“Must-win” is probably overused. A team is on a losing streak? Their next contest is a must-win. A team goes down 2-0 in a seven-game series? Game three is a must-win. A team is playing an inferior opponent late in the season with a slew of far more difficult opposition awaiting them? That’s a must-win.
Of course, none of these scenarios are technically true must-wins — in a “win or go home” sense — but their gravity cannot be understated, thus the emphatic tag.
Such is the case for the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in Nashville, Tenn. as they face the Tennessee Titans. Must-win? Basically, but not technically.
The Cardinals, themselves, feel that they have to win out in order to make the playoffs, although a loss on Sunday doesn’t completely knock them out of the picture.
That they control their own destiny down the stretch, however, is the bigger point.
And Sunday’s game at LP Field in Nashville looks to be the most winnable of the three remaining games, with others coming against the Seattle Seahawks on the road and the San Francisco 49ers.
The Titans, 5-8, have struggled throughout the season, and especially of late — losing their last game at Mile High 51-28 to the Denver Broncos and dropping four of their last five and seven of their last nine.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, at 8-5, are riding something of a hot streak into Music City, with a +46 point scoring margin over their previous three games, including a 30-10 blowout win over the division rival St. Louis Rams their last time out.
Keys for the Cardinals
1. Protection packages
Offensive line woes have been the yarn in Glendale for each of the previous two seasons — weaving their way into most Cardinals happenings. Did the Cardinals win? They must have done well with pass protection. They lost? The offensive line will eat at least a slice of the pie of blame.
So coach Bruce Arians’ recently-upped utilization of tight ends and backs for quarterback Carson Palmer’s protection.
As ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski pointed out following the Cardinals’ 41-10 over the Indianapolis Colts, “(Palmer) feels comfortable with multiple tight ends on the field; I think he feels comfortable because he feels protected.” Added Jaws: the Cardinals tight ends do “a tremendous job in pass protection in some very well-designed scheme protections.”
With the Cardinals’ seemingly unavoidable O-line struggles, helping Palmer as much as possible — as Arians, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and company did in the team’s eye-opening 30-10 win last weekend — should find itself atop the team’s offensive priority list.
2. Antoine Cason, Javier Arenas and Jerraud Powers
With rookie sensation Tyrann Mathieu out for the season with an ACL and LCL injury, roles are shifting.
Among those most affected by Mathieu’s absence are defensive backs Javier Arenas, Jerraud Powers and Antoine Cason.
And Cason, in particular, will see the most dramatic increase in playing time, after spending most of the Cardinals’ previous 13 games on special teams, despite playing defense in all 16 of the San Diego Chargers’ games last year.
Mathieu’s absence will surely be felt in the Cardinals’ secondary, but it is up to Cason and company to play stopgap — minimizing the effect of Honey Badger’s injury.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s frequent downfield throws will make this especially difficult for the secondary. Deep threats like Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Justin Hunter and company will surely test a Mathieu-less defensive back core.
3. “There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home”
The Cardinals get homesick easily. With their only road wins coming in Florida against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on Sunday against the Titans, it’s crucial that they play as if they’re at University of Phoenix Stadium, where they’ve gone 6-1.
Of course, none of the Cardinals’ previous losses have come to particularly easy opponents, nor easy environments — including the Super Dome, Candlestick Park and Lincoln Financial Field.
LP Field and the Titans don’t look to be as trying as previous contests, but they’re neither as easy as the Cardinals’ two trips to Florida.
Finding a way to cope with the environment, and the weather — which is expected to be in the 30s around the time of kickoff — will prove trying for Arians and team.
Keys for the Titans
1. Stretch the field
The Cardinals may have one of the top rushing defenses in the NFL, but Chris Johnson and the Titans’ ability to establish the run and draw in the opposition’s secondary will be crucial for the offense. Despite Mathieu’s absence, the Cardinals’ defense is too good to get much traction against if they don’t have to worry about a rushing attack.
Johnson, the AFC’s fourth-leading rusher, has 820 yards on the year, but has been held to under four yards per carry over 217 rushing attempts. In 13 games this year, the running back has already surpassed last season’s receiving numbers, however, logging 277 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
Short, efficient plays for the Titans must precede the chunk yard plays.
2. Early environment
The longer the Titans can keep the home crowd engaged in the game, the better, given the Cardinals’ road struggles.
An early lead at home may prove the difference for the Titans, just as it has in each of the Cardinals’ opponents home wins this season. First half deficits against the Rams, Saints, 49ers, and Eagles were too much for the Cardinals to overcome.
Big plays in the first half will make things all the more trying for the Cardinals, who will be facing more pressure than their opponent in the game who will also be dealing with colder, foreign temperatures than they’re used to.
Getting pressure on Palmer will likely be key to this effort, as will the Titans’ ability to hold playmakers like Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Ellington and Michael Floyd in check.
3. Delanie Walker
A 6-foot, sixth-round pick out of Central Missouri State can be key to the game? Against the Cardinals’ defense, you’d better believe it.
Tight ends have been the Cardinals’ kryptonite all season long, making Walker a key to the Titans’ offensive attack. Of course, Walker is no Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis or Jared Cook — all of whom torched the Cardinals earlier in the season — but his playmaking ability against the most vulnerable part of an otherwise strong defense means more than can be stated.
Walker has 45 receptions for 454 yards so far this season.