After two straight postseason appearances, the Cardinals suffered through a difficult 2016. A final record of 7-8-1 left them on the outside looking in at the playoffs. On the bright side, a star was born in running back David Johnson, who set franchise yards for total yards from scrimmage (2,118) and touchdowns (20.) But the Cardinals coughed away a lot of close contests with special teams miscues and ill-timed turnovers. That’s why they finished with a losing record even though they finished in the top half of the league in both points scored and pints allowed.
The Lions fired out to a 9-4 start and then gritted their teeth through a three-game losing streak to end the season, barely hanging on to a wild card playoff spot. Matthew Stafford once again carried the offense through his passing, although he struggled too down the stretch after injuring his shoulder. The defense showed modest improvement, finishing in the top half of the league in points allowed after years of being victimized. The postseason experience didn’t last long for the Lions, as they went down without much of a fight in a 26-6 wild card loss at Seattle.
Strength against strength – Stafford should once again be at the helm of a potent passing attack, with Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Eric Ebron and rookie Kenny Golladay his top targets. But the Cardinals have the ability to rush the passer with linebackers Markus Golden and Chandler Jones, each of whom produced double-digit sacks a year ago, and playmakers in the secondary in Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson.
The Johnson rules – David Johnson’s monster 2016 season made it clear how difficult he is to stop. He has the ability to be a weapon as both a runner and receiver, which makes it nearly impossible for defenses to create gameplans against him. Detroit would like to limit his big plays in the running game and force the Cardinals into long yardage situations on third downs, which would allow them to keep Johnson in front of them and limit the damage.
Running on empty – Detroit has been trying to build a running game with little success pretty much since Barry Sanders retired. This year the onus falls on Ameer Abdullah, who has been productive when he plays but hasn’t been able to stay on the field much because of injuries his first two seasons. The Lions are used to being productive even when one-dimensional on offense, but, against a good defense like Arizona’s, a little running game help would go a long way.
Matchup to watch
Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs Lions CB DJ Hayden – The Lions return all four starters from their secondary a year ago, but they improved their depth by adding former first-round pick Hayden from Oakland. He’ll likely handle the nickel duties, which means he’ll often be in the slot trying to handle Fitzgerald, who, with his size and hands, creates problems for defenders that most slot receivers don’t as the Cardinals top receiving option.
Fantasy football tip
QB Carson Palmer – With many top quarterbacks banged up or facing tough opening week matchups, Palmer could be an ideal waiver-wire target if he went undrafted in your league. The veteran starts off the season with a soft matchup against the Lions suspect pass defense and should be near the 300-yard total without a doubt.
Prediction: Arizona Cardinals 26-23 Detroit Lions
This has the potential to be one of the most entertaining, closely-matched games of the opening week on the NFL docket. It could come down to a field goal, and new Cardinals acquisition Phil Dawson could immediately make his presence felt by kicking the game-winner in the closing moments.
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