Five on the Cardinals
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The Eagles' late-season renaissance will face a tough test on Sunday night when the talented Arizona Cardinals visit Lincoln Financial Field.
Two straight wins have Chip Kelly's team playing meaningful football in December despite a pedestrian 6-7 record thanks to the dreadful NFC East, where three teams (the Eagles, New York Giants and Washington Redskins) share a piece of first place with just three games to go.
Normally if you're lucky enough to be alive in the NFL at one game under .500 in Week 15, everything is a must-win scenario, however, the Eagles could actually lose to the powerful Cardinals and it wouldn't affect their eventual end game one bit.
That's because Philadelphia finished the 2015 regular season by playing the other two teams in the NFC East conversation, the Redskins at home before closing up in Week 17 at New York.
By winning those two games, Philadelphia would win the division at 8-8, making this Sunday's game nothing more than a litmus test against one of the conference's best teams.
"To start the year the way we did and kind of dig ourselves in a hole, it was unlikely that we would be in this position this late in the year," Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford said. "But for us to control our own destiny where we don't have to depend on anyone else, and if we take care of our business, we will end up where we want to be. I think that's all you can ask for."
Arizona, on the other hand, is riding a seven-game winning streak and could clinch the NFC West and a first-round bye in the postseason by topping Philadelphia.
The Cardinals will earn the division crown, their first since 2009, with a win. They could also take the honors if second-place Seattle is upset by Cleveland earlier in the day, a highly unlikely scenario. An Arizona triumph would also give the Cards a bye if Green Bay loses at Oakland.
"It's big-time but you (can't) get wrapped up in that or you'll lose focus," linebacker Deone Bucannon said of the Cardinals postseason picture. "I feel like as a team we are on the same page. We want to win as many games as possible because every game is a big game. It's the NFL."
When it comes to the NFL's 2015 MVP award, it's generally thought to be a three-horse race and Cards QB Carson Palmer is in the discussion with Carolina signal caller Cam Newton as well as New England pass thrower Tom Brady.
The veteran Palmer loves to get vertical and Arizona leads the NFL in offense with 417.5 yards per game and 59 passes of 20 yards-or more, with 10 of those going for touchdowns. In Week 14, Palmer struck twice, hitting both Michael Floyd and John Brown for scores of more than 40 yards.
Limiting so-called X-plays has been a priority for Bill Davis' defense this season and while there has been a significant improvement over '14, continued improvement is still needed and things figure to be tough this week because both of Philadelphia's starting cornerbacks, Byron Maxwell and Eric Rowe, are dealing with ankle injuries.
"We know Arizona's going to take six to eight shots a game. That's what they do," Davis said. "That's part of the reason they are the No. 1 offense in the NFL in a lot of categories right now. We've got to stay disciplined."
Palmer's has already thrown for 4,003 yards this season, a franchise-record 31 touchdowns and his 107.2 passer rating is second in the NFL behind only the red-hot Russell Wilson.
RECEIVING THE MESSAGE
The Cardinals are the polar opposite of the Eagles when it comes to proven talent at the wide receiver position with three really productive options in future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, as well as the king-sized Michael Floyd and speedster John Brown.
Each has caught at least five TDs and Floyd and Brown both average an imposing 16.3 yards per catch. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, has morphed from one of the best ever outside the numbers info a difference maker in the slot with some of the best hands in all of football.
"It's an outstanding group," Eagles coach Chip Kelly admitted. "You have a Hall of Famer, arguably, in Fitzgerald, Floyd is playing really well. Brown is really a speed guy. They can take the top off the coverage, and they will try to take shots.
"That's the one thing (Cardinals coach) Bruce (Arians) does is Bruce will push the ball down the field. Carson can push the ball down the field and they have some receivers that can get down the field. So that group of three is maybe the best group of three we've seen so far this year."
BEWARE OF THE BLITZ
No team in football blitzes more than the Cardinals.
"They lead the National Football League in blitzing," Kelly said. "They blitz the most. I think they are right at about 50 percent. So one out of every two snaps, somebody is coming, and they bring them from all different areas."
The star of the team's blitzing scheme is probably hybrid Tyrann Mathieu, a versatile player who starts at safety but also drops down into the slot in obvious passing situations where he turns into a real difference maker as a blitzer off the edge.
"You just have to have someone assigned to him, know where he is, look at the coverage and see where he's coming," Kelly said. "He's an unbelievable competitor, first and foremost. He just kind of plays the game with a passion. He seems like he has a nose for the football. He rises up to all challenges. Even though he's a little shorter than most guys in the secondary, that doesn't seem to affect him."
Safety turned linebacker Bucannon and inside 'backer Kevin Minter are also a handful on the blitz and whomever is in the Eagles' backfield, be it Darren Sproles, Ryan Mathews or DeMarco Murray must hold up in pass protection.
"You always have to prepare for blitz, but these last two opponents, the Bills and the Cardinals, are teams that are really going to come after you," Kelly said. "A big part of our preparation this week is trying to handle those blitzes and how we're going to be able to pick them up."
Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the few, true lockdown cornerbacks in the NFL and is having a resurgence after a down '14 season. The LSU product was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes a year ago and dropped nearly 15 pounds to get it under control.
With less weight to carry around Peterson has regained his explosion and is in the debate with Carolina's Josh Norman and Seattle's Richard Sherman for the best corner in the NFC.
Arizona defensive coordinator James Bettcher has the luxury of knowing he can point to any of the Eagles' pedestrian group of receivers and Peterson will shut them down no questions asked.
STOP THE STREAK
The Cardinals current seven-game run is the franchise's longest winning streak since the old Chicago Cardinals won 11 in a row back in 1948-49.
Any thought that Arizona would let up on the gas a bit is skewed, however, because Seattle keeps winning and the Cards are still trying to lock up the first-round bye as well as the first 12-win season in the team's history.
"Somebody texted me, 'Hey, you punched your ticket,'" Arians said. "I said, 'Yeah, we're trying to upgrade to first class.'"
973espn.com prediction: If styles make fights, the Eagles are in trouble. Bradford struggles when blitzed, completing less than 50 percent of his passes in those situations, while Arizona wants to go vertical against a limping Philadelphia secondary with two corners dealing with troublesome ankle issues. Cardinals 31, Eagles 20
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com and on Twitter @JFMcMullen.