The 2015 season hasn’t quite been as planned for Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles, but for the Arizona Cardinals is could hardly be better. The Cardinals 11-2 start has surprised many – myself included. But in retrospect we shouldn’t be so shocked that a Carson Palmer led team are doing so well. Arizona were 6-0 before he got hurt last season. They were 10-6 in his first season with them; That’s a 27-8 record, or 77.1 win percentage since he arrived in Glendale. It’s just a hair less than Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers’ win percentage since 2013. Arizona have scored the second-most offensive touchdowns (43) this season as they’ve bludgeoned teams to death with a solid running attack and downfield passing game. In short, 2015 has been a wild success so far. The same can’t be said for their opponents this weekend. After an off-season of heavy roster turnover the Philadelphia Eagles have been extremely disappointing this season. In 2014 the Eagles were 10-6 and had a solid offense but that wasn’t enough for Chip Kelly so he tossed out nearly every player and bought in new ones. And it hasn’t worked. The Eagles are running the same basic offense that Kelly has had for years and it’s starting to get adjusted out of the NFL the same way the wildcat was. Meanwhile the defense has been up and down all year, giving up 45 points in back to back games to end November before turning it around a little. At 6-7 they are still in the division race but they are so unpredictable.
Three keys to the game:
1. Feed Sproles
Darren Sproles is the prototype for the modern “3rd down” back. He can be effective running the ball, is a deadly receiver and can be a weapon in the return game. We were all reminded of that fact in the Eagles upset win over New England of just what Sproles can be. With Arizona’s great run defense and the way they are able to pressure QB’s and cover receivers the only real weak spot is their coverage of running backs. If the Eagles can get the ball outside of blitzes and into Sproles’ hands he could do some serious damage.
2. Get to Palmer
The Cardinals passing attack is a deep vertical one. It’s a rarity in today’s NFL where the focus seems to be on horizontal stretch and picks in the passing game which is why it’s so much fun to watch. But for it to work Palmer needs time in the pocket to let the deeper routes develop. So far this season he has mostly got it thanks to good blocking and his own fearlessness. If the Eagles can get consistent pressure on him – particularly up the middle from Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan – then they can start to nullify the deep threats of John Brown and JJ Nelson.
3. Special Teams!
It’s an area of the game that few people think about when it comes to who they think will win a game, but it matters. A bad day on special teams can cost a team the game. Simply a more consistent return game can give a team the edge. The Eagles are more than competent when it comes to special teams. Their punt return unit is among the best in the NFL. Darren Sproles leads the league in punt return average. Donnie Jones – the Eagles punter – is 7th in net yards. Arizona? Well Drew Butler is dead last. These hidden yards would seem to favour Philadelpia and winning the battle of field position will give them an edge in a game where they are the underdogs.
Match-up to watch: Mike Iupati vs Fletcher Cox
Ok, I’m a bit of a lineman nerd I admit it. This is a match up between two beasts in the trenches that will go a long way towards defining Arizona’s success on offense. Iupati is a 3 time Pro Bowler and one time All-Pro. The reason for all those accolades has been monstrous brutality in the ground game and this season has been in a similar vein. While Cox lacks similar accolades that is in no part due to a short coming against the run. He is a large, powerful defensive end who can hold his ground off the snap and move off blocks with all the smoothness of a much smaller man. While Philly’s defense has been up and down all year Cox has been consistently good and a big part of their upset wins against the likes of New England and Buffalo in recent weeks.
Prediction: Arizona Cardinals
I’m taking the Cardinals here. A win for them will clinch the division and maybe a bye as well. They are coming off a longer week having played on thursday last week instead of sunday and I think they will just have too much fire power on offense. The Cardinals have 4 legitimate threats at wide receiver and a running back who can seemingly do it all in David Johnson. Arizona also have a fast and aggressive defense who won’t be intimidated out of their blitz-happy scheme by Philly’s fast speed spread offense. Sure, they might get caught once or twice on a big play but they will also put the kind of hits in that cause turnovers. Give me the Cardinals by 7-10.