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Eagles-Cardinals Preview: What Could Have Been

Updated on December 17, 2015

When the Arizona Cardinals travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles on Sunday night, the two teams will have a few things in common. Both teams are led by Heisman Trophy winning QBs, who have recovered from two ACL surgeries. Both teams hold their destiny in their own hands for winning their division. Both head coaches were scheduled to interview for the Eagles' head coaching opening in 2013. And both teams are named after birds. Other than that, these two teams couldn't be more different.

The 11-2 Cardinals can clinch the NFC West with a win, while the 6-7 Eagles are tied in the crappy NFC East with two other teams. Arizona's QB is an MVP candidate, while the Eagles are just happy their QB has stopped turning the ball over constantly. The Eagles couldn't be happier that their 2-game winning streak has saved their season, while the Cardinals are currently riding a 7-game winning streak. And the Cardinals are better in literally every single statistical category you can measure, except defensive sacks.

On paper the game looks like a complete mismatch, but let's take a closer look at the matchup, shall we?

The Philadelphia Eagles chose Chip Kelly (L) as their head coach back in 2013 over Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians (R)
The Philadelphia Eagles chose Chip Kelly (L) as their head coach back in 2013 over Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians (R)

Eagles Offense Versus Cardinals Defense

Eagles QB Sam Bradford's passer rating was 76.4 in his first 7 games (34th out of 37 qualifying QBs). In his last 4 games, his rating is 97.5, which is 8th best in the NFL over that time. The main difference is that Bradford stopped throwing killer INTs. He had 11 in his first 7 games, but has had only 1 in his last 4 and that one was ripped out of his receiver's hands last week. Bradford looks much more comfortable in the pocket in recent games. Perhaps that's just because he's further away from those two ACL surgeries or maybe he's just getting more comfortable in Chip Kelly's offense. Whatever it is, the Eagles need Bradford to continue to play mistake-free football.

The biggest problem for Bradford is that his receiving options are severely limited. WR Jordan Matthews leads the team with 64 catches for 680 yards and 4 TDs. The only other receiver on the team who would even make the roster of another team is TE Zach Ertz (45-501-1). Other than that, Bradford has to check down to his RBs coming out of the backfield. This is all very bad news for an Eagles team facing the 4th best defense in the NFL (322.4 ypg) and the 12th best pass defense (234.7 ypg). Arizona CB Patrick Peterson is coming back from an ankle injury, but he is one of the best cover corners in the league. Safety Tyrann Mathieu is rounding into one of the top defensive backs, as well. It might be tough to find open receivers in green on Sunday.

Philadelphia Eagles QB Sam Bradford
Philadelphia Eagles QB Sam Bradford

Then there is the fact that the Cardinals like to blitz every other snap. They actually blitz 46.9 % of the time, more than any other team, but only have 24 sacks on the season. However, 14 of their 24 sacks and 8 of their 16 INTs have come on blitzes. The Eagles offensive line is average at protecting the QB, so this will be a big test. If LT Jason Peters can't play the whole game, I doubt Bradford makes it through the game in one piece. DE Calais Campbell is a beast and LBs Deone Bucannon and Kevin Minter will take turns blitzing all game. The Eagles will need their offensive line to have their best game of the season in this one.

The Eagles offense is only ranked 16th overall (351.8 ypg), but they still manage to run the ball rather well, ranked 13th (115.7 ypg). Unfortunately, they are facing the 5th ranked run defense (87.7 ypg). The Eagles now use a full-on committee approach at RB now that it has become painfully obvious that DeMarco Murray was a free agent bust. Murray has looked a step slow all season and has basically been relegated to spot duty behind Ryan Mathews and even Darren Sproles. Mathews looked a bit sluggish last week after missing three games with a concussion, but he still looked better than Murray. Expect all three RBs to get carries, but don't expect many yards against the Cardinals stout run defense.

Arizona Cardinals QB Carson Palmer
Arizona Cardinals QB Carson Palmer

Cardinals Offense Versus Eagles Defense

Remember when I compared the two QBs in this game? Forget about that. It was a joke. Arizona QB Carson Palmer has thrown for 4,003 yards and 31 TD passes (a single-season franchise record). Those numbers trail only Tom Brady in the entire NFL and Palmer's 107.2 passer rating is second only to Russell Wilson. It's remarkable how well he bounced back from his own ACL injury after 6 games last season. The Cards offense is No. 1 in the NFL (417.5 ypg) in yardage, 2nd in scoring (31.2 ppg) and 3rd in passing offense (299.1 ypg). It really is an impressive group and Palmer is the trigger-man, having an MVP-caliber season.

A big reason for Arizona's explosive offense is their receivers. They have three WRs that are better than anything the Eagles have. Sadly, I'm being serious. Larry Fitzgerald leads the group with 96 receptions for 1,088 yards and 7 TDs. He spends most of his time in the slot, so he'll be safety Malcolm Jenkins' responsibility most of the game. Jenkins is having a fine season, but he can't cover Ftiz one-on-one all game without getting burned. On the outside John Brown (55-895-5) and Michael Floyd (40-652-6) are going to abuse CBs Byron Maxwell and rookie Eric Rowe all game. Actually, Rowe won't get beat deep, simply because he gives the receiver a 10-yard cushion on every play, but that doesn't really work. Floyd is hot, with four 100-yard efforts in the last 5 weeks. There is also the fact that Arizona leads the league in 20-plus yard receptions, with 59 and the Eagles have allowed 44 of them, after giving up a league-high 72 last season

Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald
Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald

Larry Fitzgerald Against the Eagles

Date
Receptions
Yards
TDs
Dec. 24, 2005
5
93
1
Nov. 27, 2008
5
65
2
Jan. 18, 2009 (NFC Champ. Game)
9
152
3
Nov. 13, 2011
7
146
2
Sept. 23, 2012
9
114
1
Dec. 1, 2013
5
72
1
Oct. 26, 2014
7
160
1

The Cardinals are a decent running team, ranked 10th (118.2), but they should be without RB Andre Ellington (toe) on Sunday. That will leave the bulk of the carries to rookie David Johnson, who is averaging 4.3 yards per carry. That's not great, but against an Eagles run defense ranked 28th (126.8 ypg) against the run, RBs don't have to be great to be effective. Plus, the Cardinals just run the ball to keep defenses honest and run out the clock at the end of games.

The Cardinals offensive line has done a very nice job of protecting Palmer, giving up only 21 sacks (5th fewest) on the season. They'll be tested this week against an Eagles defense that has accumulated 31 sacks on the season. DE Fletcher Cox is establishing himself as one of the best defensive lineman in the entire NFL and he simply can't be blocked by one guy. That frees up other players to get to the QB, especially OLBs Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin, both of whom are starting to get sacks. LT Jared Veldheer and LG Mike Iupati are going to have their hands full with Cox.

Also keep in mind that the Cardinals are 2nd in the NFL in 3rd down efficiency on offense, converting 46.3% of their 3rd down opportunities. The Eagles defense is ranked 24th in 3rd down defense.

Which Eagle will give up the most TD passes against the Cardinals

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Special Teams

The Eagles special teams set an NFL record with 7 return TDs last season and while they aren't playing anywhere near that level this season (How could they?), they have started to make plays that are winning games. Two weeks ago in New England, they scored 2 TDs and last week against Buffalo they recovered a muffed punt. Sproles has 2 punt return TDs this season and is a threat to score on every punt. And last week, punter Donnie Jones averaged 50.4 yards per punt and kicker Caleb Stugis hit all three of his FG attempts. Patrick Peterson might be back returning punts for Arizona and he's averaging 8.4 yards on 29 returns. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro has hit game-winning FGs in 2 of their last 4 games and has hit 25 of 27 on the year, with one of his misses being from 55 yards

Coaches

Arizona head coach Bruce Arians was scheduled to interview with the Eagles but he never even got to talk to them in 2013 after Chip Kelly finally accepted the job. Kelly has a 26-19 record since then and Arians is 32-13. Arians' offense has only gotten better, while Kelly's "great college offense" (according to Arians), has gone steadily downhill as he has gotten rid of all the great talent that was on the roster when he arrived. Arians also has a Super Bowl ring in 2008 from his time as the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator. By the way, those Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals (who beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game that year, remember?), whose defensive coordinator was current Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis. Small world. Arians also has ties to Philly, as he was the head coach at Temple U (1983-88). And finally, it is interesting to note that current NY Jets head coach Todd Bowles was the Arizona defensive coordinator last year and they still run his system. The Eagles got to see Bowles' defense earlier this year when they beat the Jets 23-20.

"It's a great college offense" - Bruce Arians
"It's a great college offense" - Bruce Arians

The Prediction

Just looking at the players and the statistics, this game should be a complete blowout in favor of the Cardinals. They have every statistical advantage one team can have over the other and it's been proven out during the season by the records of the two teams. The game is in Philadelphia, but the Eagles are only 3-3 at home. Arizona has to fly across the country, but they have been off for 10 days after playing on Thursday night in Week 14.

I'm looking hard for a reason to think the Eagles can pull off this upset, but unless they can score 2 or 3 special teams TDs, I just don't see it happening.

Cardinals 31 - Eagles 23

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