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Big underdogs won’t have an easy time: 5 keys for a Cardinals upset in NOLA

The Cardinals have a 3-game winning streak, but the Saints have won 5 straight. One streak will come to an end on Sunday. What has to go right for the Cardinals to keep their win streak alive?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints
Larry Fitzgerald will be on the field in New Orleans on Sunday. But will Drew Brees?
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Another East Coast swing, another underdog story for the Arizona Cardinals. This time the line (Cardinals +10) actually makes sense—we’re traveling to the Superdome to face the 6-1 New Orleans Saints. Although elite players like Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara have missed time, the Saints haven’t skipped a beat, winning five in a row and looking like one of the best teams in the league.

The Cardinals come into town riding a three-game win streak of their own and already looking vastly improved from last season. But the experts agree: an upset in the Big Easy would be a tall order. The Saints offense hasn’t quite been the elite unit it’s been in the past with key pieces missing, but they boast a top-10 defense and one of the best home-field advantages in the league.

But of their six victories, only one has come by double digits (11 points against Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears last week). So they’ve let teams hang around. What do the Redbirds have to do to keep pace and possibly notch their biggest win of the season? Here’s one key from each phase of the game to pull off a stunner in the bayou.

Key #1 – Passing Offense: Take Advantage of the “Weather”

Last week, soggy conditions and a big lead largely grounded the Air Raid—Kyler Murray only went 14/21 for 104 yards (5.0 YPA). We didn’t need him to win last week against an inferior Giants team, but those numbers won’t cut it this week against the Saints. Fortunately, Sunday’s game is in a (Super)dome, so weather won’t be a factor. The Saints’ above-average passing defense (#13 at 237.3 YPG, #12 by DVOA) will be, but it isn’t necessarily a shutdown unit. The Cardinals will likely need to score plenty of points to keep up with the Saints offense, so we’ll need the offense to look more like it did the last time the Redbirds played in a dome—when Kyler won the NFC Offensive Player of the Week. Am I saying that Kyler needs to win that award again for the Cardinals to get the win? No, but I’m not *not* saying that either. Kyler will need to have a huge day under the dome if we’re going to pull off the upset.

Key #2 – Rushing Offense: A Win Costs a Buck and a Quarter

No matter who’s running the ball—Kyler, David Johnson, Chase Edmonds—the Cardinals have found success. Although we’re just outside the top 10 in YPG (127.4, #11), we still boast a top-5 rushing offense by DVOA (#3). That said, the Saints boast a strong rush defense, ranking #9 in both YPG (90.6) and DVOA. So whoever is running the ball—Kyler, DJ (not looking good for Sunday), fantasy hero Edmonds, one of the new guys—will likely find the going tough. But if Kliff Kingsbury can stick with the running game early on and the improving O-line can create a few lanes, getting to 125 yards is an attainable goal. If we can get to that number—right around our season average but well above what the Saints give up—that will likely mean a close game and a decent time of possession figure for us. Perfect ingredients for an upset.

Key #3 – Passing Defense: Slow Down Michael Thomas

The Cardinals’ passing defense (#25 by YPG at 263.3, #26 by DVOA) has been bad, but has it really been *that* bad? I’d argue no—we’ve only given up a 300-yard day twice, and that YPG figure is actually closer to #7 in the league (Carolina at 225.0) than #32 (Tampa Bay at 304.5). So pass defense has been a liability but not an Achilles’ heel. Enter the Saints’ passing offense. They rank a relatively middling #13 by YPG (245.0) but are a more efficient #7 by DVOA. So this ain’t the same high-flying unit that lit up scoreboards in the past. A lot of that has to do with Drew Brees’ injury, and he might actually suit up this week. But whoever is under center, their passing offense flows through Michael Thomas, who leads the NFL in receiving yards with 763, over 100 yards more than #2 (Chris Godwin). No one on the Saints has more than 276 yards (Alvin Kamara, who may or may not play). No one has been able to stop Thomas (he has at least 5 receptions for 50 yards in every game), but we’ll need to at least slow him down to have a shot in this one—no 100-yard day, no touchdowns. But the Cardinals got Patrick Peterson back last week. He wasn’t exactly elite against the Giants (63.2 PFF grade), but we’ll need him to be this week against Thomas. If we can hold him to something like what we held Golden Tate to last week (6/80), we can make this a game.

Key #4 – Rushing Defense: Hold Down the Fort

Like the pass defense, the rush defense has been a bit more maligned than deserved of late. We give up 129.1 YPG (#25) and have a similar #26 ranking by DVOA. But a lot of the damage against this unit was done early—in the first three weeks, we gave up 157.0 YPG. Over the last four games, that number drops to 108.3, which would rank #18 in the league. The Saints’ rushing offense has been similarly middle of the pack, ranking #15 in the league in YPG (111.0) and #18 by DVOA. Whether it is Kamara or their version of Chase Edmonds, Latavius Murray, toting the rock on Sunday, we need to keep them closer to that 108.3 figure than 129.1 (to say nothing of 157.0). Keeping the Saints offense in check this weekend just might cool down Vance Joseph’s seat… but if they go old-school Saints on us, expect that seat to heat right back up again.

Key #5 – Special Teams: One Big Play

The Redbirds keep tumbling down the DVOA rankings, checking in all the way at #30 after the Giants game. The Saints have one of the better special teams units in the league, ranked #10. The normally steady Wil Lutz has actually been the weak point (three missed FGs and one missed XP), but every other part of the unit has been strong. We’ll be a bit outclassed in this phase of the game. But if there’s a big special teams play, it has to come from us—a big return, a blocked kick, a critical turnover. If we’re the one that makes the mistake, expect a bad hangover Monday morning (not the first time that’s happened after a trip to NOLA).

Final Thoughts

The Cardinals are big underdogs in this one, but remember that the Saints have only beaten one team by 10+ points this season. I fully expect the Cardinals to be able to hang around in this one and cover that spread.

But do I think we will pull off the upset? At this point, it’s too hard to say given the injury uncertainty around so many key players (DJ, Christian Kirk, Brees, Kamara). So I’ll say that the running game will be the key here—whoever rushes for more yards will win the game.

What do you think, Cardinals fan? Can we pull a shocker in the Big Easy? Or will our win streak come to an end? Let us know your keys and predictions in the comments.