As anyone who followed the Arizona Cardinals last season could tell you, there is still much football left to be played before any real postseason predictions can be made.
Shoot, Cardinals fans may tell you there’s too much football left to be played.
At 10-2, Arizona is in great position to not only win the NFC West for the first time since 2009, but also earn a first-round bye courtesy of being one of the NFC’s top two seeds.
Again, though, there are four regular season games left, and for the Cardinals, each one is against a team that may very well reach the postseason along with them. Still, as of now Sharon Katz writes how ESPN’s Football Power Index (ESPN Insider) says Arizona is the favorite to win the NFC and has the best chance of any team from either conference to win Super Bowl 50.
There are many reasons for why their system favors the Cardinals, but the first they list is how the team is one of the most balanced in the NFL in terms of offense and defense, where they rank first and third, respectively, in efficiency.
They are just the third team in the past 10 seasons to rank in the top three on both sides of the ball this late in the season (Texans 2012, Colts 2007).
Why is Arizona’s offense so good? The piece points to quarterback Carson Palmer, who it says is having an MVP-caliber season. He leads in their Total QBR stat, posting a mark above 50 in every game this season. Katz points out that the last three QBs to start a season with 12 straight games — Aaron Rodgers in 2011, Peyton Manning in 2009 and Tom Brady in 2007 — with a QBR above 50 all won the MVP that season.
The 35-year-old Palmer has completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 3,693 yards and 29 touchdowns with just nine interceptions.
The story notes how Palmer is helped by a trio of excellent receivers, with Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd leading all wideouts in yards and 20-yard receptions.
Fitzgerald topped the 1,000-yard mark in last Sunday’s win over the Rams (he’s at 1,047), while Brown (817) and Floyd (550) could each reach the plateau. The last time the Cardinals had three receivers tally at least 1,000 yards was 2008, when Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston accomplished the feat.
The Cardinals reached the Super Bowl that season, by the way.
Arizona’s success is not solely attributable to the offense, however, as Katz points out the team’s defense — led by a secondary that leads the league in interceptions while allowing the lowest completion percentage on throws of 15-plus yards in the NFL.
Because of all of these factors, Arizona is projected to be about 1.1 points better than any other team on a neutral field and about 2.7 points better than Carolina.
Of course, should the Cardinals play the Panthers odds are it will not happen on a neutral field, as they are currently 12-0 and in prime position to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs, meaning they will be playing home games until the Super Bowl. The FPI gives Carolina a 90 percent chance to keep the top spot, meaning Arizona would have to go on the road once if it is to reach Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara. With that, their projections have the Cardinals beating the Panthers about 50 percent of the time.
According to Katz, it all adds up to the Cardinals having a 42 percent chance to win the NFC and reach the Super Bowl, while the Panthers boast a 39 percent mark. The Seattle Seahawks are third at nine percent.
And, should the Cardinals make good on their odds and reach the big game?
The AFC’s Super Bowl representative is much more unclear, which is one factor contributing to each team’s seemingly low Super Bowl odds. The Patriots, Bengals and Broncos all have between a 20 percent and 35 percent chance to win the conference, but no matter which team represents the AFC, FPI would favor the Cardinals by at least one point against any opponent on Feb. 7.
So there you go.