The Arizona Cardinals are down. But are they out?
After last weekend's loss to the Falcons, some believe the Cards' playoff hopes are already toast. But five straight victories to end the season could prove to be enough to earn a Wild Card bid in what's quickly becoming a muddled NFC playoff picture.
Step 1 in that process will be to beat the dangerous Washington Redskins on Sunday. Can they get the job done? Here are three questions and a prediction for that game, which will begin at 2:25 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
1. Can the Cards cure their case of the drops?
Of all the Cardinals' issues last weekend vs. Atlanta, coach Bruce Arians cited their inability to catch simple passes as the most glaring.
"Biggest thing is to catch the ball." -Bruce Arians on what the Cardinals need to improve on
— ABC15 Sports (@abc15sports) November 28, 2016
In particular, wide receivers Michael Floyd and J.J. Nelson have had a heck of a time catching the ball in recent weeks, and it's cost the Cardinals in important situations. To make matters worse, speedy receiver John Brown left last weekend's game after experiencing leg pain due to his recently diagnosed sickle cell trait, and his status for Sunday is uncertain.
There's not much Arians and the rest of the Cards coaching staff can do in this situation. Guys catch the ball, or they don't. So, when quarterback Carson Palmer looks the way of Floyd, Nelson and other receivers not named Larry Fitzgerald on Sunday, will they do a better job of securing the football?
2. Can the Cards do anything to stop Cousins?
Don't laugh: Kirk Cousins is the hottest quarterback the Cardinals have faced this season. The fifth-year pro out of Michigan State had a ridiculous 124.4 passer rating in November, and he threw for over 800 yards to go with six touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two games, vs. the Packers and Cowboys.
Cousins is even better on the road than he is at home: He has a 103.7 passer rating and has completed 71 percent of his passes in five away games this season. That could spell trouble for a banged-up Cards secondary led by cornerback Patrick Peterson, who has been bothered by a knee injury he suffered in last Sunday's loss, along with safety Tyrann Mathieu, who will once again be a game-time decision.
The Redskins will be without star tight end Jordan Reed (shoulder), and the Cards' pass rush is one of the NFL's most improved this year. Will those factors help the Cards limit the red-hot Cousins on Sunday?
3. Will Fitz have to tangle with Norman?
For over a week, Redskins All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman has had to hear about how Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant made him look silly on Thanksgiving.
All through the week I will post film how Norman got exposed... https://t.co/WKWE9IdQYr
— Dez Bryant (@DezBryant) November 25, 2016
So, it's fair to say Norman will look to redeem himself on Sunday -- and it just so happens he may be matched up against Arizona's best receiver throughout the game.
Fitzgerald has recently become a slot receiver, but he's still the best receiver on the team -- and as such, Redskins coach Jay Gruden said Norman may line up against the future Hall of Famer throughout Sunday's game.
Fitz is just seven catches away from becoming No. 3 all-time on the NFL receptions list. Will a fired-up Norman prevent him from getting there on Sunday?
Don't underestimate the importance of Jordan Reed's absence for Washington. The Redskins still have a number of dynamic receivers, including DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder, but it's Reed that has made Washington's passing game truly special.
Believe it or not, Palmer has played some pretty good football lately. The problem is he's been running for his life behind an offensive line full of second- and third-stringers. That could be an issue again Sunday, as the Redskins have recorded 28 sacks this year; only seven teams have more.
Nonetheless, the Redskins struggle mightily against the run, which means Cards running back David Johnson could have a field day Sunday while helping open up the passing game for Palmer. The Redskins have relied on a balanced offense behind emerging running back Robert Kelley, but the Cards are still one of the NFL's best teams in stopping the run: They're allowing just 3.7 yards per carry this season (the Redskins' are allowing 4.7).
On paper, this is a game the Redskins should win. But the Cardinals are at home and their backs are against the wall, and Arians is 5-1 against NFC East opponents during his time as Arizona head coach. Look for the Cards to keep their razor-thin playoff hopes alive for at least one more week.
Cardinals 24, Redskins 23