Forecasting how Arizona Cardinals bounce back with 9-win season
A good writer never buries the lead:
Welcome to the most unscientific ritual in sports. Football fans across America are predicting the record of their favorite teams four months before opening kickoff, all based on the unveiling of a schedule, on the sequencing of opponents.
Here’s why the Cardinals will go 9-7.
After a rough start in San Francisco, the Cardinals will spend a month chewing on soft candy. The only significant newcomer on offense is DeAndre Hopkins, who could get open in a phone booth. The Cardinals have great familiarity on offense and are primed for a fast start.
They play twice on primetime television. They will visit the Cowboys on Monday Night Football, a Texas homecoming for Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury in Week 6. They will visit the Seahawks on Thursday Night Football in Week 11.
The MNF plum is proof that NFL power brokers are expecting an exciting team in Arizona, especially on offense. That wasn’t always the case in 2019, where Murray was a riveting one-man show and Kenyan Drake was highly explosive after his midseason arrival. But the Cardinals offense wasn’t always a thing of beauty, even though final statistics showed a marked improvement. To wit:
The Cardinals had the most yards (590) on screen passes in 2019, outdistancing the second-place team (Green Bay) by 100 yards. This is not a record to celebrate. It’s more a reflection on how conservative Kingsbury was throwing the ball at times during in his rookie season. That should change with Hopkins and Fitzgerald on the field at the same time.
Home-field advantage will not mean as much in 2020. Not if games are played inside mostly-empty stadiums. This will mostly affect the teams with the loudest fans and highest winning percentage at home against the spread: Seattle, New Orleans, New England, Minnesota and Green Bay.
But the cold-weather cities will still serve as an impediment for opposing teams. Same with the altitude in Denver. And in this arena, the Cardinals received a fair draw in 2020. They will play the Jets in New York on Oct. 11 (the colors will be beautiful); in New England on Nov. 29 (not terrible); and at the New York Giants on Dec. 13 (Brrrrr).
Their bye week comes at a good time, after playing the Cowboys and Seahawks in the span of seven days, before winnable home games against Miami and Buffalo. From Week 7-10, the team will enjoy a full month at home in Arizona.
Their road game in volatile New England comes 10 days after their appearance on Thursday Night Football, giving Kingsbury plenty of time for his first matchup against Bill Belichick.
From Week 13-17, they play only one game in potentially bad weather. They finish the season with home games against San Francisco and Philadelphia, followed by a road game in Los Angeles. No mittens required.
Bottom line: The Cardinals won free agency, stealing Hopkins from the Texans, re-signing Drake and adding three new pieces to their defense. Their draft performance was inspiring, especially the selections of linebacker Isaiah Simmons and offensive lineman Josh Jones. The release of the 2020 schedule does nothing to dampen the excitement in Arizona, where the Cardinals must compete inside a highly-competitive division but face a manageable diet of teams and opposing quarterbacks outside the NFC West.
The NFL is feeling frisky. The league is staging a regular-season game on Christmas Day (Vikings at Saints), invading one of the biggest dates on the NBA calendar. It’s an aggressive, audacious move, especially since Christmas falls on a Friday. Adam Silver can’t be pleased.
The Tom Brady-Bruce Arians Era will be tested early. The Buccaneers open on the road against New Orleans, opposite Drew Brees. The Superdome could sell only 25 percent of its allotted tickets and the place will still be rocking. It’s also the place Brady won his very first Super Bowl.
Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes will square off against Brady, Brees and Lamar Jackson … all on the road.
Based on opponents, the Patriots have the hardest strength of schedule in 2020. Yet Bill Belichick remains an odds-on favorite to win NFL Coach of the Year. That’s respect. Bruce Arians isn’t far behind. And that’s awesome.
The NFL has been very fortunate that a pandemic swept the globe after the Super Bowl was completed. They have crushed their offseason during uncertain times, providing hope and entertaining the masses. They haven’t been forced to cancel events at a time when other sports are stuck in an awful state of limbo. The league is rolling hot. Let’s hope their luck continues.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.