What matchups will make or break Cardinals, Rams in Wild Card game?
The Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams didn’t look like they’d end up playoff opponents when Week 18 began, but here we are.
Toppled by the bottom half of their NFC West division, they square off Monday in the Wild Card round of the playoffs with inconsistency being the culprit in their ups and downs this year.
For Los Angeles, the downs have come sporadically. For Arizona, it’s come in an end-of-year wave.
Looking back on the Cardinals winning a Week 4 matchup and then falling in Week 14 — the road teams won the games — ArizonaSports.com’s Tyler Drake and Kevin Zimmerman peek at the matchups that could define the third meeting of the year.
Kevin Zimmerman, ArizonaSports.com lead editor: Tyler, the Cardinals are going to play the Rams on Monday, and the first thing you notice about how their two prior meetings went is that Arizona lost some important dudes while the Rams gained some. In their Week 4 meeting, a 38-20 Arizona win, the Cardinals split the receiving yards so well between DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and Maxx Williams. Both running backs plus Kyler Murray did damage on the ground.
Looking to their third matchup of the year, Hopkins and Williams are out for Arizona — tight end Zach Ertz will be leaned upon — but Chase Edmonds and James Conner aren’t as healthy. Meanwhile, the Rams have gained weapons in Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller, the former of whom will probably cause problems against an Arizona corner group missing a ton of bodies.
Lots of options, but what specifically about the above scares you about this game from the Cardinals’ perspective? Or is there something else that’s a bigger deal?
Tyler Drake, ArizonaSports.com Cardinals reporters and editor: For me, the biggest problem area I see is the Rams’ wide receivers vs. the Cardinals’ cornerbacks. We saw in Arizona’s season finale loss to the Seattle Seahawks just how affected by injury the CB room is. Once cornerback Kevin Peterson, who was seeing an uptick in play with rookie Marco Wilson out, exited the matchup, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson wasted little time absolutely picking on his replacement in Breon Borders, who made his debut for Arizona. Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett had a field day.
With a guy like Rams receiver Cooper Kupp having the type of year that he is having, alarms are already going off in my head. He’s having an absurd season (Kupp leads the NFL with 16 receiving touchdowns and 1,947 yards). His 18 catches off of 28 targets for 187 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinals in 2021 show just how much he will be a factor come Monday.
And let’s not forget about Van Jefferson (2) and Beckham Jr. (1), who have combined for three scores against the Cardinals this season. Arizona’s chances of putting the “L” in L.A. hangs on its ability to limit chunk plays through the air that takes the wind out of a defense’s sails, as we all saw in Week 18.
What say you, Kevin?
Zimmerman: You bring up the other differences in the outcomes of their first two meetings: Kupp put up those numbers despite in the first meeting recording season lows in catches (5) and yards (64). He turned it around to record 13 catches in the second meeting, while Jefferson had an explosive touchdown and Beckham showed up — the Cardinals, by the way, had their top three corners available in that game, too.
Relatedly, Arizona saw bad Matthew Stafford and then good Matthew Stafford. I don’t know if you’re into coin tosses, but is there any way to predict how he plays? It can depend on how the Cardinals play him, and I would think they need to get creative generating pass rush with some linebacker and safety blitzes. That is easier said than done if Arizona is not playing with a lead. Also, again, that puts some inexperienced corners in a bind.
So let’s assume the Rams will score a bit. What needs fixing to get Murray and the Cardinals offense on a balanced track, especially if the running backs aren’t at full health?
Drake: It all really boils down to three things: Spacing the ball out, not shooting themselves in the foot due to penalties and figuring out how to find pay dirt in the red zone.
A big part in spacing the ball out is getting rookie wide receiver Rondale Moore and Edmonds, both of whom missed the season finale, back in the passing game. With Kingsbury unsure about D-Hop’s potential return from an MCL tear for the playoffs, Arizona has to attack defenses with numbers. Another name that needs to get involved more is Antoine Wesley. We all saw in the team’s win over the Dallas Cowboys that he has chemistry with Murray and has the ability to make some difficult catches.
I think the last two priorities I mentioned above really go hand in hand. Arizona moved the chains at a decent rate, picking up 20 first downs and over 300 yards of total offense in Sunday’s loss. But when it came down to the red zone, the Cardinals’ successes came to a screeching halt, whether it be from a penalty derailing momentum or just a lack of execution on the offense’s part. In today’s NFL, coming away with field goals on multiple red zone trips usually doesn’t spell a victory.
And like you said on Stafford, who knows which version the Cardinals will get on Monday night? But if Arizona wants to have a chance at taking home a W, it must force the QB to turn the ball over. I think we’ve all seen how much that offense takes a hit when he loses the football. Chandler Jones and Byron Murphy, we’re looking at you.
Let’s turn to the offensive line now. Kevin, how confident are you in the battle of the trenches, specifically the trio of Rams defenders in Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd and Von Miller vs. Arizona’s offensive line?
Zimmerman: Look, the Cardinals offensive line got off to a decent start against Seattle but then struggled as the game wore on. It’s a bit of a red flag considering they face one of the best front sevens in the NFL, but at least they’re healthy.
I would expect that the O-line suffers a few one-on-one losses because that’s what guys like Donald do to an opponent, but Sean Kugler’s group at least has to cut down on the mental errors. That wasn’t as much of a problem against the Seahawks.
Like the defense making up for a potentially vulnerable secondary with coaching from DC Vance Joseph, it’s going to be on Kliff Kingsbury’s creativity to get Arizona out of harm’s way. That means treating Murray more like Colt McCoy, with stretch plays, quick hits and getting the backs or Moore in space. I would not bank on the run game getting chunks of yardage with a power running game. And yes, this means Murray will need to be involved in the ground game, too.
Dink and dunk, pick spots for deep shots and don’t allow overly aggressive downfield throws to saturate your play-calls. Murray has put up too many deep balls on 3rd-and-short situations, and it’s on his head coach to limit those shots for the sake of keeping drives alive.
Last question: All of the above said, how do you see this one going?
Drake: I think a lot of people forget that even though the Cardinals looked really off against the Rams in Week 14, the game was decided by just a touchdown. I think Arizona has a real shot at taking this. Murray has to continue to not turn the ball over – he hasn’t in the last three games – and Kingsbury and Co. must stay creative and not lull their way through a half of football before jumpstarting things.
And we’ve already seen Joseph work wonders with limited bodies in the secondary this season. If there was ever a time to reach into his bag of tricks, it’s now. The blueprint is to get Stafford to turn the ball over, plain and simple. Pick-sixes seem to follow him around this season.
Give me the Cardinals, 33-30, over the Rams. The Cardinals say they love playing on the road. They prove it Monday night.
What’s your prediction?
Zimmerman: The Cardinals are at a talent deficit, but I will give them the benefit of getting the monkey off their backs and finding that confidence somehow — whether that is J.J. Watt returning or the coaching staff putting together an aggressive gameplan.
That said, I have a bad feeling one busted play will bite Arizona — you pick whether that’s the run defense or broken coverage. Call it a 37-30 win for the Rams.