Five weeks ago, the Arizona Cardinals were sitting a 1-6 after a demoralizing collapse against the Baltimore Ravens. Boy, a lot can change in five weeks. Filling in for the injured Kevin Kolb, John Skelton lead this team to a 3-1 record, with the only loss coming against these same 49ers. With Kevin Kolb back at the helm, the Cardinals played stout defense and overcame a poor first half offensively, to beat the Dallas Cowboys 19-13 in OT, sending many Cowboys fans at University of Phoenix stadium home in a foul mood. Currently sitting at 5-7, murmurs of playoffs are beginning to grow amongst the Red Bird Nation. However the only, realistic, way to keep those hopes alive is for the Cardinals to win out, starting this Sunday against the rival 49ers. In what is by far the most important game of the Cardinals season, here are the five keys to victory:
1. Ball security - As was pointed out in Phil7178's FanPost, the San Francisco 49ers currently lead the NFL in turnover differential at +18, with the Cardinals at 28th at -8. Obviously, in any NFL game, winning the turnover battle is a huge factor, but in this game it is even more important for Kolb and the offense to take care of the ball. Offensively, their isn't much separating these two teams, with the Cardinals having a slight advantage in YPG at 316.7 to the 49ers 315.3. The only real advantage San Francisco boast over the Cardinals offensively is PPG, 24.0 to our 19.3, which is due largely to the turnover differential. If our offense can maintain their normal offensive production, while protecting our own football, the Cardinals will have a very good chance in this game.
2. Patrick Peterson vs. Michael Crabtree - This match-up is the most important player vs player match-up. In Peterson's first game against the rival 49ers, Michael Crabtree was able to beat Peterson consistently, to the tune of 120 yards receiving. After one of Peterson's better games as a Cardinal last week against Dez Bryant, despite giving up 86 yards and a touchdown, Peterson looks to improve on his last showing against Crabtree. Last week, Peterson was able to make a few good pass defenses, some great open field tackling, and was in good position for an potential interception, were it not for some uncalled offensive pass-interference by Bryant. If Peterson continues his good play against a less dangerous Crabtree, Michael should be a non-factor in this game, which will go along way in stopping the 49ers offensively.
3. Force the 49ers to blitz - In the Cardinals last meeting, the 49ers did not blitz once. For whatever reason they did not feel it was necessary to pressure John Skelton, and it worked out for them. Even though the 49ers only managed two sacks that game, Skelton and his receivers could not capitalize on the 49ers passivity. On Sunday, if Kolb has as much time as Skelton did, it is crucial that Kolb makes the 49ers pay and Kolb finds the open receivers. Both due to play design and NFL wide-reciever talent, no NFL defense can cover every receiver for more than five seconds. If Kolb has that kind of time come Sunday, he has to find the open receiver. Once Kolb starts to move the offense against a passive defense, the 49ers will start to bring pressure, and that's when the Cardinals can hit their big plays downfield.
4. Keep up the trend defensively - Since the Baltimore game when Kolb was injured much has been made of the Cardinals improved defense. For whatever reason, likely due to timing and integration of young talent, Horton's defensive scheme is starting to come together. Wilson is back to playing at a Pro Bowl level, our entire defensive line is getting consistent pressure, our young linebackers are playing phenomenally, and our two young CBs are starting to progress positively again. Since the aforementioned Baltimore game, the Cardinals defense has averaged 13 PPG allowed on defense(taking out safeties and defensive scoring), better than San Francisco's 13.4 PPG on the season. If our defense can keep up their stellar play, we will have a very good chance in this game.
5. Time of Possession - In the last installment of the Cardinals-49ers rivalry, the Cardinals defense played admirably in the first half, only surrendering 9 points in a first half in which our offense was awful. In said first half, our offense had seven series, three which ended in three-and-outs, two five-and-outs, and two turnovers early in the series. These short series gave San Francisco a huge edge in time of possession, and completely gassed our defense. By the end of the game, the time of possession was 15:44 for the Cardinals and 44:16 for the 49ers, by far the worst margin this year. All things considered, if Kolb and the offense can just make the time of possession respectable, say 26:00 to 34:00, we will have a much better chance in this game. To go even further, if we can win the time of possession battle, it would put us in very good position to win the game against a team that flourishes on defensive turnovers, and offensive ball security.
If the Cardinals are able to execute these keys to victory, they will, barring some sort of crazy mishap, win the game Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. As many of the Cardinals players have tweeted, this week is huge for them, as the rest of the season relies on this game. They will be playing their heart out in this game, and hopefully all the Cardinals fans at U of P Stadium will be there to help lift our Cardinals to victory. Of course, Patrick Peterson returning a punt for a touchdown, and an NFL record, would help a lot too! What do you fellow ROTBers think? What other match-ups do you think are crucial for this game?