By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) – Despite having the best record in the NFC, the Arizona
Cardinals don’t have much room for error in their quest to make the playoffs.
The Atlanta Falcons, meanwhile, still have the inside edge at winning the NFC
South despite checking in at three games under .500.
The playoff hopefuls shoot for a much-needed victory this Sunday when the
Cardinals visit the Falcons and the Georgia Dome.
Arizona had a six-game winning streak halted with a 19-3 loss to the Seattle
Seahawks last Sunday. The dropped the Cardinals to 9-2 on the year, but they
are in danger of losing more ground this weekend as the Seahawks beat the San
Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving night.
That improved Seattle to 8-4 on the year and it could move within a game of
first place if Arizona losses to Atlanta.
Despite holding an opponent under 20 points for a seventh straight game, the
Cardinals were bested by the Seahawks after getting held to just 204 yards of
offense and a 23-yard field goal by Chandler Catanzaro in the second quarter.
Drew Stanton connected on 14-of-26 passes for 149 yards and an interception
for the Cardinals, who lost for the first time since Oct. 5 at Denver.
“Everybody took turns today. It wasn’t one position group or anything like
that. Offensively, we didn’t play well enough to win,” said Stanton. “Any time
you score three points and come in here and only put up that number, you’re
not going to be successful.”
Defensive end Calais Campbell accounted for three of Arizona’s season-high
seven sacks, but the offense failed to get much done without wide receiver
Fitzgerald had his consecutive games played streak halted at 110 due to a knee
injury as he sat out a contest for the first time since Dec. 2, 2007 versus
The setback denied Arizona in its first bid to record double-digit wins in
back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1975-76.
Atlanta, meanwhile, had a two-game winning streak snapped with Sunday’s 26-24
setback to Cleveland. The loss dropped the Falcons to 4-7, but they remain
tied for first place in the division with the New Orleans Saints.
Matt Bryant hit a go-ahead 53-yard field goal for the Falcons with under a
minute left to play, but the Browns took over with 44 seconds on the clock and
moved close enough to allow Billy Cundiff to convert on a 37-yard field goal
try as time expired.
Matt Ryan was 27-of-43 passing for 273 yards with one interception and
touchdown passes to Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers.
“This was a tough loss for our team because it felt like it was our game to
win,” said Atlanta cornerback Desmond Trufant, who had an interception. “You
have to give the Browns a lot of credit because they found a way to come out
on top. I felt like we made a lot of plays in the game but I guess it was not
enough. We just couldn’t stop them from scoring the last-second field goal.”
Arizona picked up a 27-13 victory at home over Atlanta on Oct. 27, 2013 and
lead the all-time series 15-12.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ryan and Atlanta’s seventh-ranked passing offense will try to move the ball
against a Cardinals defense that held Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to
just 39 yards last weekend and also has racked up 17 sacks in the past three
Arizona had just eight sacks through its first eight games and now ranks 11th
in total defense and third against the run at 84.5 yards allowed per game. The
Cardinals have now allowed a 100-yard rusher in 21 straight games and has held
teams under 100 yards rushing total in 10 of 12 games this season.
That leaves a lot of pressure on Ryan, who has been picked off nine times in
his past two meetings with the Cardinals. He was intercepted five times in a
2012 meeting and another four times last year, marking the only two times in
105 career games he has thrown four or more picks in a game.
Ryan also has posted a passer rating below 50.0 just six times, with two of
those coming against Arizona.
“They’re playing with a lot of confidence, playing at a high level.
Defensively, they’re really good at all three levels,” Ryan said of Arizona’s
“They’ve done a great job of playing to their system regardless of who’s been
in there. They’re missing some of the guys that have been really productive
for them in the past, but the guys that have filled in have played well within
the scheme. They put pressure on you with the scheme.”
Ryan has thrown a touchdown pass in 16 straight games and Jones figures to be
one of his main targets as he tries to solve the Arizona defense. Jones has
racked up 50 catches for 802 yards and four touchdowns in his past seven games
at Georgia Dome.
Also, fellow wideout Roddy White has been slowed this week by an ankle injury,
but he should play.
Atlanta safety William Moore could also return from a shoulder injury that
landed him on injured reserve/designated to return after Week 4. Moore has 14
career picks and has 16 tackles in four games this season.
The Falcons’ defense ranks last in total yards (409.9) and passing yards
(284.1) allowed per game, but did pick up three interceptions versus the
Browns. Trufant and safeties Kemal Ishmael and Dezmen Southward all had picks.
Ishmael has intercepted a pass in each of the last three games and leads the
team with a career-high four picks, while Trufant has an interception in two
consecutive games while leading the team with 12 passes defensed.
Their job would be easier this weekend if Fitzgerald didn’t play, but the
wideout said this week he is much improved.
“I feel good and everyday it’s getting stronger and stronger. I’m highly
likely (to play), but it’s not my call,” said Fitzgerald, who has 46 catches
for a team-high 658 yards with two touchdowns.
Arizona showed its weakness without Fitzgerald against Seattle as it gained
only 64 yards on the ground and ranks 31st in the NFL with 78.4 rushing yards
Without running back Jonathan Dwyer since mid-September following his arrest
on domestic violence charges, the Cardinals have seen running back Andre
Ellington rush for just 648 yards on 196 carries this season while matching
Fitzgerald’s 46 receptions.
Ellington did have 154 yards rushing, including an 80-yard TD, last season
versus the Falcons and should finally get some help down the road after
Arizona signed veteran Michael Bush for the rest of the season.
The 245-pound Bush has not played since last season with Chicago, so there is
a pretty solid chance he won’t be active against the Falcons.
“We didn’t sign him for this week. We signed him for the long haul, so we’ll
have him ready when we need him and we’ll go from there,” said Cardinals head
coach Bruce Arians. “It would be hard to have a guy who didn’t play in OTAs
and didn’t have a training camp, for me to give him the ball on Sunday would
be pretty hard.”
Arizona has had success in winning the games it should win, with its lone
losses coming against last season’s Super Bowl participants. The Cards
responded with a nice winning streak after the loss to Denver and may need the
same kind of effort to hold off Seattle.
“When we lost to Denver, we lost pretty bad, but we bounced back, won six
straight,” special teamer Justin Bethel told Arizona’s website. “We knew going
into Seattle it would be a tough game. It’s one of the hardest places to play
in the NFL.”
This late in the season, Arizona can’t afford to look past Atlanta despite
upcoming games against Kansas City, San Francisco and Seattle. The Falcons
know they are lucky to be in the position they are in as far as playoff
chances and could be a motivated team down the stretch.
“You can’t help but understand where you’re at. Moving forward we’ve got
everything we want right in front of us,” said Ryan. “Obviously, we can’t
change the previous 11 games, and what we’ve done up until this point; I just
hope that we can control what we do moving forward.”
The Falcons have a chance to pull off the upset if the Cardinals’ offense
struggles for another week in a hostile environment. That will depend on Ryan
having a good game, but he has won two of three in his career versus the
Cardinals and Atlanta should be able to put up just enough points at home.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Falcons 17, Cardinals 10