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Stretch run: What do the Cardinals need to focus on to make the playoffs?

The Cardinals seemed to come out of a month-long funk against the Giants. What do they need to do in these final three games to clinch a playoff spot?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New York Giants
DeAndre Hopkins had his first 100-yard game in a month against the Giants. Can he repeat that performance against the Eagles this weekend?
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals got off the schneid last weekend in New York and are back in the playoff field… for now. There are still three games to go and the Vikings and Bears are nipping at their heels. We probably need to win two games, or maybe even all three, to secure a playoff berth.

So how do we get there? What does this team need to focus on over the final three games of the regular season? Let’s take a brief look today.

Offense: Get Back on Track in the Red Zone

This isn’t exactly a glaring weakness—the Cardinals are the #7 red zone offense in the league. But the team struggled mightily last week against the Giants, going just 2 for 7 in the red zone, and most Cardinals fans probably still have a bad taste in their mouths from the failed 4th-and-goal attempt just before halftime in the Patriots game. (I know I do.) So while the team is still having success near the goal line (mostly), it has seemed more… belabored lately. Lots of Kenyan Drake or Chase Edmonds running into the pile or questionably designed pass plays. The obvious missing element is Kyler Murray’s legs. He doesn’t have a rushing TD in the last 4 games after rushing for a TD in 9 of the first 10 games. He looked unstoppable at the goal line early in the season—something the team needs to get back to.

Looking ahead to our final three opponents, we’re in a prime spot to get right in the red zone against the Eagles, who have the #27 red zone defense. Things get a little tougher after that: the 49ers are #8 and the Rams are #12. Hopefully Kyler can get going against the Eagles and carry some momentum into the final two games.

Defense: Keep Up the Pass Rush

Is anyone else as surprised as I am that our pass rush has been so effective without Chandler Jones? We have the fifth-most sacks in the league at 37, which includes the 8(!) we racked up against the Giants on Sunday. I’m not so sure I’d rush to crown Vance Joseph yet, but this has been a strength of the defense for most of the year. Haason Reddick (10) and Dennis Gardeck (5) have been the big surprises, and 8 more players have 2 sacks a piece. Given how much our CBs have underperformed, continuing to get after the QB will be critical in these final games.

Look for that to continue this weekend—Eagles QBs are the most-sacked in the entire league. Don’t count on another 8 sacks (or 4 more from Reddick), but Jalen Hurts figures to be under fire all afternoon. Looking ahead, the 49ers are another below-average pass protection unit (#19 in sacks against), but the Rams excel in this statistic. Jared Goff has been sacked the fifth-fewest times in the league, and the Cardinals only got to him once when they played two weeks ago. The pass rush will need to step up if we’re going to have a chance in that one.

Offense: Keep Feeding DeAndre Hopkins

There’s no denying that Hopkins has been fed plenty in his first season in the desert. Through 13 games, he’s been targeted 127 times and has 94 receptions for 1,155 yards. All of those figures are top-5 in the league. But we all of course remember the Seahawks and Rams losses, when Hopkins was barely used in the first half (a combined 1 reception on 4 targets, plus a DPI penalty) and the Miami debacle when he was only targeted 3 times. That kind of misusage can’t happen down the stretch to give the Cardinals the best chance to win. Get the ball to Nuk early and often like they did versus the Giants, which resulted in his first 100-yard game in a month. The offense has to keep that going.

That shouldn’t be a problem against the Eagles. While they actually have a respectable pass defense overall (#9 in the league), they have been absolutely roasted by alpha WRs like Hopkins this season. DK Metcalf went 10/177 against them in Week 12, and Davante Adams went 10/121/2 in Week 13. Metcalf (12/161/2) and Adams (10/173/1) have both also roasted the 49ers—as did Hopkins himself back in Week 1 (14/151). Things will be much tougher against Jalen Ramsey and the Rams in Week 17, though—they completely shut down Metcalf back in Week 10 (2/28) and largely stymied Hopkins two weeks ago (8/52/1).

Defense: Get Off the Field on Third Down

The Redbirds have been a middle-of-the-road third-down defense this season, allowing opponents to convert third downs 41.3% of the time, good for #16 in the league. But there are some concerning splits at play here. In the first 8 games (when we started 5-2), the opposing offenses only converted at a 35% clip. But from Weeks 9 through 13, when we went 1-4? That number skyrocketed all the way up to 51%. The defense got back on track last week against a dysfunctional Giants offense. Let’s hope the defense can return to that early-season level down the stretch.

There’s a good chance success on third down could turn into a trend for this defense: the Eagles have the #28 third-down offense, while the 49ers have the #22 unit on third down. That looks like a recipe for success, But as seems to be the running theme for this column, things get tougher against the Rams, who are the sixth-best third-down offense in the league.

Special Teams: Don’t. Miss. Kicks.

The kicking game has been a major source of woe for the Cardinals this season. Not only have opposing kickers nailed seemingly every big kick against us, but Zane Gonzalez has had an awful season (just 16/22 on FGs), missing clutch kick after clutch kick. His struggles led to an “injury” designation last week. Fortunately, replacement kicker Mike Nugent made all six of his kicks against the Giants. Knowing our luck with kickers, I wouldn’t assume our kicking woes are anywhere near solved, but I think most Cardinals fans probably feel more comfortable with Nugent at this point, who looks likely to be kicking for us again this weekend.

Looking at the kickers for our final three opponents, we actually face two teams whose kickers have struggled even worse than ours. Jake Elliott is in the midst of a disastrous season for the Eagles, making just 13/18 FGs (including a 22-yarder against the Saints last week) and 2 XPs. The Rams are on their third kicker of the season, and they have collectively equaled Zane’s 16/22 on FGs, plus 4 missed XPs. Hopefully one of those kickers will miss a kick or two against us. On the other hand, Robbie Gould has been his usual solid self, making 17/19 FGs and 31/32 XPs.

Final Thoughts

Judging by the numbers/trends above, we should be looking pretty good against the Eagles and 49ers, but will likely struggle (again) against the Rams. Two wins and a loss would put us at 9-7—exactly where I thought we’d be before the season—and looking good for the playoffs. What would be even better would be for the Rams to have clinched their playoff position by Week 17 and be resting players in that game. A 3-0 finish and we’d clinch a spot for sure and maybe be able to rise up in the standings.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—as Cardinals fans have already at various points of the season. Let’s take it one game at a time, starting with the Eagles this weekend. Let’s get Kyler involved at the goal line, feed Hopkins early and often, get after the QB and get off the field on third down on defense, and don’t. miss. any. kicks. Do all that—no big deal, right?—and we’ll come away with a win. Do all that two more times and we’re playoff bound.

No big deal, right?