But if the Cardinals can effectively get pressure on Chad Henne, that should be enough to thwart any comeback efforts from the Jaguars.
3. Nothing big: Similar to turnovers for the Arizona offense, the only thing that should be able to beat the Cardinals defense Sunday is the big play. Arizona needs to play sound football and not miss tackles, forcing a bad Jacksonville offense to put together lengthy drives in order to score. If the Cardinals do that, they should be able to win going away.