With two weeks left in the NFL regular season and playoff berths secured for both teams, the Arizona Cardinals (10-5) and Dallas Cowboys (11-4) hope to improve their seeding in the NFC with a win on Sunday. Dallas is sporting a four-game winning streak and are NFC East Champions while Arizona watched their grip on the NFC West dwindle away after losing three-consecutive games.
In the Cardinals’ last meeting with the Cowboys in 2020, they cruised to an easy 38-10 win over the Dak Prescott-less Dallas squad.
Throughout all of this, both teams have been impacted by COVID but Arizona is dealing with the worst of the two heading into Week 17 in addition to injuries. The Cowboys will be without starting linebacker Keanu Neal due to the virus but their overall roster is at its healthiest. Cardinals will be without starting left tackle D.J. Humphries, key rotational linebacker Devon Kennard, cornerback Breon Borders, and possibly starting pass rusher Markus Golden. And this is only the COVID/Reserve list. Their secondary is already short-handed with starters Robert Alford and rookie Marco Wilson dealing with injuries.
With plenty of factors working against Arizona, will they be able to get back on the win column as they try to regain the NFC West lead? A Cardinals win on Sunday and a Rams loss to the Ravens would put Arizona back on top of the divisional standings.
Or will Dallas continue to impress and hand the Cardinals their fourth-straight defeat?
Here are four things to watch for in Week 17:
1. With Cowboys’ rookie Micah Parsons playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and the Cardinals playing without starting tackle D.J. Humphries on Sunday, will Arizona be able to protect Kyler Murray?
Rookie sensation Micah Parsons already has 13 sacks on the season and has looked nearly unstoppable as his 60 pressures is the 11th most in the NFL. The last thing the Cardinals need is a missing starter on the offensive line on a unit that has been underwhelming throughout the season against an ascending pass rush. Add in the fact that Demarcus Lawrence has 22 pressures in only five games this season could make Sunday an ugly day for the Cardinals if the offensive line fails to hold up. Getting All-Pro Center Rodney Hudson back for Arizona in the interior is a nice development however they are now left scrambling for answers at the tackle positions with Kelvin Beachum, Josh Jones, and Josh Miles. There is no question this rising Cowboys’ pass rush will try to take advantage of a banged-up Cardinals offensive line to force Murray to make mistakes. Trevon Diggs, who leads the league with 11 interceptions, will be waiting.
2. Cardinals’ run defense showed promise in Week 16 but Cowboys’ star running back duo in Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard will try to run the show on Sunday
On Christmas night, Colts’ Jonathan Taylor broke free for a 43-yard run on his first carry of the game. However, he went 26 carries for 65 rushing yards (2.5 YPC) the rest of the way. Considering Taylor leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,626) and rushing touchdowns (17), the Cardinals’ defensive performance against him is a huge step in the right direction in terms of run defense. Now comes the sixth-best rush offense in the NFL led by Ezekiel Elliott, who has 899 rush yards and 10 touchdowns, and Tony Pollard, who has 710 rush yards while his 5.6 YPC is the most among running backs with over 100 carries. Over the last couple weeks, Cardinals have learned that Rashard Lawrence has been their best run defender. They must play Lawrence more and he will be needed against the Cowboys’ talented backfield.
3. Short-handed cornerback room in store for Arizona but a more consistent pass rush would make things a lot more manageable
No matter who the Cardinals start at cornerback and questionable depth they have, none of that will matter if the Cardinals’ pass rush fails to make Dak Prescott uncomfortable. That will be a tall order for Arizona as they have consistently struggled to get to quarterback against short-handed offensive lines in a number of games this season. That is why we are seeing the Cardinals getting offsides, neutral zone infractions, and roughing the passer penalties quite a few times in their three-game skid. These penalties are indications of frustrations and their inability to win up front often. Chandler Jones, Markus Golden, and Zach Allen are the Cardinals top pass rusher right now but they have had their share of inconsistencies. The pass rush will need to be at their best against the Cowboys’ offensive line that might just be the best in the NFL led by Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins.
4. Getting the running backs and Zach Ertz more involved in the Cardinals offense
When the Cardinals got Chase Edmonds and Zach Ertz involved extensively in the offense, they were able to move the ball down field. Had it not been for those missed kicks by Matt Prater, Arizona probably would have won last week’s game against the Indianapolis Colts. Edmonds had 24 touches, 127 scrimmage yards, and a touchdown while Zach Ertz had eight catches for 54 yards. There is no question when the Cardinals try to get the run game going and Ertz gets his hands on the football, Arizona’s offense is one of the more dangerous units in the NFL. If the Cardinals can get James Conner back on Sunday, I think this Cardinals-Cowboys matchup will have a huge chance to be the highest scoring game of the day. At the same time, it could also be very one sided.
Kyler Murray is undefeated at AT&T Stadium with a perfect 8-0 record dating back to his high school days. Budda Baker is coming off his best game of the season with a season-high 13 tackles and a sack. Despite the Cardinals’ struggles the last three games, they are still a talented football team capable of bouncing back and there is no better time to bounce back than to beat a top playoff team like the Dallas Cowboys. Cowboys have arguably the best offensive line in football but they have arguably the best receiving core in the NFL in CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Dalton Schultz. Their defense is better equipped to face the Cardinals this time around especially with less popular names like Randy Gregory, Malik Hooker, Kelvin Joseph, and Jayron Kearse making an impact. Everything as of now points towards the Cowboys winning this matchup but the Cardinals are hungry and eager for a win to get back on track.
The Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys game will kickoff at 4:25 P.M. ET at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Tune in on FOX and check if you will receive the broadcast in your area here.
Happy New Year!