8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Arizona -8.5
Opposite ends of the spectrum meet tonight in the desert, as the Arizona Cardinals host the Baltimore Ravens at University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday Night Football. When the powers that be constructed the primetime television schedule, pairing these teams must have seemed like a winner, given both teams qualified for the postseason a year ago, but as is often case, the matchup in the present context has lost a great deal of the luster and promise it held back in the summer. That’s mostly due to the poor state of the visiting side, for the Ravens (1-5, 4th in AFC North) have been an unmitigated mess of injuries and poor play through the early stages of the season. Choose whatever approach you like; an optimist would say that their five losses have come by a cumulative twenty-two points (4.4 per game) and that victory was obtainable in each of those outings, while a pessimist would point out that if not for a dreadful performance from Steelers’ Kicker Josh Scobee, who missed a pair of game-winners, this team would indeed still be winless. Football has commonly been referred to as a game of inches, and this group has continued to come up short this season. Off to their worst start in franchise history, Baltimore hardly resembles the group that bulldozed their way to a Lombardi Trophy three years ago, but then again that’s probably because there are very few members of that team remaining on the roster, let alone playing on the field. That’s right folks, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are enjoying their respective retirements, while Ray Rice has been exiled by the league after that ugly physical abuse incident two years ago. And those are just the names out of the league at the moment. Anquan Boldin is plying his trade in San Francisco, joined by former teammate Torrey Smith, who bolted from the Charm City in Free Agency this past Spring. Mammoth Defensive Tackle Haloti Ngata was traded to Detroit. Hell, even 2012 Division round hero and Return Specialist Jacoby Jones has resurfaced in San Diego. Then there is the Injury Report, which has not been kind to John Harbaugh and his charges; former Defensive player of the Year Terrell Suggs (Achilles) and Tight End Dennis Pitta (Hip) are both languishing on Injured Reserve, joined by young Safety Matt Elam (Biceps). But hey, at least Steve Smith is still out there playing with reported fractures in his vertebrae. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad for the Ravens’ receiving corps that their only reliable pass-catching threat is a grizzled 36-year old with a partially broken back. That’s the reality for Baltimore, who now must live (and die) with their highly-paid, yet unlikely-elite Quarterback Joe Flacco.
Back in 2012, Flacco made the gutsy move to forgo a contract extension and “bet on himself” that season, which ultimately paid huge dividends as the Ravens won their second Super Bowl Championship in franchise history (thanks in large part to Flacco) and signed their Quarterback to a hefty, six-year $120.6 million contract. With the majority of the money set to hit their Salary Cap later in the deal, Ravens’ Brass used the luxury of afforded, yet temporary, Cap Space to keep some continuity, but not enough to really compete for another Super Bowl; in the thirty-eight games since putting pen to paper, Flacco has guided Baltimore to a 19-19 record, including one playoff victory. Now with the hit from his contract set to inflate exponentially ($28.55 million in 2016, $31.15 million in 2017), Management is going to have to get busy restructuring his deal if they have any hopes of bringing in any established veteran support during the offseason. And it’s clear he needs it; the 30-year old is completing 62.3% of his passes for an average of 267.5 yards per game, tossing eight touchdowns to seven interceptions, with a Total QBR of 37.67. Under the guidance of new Offensive Coordinator Marc Trestman, the eighth-year veteran has had to basically make lemonade from lemons, with a receiving corps that simply can’t create separation and make plays. The aforementioned Smith has remarkably hauled in thirty-six passes on fifty-seven targets for 510 yards and three touchdowns despite missing an outing due to his ailing back. No other receiver is inspiring much confidence, which has become very evident from who Flacco has been targeting; after Smith, the most frequently targeted player has been Kamar Aiken, who has seen thirty-five passes thrown his way, reeling in eighteen of them for 265 yards and a pair of scores. After him, it’s Tailback Justin Forsett, who has played the role of Check Down far too often, catching twenty-three of his thirty-two targets for a mere 5.6 yards per reception. As a result, the Ravens have had a very difficult time stretching the field, which has typically been their Quarterback’s forte, ranking twenty-second overall in Net Yards per Pass, averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt. First Round Selection Breshad Perriman would be a boon to their efforts to get the ball downfield, but the burner out of Central Florida has yet to see the field this season after sustaining a knee injury in training camp, which has mysteriously manifested into PCL Surgery. However, passing downfield isn’t the only problem relegated to that area of the field, for the Ravens have struggled just as much defending the deep ball, as opposing passers have torched them on a regular basis this season. Harbaugh’s defense has allowed the third-most passing yards in the league (286.2), including the fourth-most Net Yards per Pass Attempt (7.2), while yielding eleven touchdowns through the air to generating just three interceptions. Curiously, the pass rush has done it’s job producing a stout eighteen sacks, with eleven different players contributing to that total without Suggs, but that pressure has not translated to big plays on the back end; injuries at Safety have created no shortage of miscommunication in the Secondary, which was really evident over the past two weeks as they made the likes of Josh McCown (422 yards) and Colin Kaepernick (326 yards) look like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers sitting in the pocket.
Meanwhile, it’s been a far more positive story in the desert, where the Cardinals (4-2, 1st in NFC West) have sprinted out to an early division lead, appearing to be the front-runners to win the West. In his third season in Arizona, Bruce Arians has morphed this team into an explosive juggernaut, particularly on offense where Carson Palmer and Co. have lit up opposing defenses. Through six games, Arians has seen his offense average a healthy 33.8 points per game (2nd Overall) on 412.7 yards (4th Overall), including 291.2 through the air (6th Overall). Their opponent tonight could take a cue from their ability to get the ball downfield, for the Cards have averaged 8.3 net yards per attempt, second-most in the league. Indeed, Palmer has had a lot to do with that, as the former Heisman-winner and No. One Overall Pick has enjoyed a career renaissance in Arizona; after a messy divorce in Cincinnati and two lost years in Oakland, the thirty-six-year old has never looked better, completing 64.8% of his passes for a career-best 289.5 yards per game, tossing fourteen touchdowns to just five interceptions, and posting a Total QBR of 79.63, also the highest mark of his twelve-year career. But the biggest difference between this Carson Palmer and that of year’s past is that he’s winning; Palmer has amassed a 20-8 record (.714) in twenty-eight starts with the Cardinals, compared to his 46-51 resume’ (.474) with the Bengals from 2003 to 2010, and the 8-16 record (.333) from his brief tenure with the Raiders. Remember folks, this guy is also coming off ACL Surgery, the second time in his career that he has made the long trek back from major knee reconstruction. However, the whole resurrection theme isn’t solely applied to Palmer, for Arians and his Staff have helped get the most out of a number of players that others teams have discarded. Take Chris Johnson for instance, who after rushing for 2,006 yards back in 2009 washed out of both Tennessee and New York, landed in the desert after nearly avoiding death in a shooting where he fortunately emerged with only minor injuries. Averaging 74.2 yards per game, his most since 2012, the artist formerly known as CJ2K has found new life, racking up a pair of 100-yard rushing games thus far. Then there is Alex Oakfor, LaMarr Woodley, Jerraud Powers, among others, not to mention the newly-acquired Dwight Freeney, who we bet Arians will find a productive specialist role for. With that said, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the return to prominence of the one Cardinal who had been there all long, namely one Larry Fitzgerald.
Many pundits around the league expected the Cardinals to cut ties with the eight-time Pro Bowler during the offseason, particularly after a campaign in which he only produced sixty-three catches for 784 yards and a pair of touchdowns, which all marked the lowest such figures since his rookie venture all the way back in 2004. Fellow receivers Michael Floyd and John Brown were getting plenty of attention from a Motley Crew of Quarterbacks, and more importantly were scoring more touchdowns. Combine that with the fact that Fitzgerald’s cap hit was $13 million last year and set to be $11 million this year, it became simple logic for the franchise to move on from the thirty-two year old, and allocate those savings elsewhere. Thankfully, they chose to keep him, and we’re sure that they and many of the faithful out in Arizona are glad they did. Fitzgerald has hauled in forty-three passes on fifty-four targets, for a whopping 97.2 yards per game, which would put him on pace to shatter his previous career-highs in both receptions (103) and receiving yards (1,411). Furthermore, he already has six touchdowns to his credit, surpassing his previous total in just six games. As is often the case with receivers, perhaps it was just a matter of finding the right guy to get him the ball. Remember folks, few great receivers have produced for as long as this guy has with so many different passers throwing to them, and we would challenge anyone to find someone with No. 11’s credentials who has had a more absurdly diverse lineup of Quarterbacks throwing him the ball. Let’s take a moment to run down the list, shall we? First there was Josh McCown, followed by Shaun King and John Navarre. Then came the Kurt Warner/Matt Lienart battle that lasted for nearly three years before someone knocked some sense in Ken Whisenhunt, and the former two-time MVP led them to a Super Bowl appearance in 2008. After Warner retired a year later, it was back to the bottom of the barrel, with Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer each taking snaps under Center until Arians and Palmer arrived in 2013. Even with a little Drew Stanton, Logan Thomas, and the aforementioned Lindley peppered in there, Fitzgerald continued to produce, which should have earned him a lifetime achievement award itself. But that’s been the theme in Arizona for over a year now, as a number of players and coaches have emerged from their respective career crossroads to build a team that has a real chance at turning into something special. With an explosive offense that has produced as series of big plays, and a staunch defense that continues to prove that they are indeed greater than the sum of their parts, nobody really wants to play these guys at the moment, but we can’t blame the few out there who remain skeptical of their long-term potential. Can Palmer continue to stay healthy? Will they continue to be balanced offensively? Will the defense continue to play at such a high level even with so many veterans purchased off the sale rack? Or how about can they beat a team with a winning record? That last query stings with validity, for all their highlights Arians’ unit has enjoyed a rather weak schedule, with their four victories coming over the likes of the Saints (3-4), Bears (2-4), 49ers (2-5), and Lions (1-6), with their two losses coming against the Rams (3-3) and Steelers (4-3). Alas, it’s not like we’re going to find out that answer tonight….