By Nick Shook
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The NFC West has produced the NFL’s most surprising team through nine weeks: the 6-2 Los Angeles Rams.
NFL Network’s Steve Wyche even locked them up on Tuesday as his guarantee for a postseason berth. But what one might not know about the division is those trailing the Rams are just a game and two games behind them. With half of the season left to play, there’s plenty of time for the others to catch up — starting with Thursday night.
The Arizona Cardinals (4-4) host the Seattle Seahawks (5-3) at University of Phoenix Stadium on Thursday Night Football — a game with pivotal divisional positioning on the line. We’re here to bring you five things to watch for in the contest.
1. Drew Stanton. With Carson Palmerout with a broken arm, the backup leads the offense into perhaps its greatest challenge of the season. Seattle is tied for fifth in the NFL in points allowed per game at 18.6, better than any of Arizona’s previous opponents. Even with Palmer, the Cardinals managed to score just seven points combined in losses to the Eaglesand Rams, the two best teams the Cardinals have faced this season (though Palmer exited the latter matchup with the broken arm). With Stanton, their chances become worse, at least statistically. The quarterback played his best with a more-talented 2014 Cardinals squad that was on its way up, but this isn’t the same squad. Will Stanton be able to weather what will be a relentless pass rush long enough to keep this offense competitive?
2. Larry Fitzgerald. If Arizona does have a hope of substantial success through the air against the league’s 13th passing defense, a whole lot of it rests on the shoulders of the future Hall of Famereceiver. Fitzgerald is sixth all-time in receiving yards and will go down as one of the game’s most reliable to ever line up at the position. Stanton will need to turn to him early and often, which is the crux of the problem: Seattle knows this and will be looking for it. The difference between success and failure in this matchup will be Fitzgerald finding an ability to create the slightest openings to catch passes from Stanton, who figures to be under plenty of pressure behind a patchwork offensive line. They’ll also need a few of these acrobatic catches from the veteran, who still manages to wow us even at age 34. These aren’t the 49ers the Cardinals will be facing.
3. Seattle’s running game. It’s been nonexistent for much of the season, but after adding tackle Duane Brown, it should gradually become better. With a stable of competent backs in Thomas Rawls, Eddie Lacy and J.D. McKissic, the key has been finding room to run. That improved ever so slightly last week, with the trio of backs combining to rush for 71 yards on 18 attempts (3.94 yards per carry), but that average needs to move past the 4-yard mark if Seattle really wants to be a true contender down the stretch. The days of Russell Wilson leading this team in rushing yards need to end. This week won’t be the best matchup to jump-start this part of the offense — Arizona ranks 11th in the league against the run, allowing 100.5 rushing yards per game — but what an encouraging sign it would be for the Seahawks to post a respectable rushing performance against such a unit.
4. Seahawks receivers vs. Cardinalsdefensive backs. Seattle has unabashedly relied almost exclusively on the pass as of late, meaning the Cardinals will receive plenty of tests from Wilson and his group of receivers. We all know about Doug Baldwin, and Jimmy Graham has seen an uptick in production in recent weeks, but the quiet X-factor might end up being Paul Richardson, who has demonstrated a tendency to step up in clutch moments. How Arizona handles this group will be incredibly important to the outcome of this matchup. Add that to how much the group as factored into takeaways — Tyrann Mathieu forcing fumbles comes to mind, including last week’s — and we’ll expect this group to make more than one game-shifting play on Thursday night.
5. Adrian Peterson. The new workhorse for the Cardinals‘ offense is getting plenty of touches after complaining about his lack of them when he was with the Saints. Last week alone, he carried the ball 37 times for 159 yards. Seattle’s defense is slightly better against the pass than it is against the run, meaning this might be Arizona’s best offensive path to success. That, and it will take some of the load off Stanton, which is paramount to the Cardinals‘ chances of victory.
6. Prime-time Cardinals. This team has been one of the least impressive 4-4 squads I’ve ever seen. Their best wins of the season were over the floundering Indianapolis Colts (in overtime), and the currently 2-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game in which the Cardinals built a massive lead and came this close to blowing it before escaping with a 38-33 victory. Nothing about this team — well, maybe their defense — inspires any confidence as a legitimate contender. Still, they’re two games behind the Rams in the standings and are very much still in the conversation for the postseason, despite the list of factors working against them. Credit Arians, I suppose, for keeping his professionals engaged, which brings us to this contest.
In front of a raucous, prime-time crowd, how will the Cardinals play? We’re not talking about stats or points — we’re talking body language. Will they be an inspired bunch, knowing there’s a real opportunity at hand? Or will they wilt under pressure? The answer to this question will go a long way toward determining how the season plays out for the Cardinals, and where those in charge of the team are employed (looking at you, Arians) come 2018. Make no mistake: This is a turning point game.