The Arizona Cardinals' playoff hopes are on life support. On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons have a chance to pull the plug.
The 4-5-1 Cards will look to put last weekend's frustrating loss at the Minnesota Vikings behind them when they take on the 6-4 and NFC South division-leading Falcons. Can they get the job done and get back in the NFC playoff hunt? Here are three questions and a prediction for that game, which will begin Sunday at 11 a.m.
1. Can the Cards get it together in the Eastern time zone?
After going 7-1 on the road last season, the Cardinals are just 1-3 away from home this year, and their two ugliest defeats came in early games played in the Eastern time zone. Arizona fell behind early to the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 and to the Carolina Panthers in Week 8, and they were unable to recover in either contest.
The Falcons, who also play their home games on Eastern time, average 6.7 first-quarter points per game, the second-best mark in the NFL. The Cardinals are dead last with 2.1 first-quarter points per game. If the Cards are going to reverse their fortunes, they'll need to do what they were unable to do to in Buffalo or Charlotte: Set the tone by getting on the scoreboard early.
2. Will AZ's offensive line get burned again?
Last week, injuries finally caught up to the Cardinals up front. The loss of starting guard Evan Mathis and offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, along with Mike Iupati's ongoing injury problems, caused the Cards' offensive line to come unglued against the Vikings, as quarterback Carson Palmer was sacked four times and hit a ridiculous 23 times.
The Falcons' defense, which now includes former Cardinals linebacker Dwight Freeney, is middle-of-the-road against the pass. Their 22 sacks are tied for 15th in the NFL, and their opponent passer rating of 100.9 is the sixth-worst in the league. Still, Atlanta is coming off a bye, just like the Panthers were when they destroyed the Cardinals four weeks ago. Will a well-rested Falcons defense be too much for Arizona's decimated O-line to handle?
3. Can the Cards contain Matt Ryan?
Arizona will have its hands full with Falcons QB and legit MVP contender Matt Ryan on Sunday. The ninth-year pro has the NFL's second-best passer rating (behind Tom Brady) and is averaging a league-best 9.38 passing yards per attempt.
The last two QBs the Cardinals have faced -- the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Vikings' Sam Bradford -- were efficient against Arizona's secondary, which has been without All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu for the last two games with a shoulder injury. Mathieu is a game-time decision for Sunday.
Perhaps the most important matchup to watch Sunday will be Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson vs. Falcons receiver and fellow All-Pro Julio Jones, who torched Peterson two years ago. If Peterson and the rest of Arizona's secondary can keep Jones out of the end zone and under 100 yards -- neither of which would be small feats -- the Cards might have a chance.
The Cardinals have gotten a bit hosed by the NFL this season, as this will be the second time they will have to go across the country to face a team coming off a bye week. This time, they get the pleasure of playing the team that just so happens to lead the NFL in scoring.
I'm not making excuses for the Cardinals, who have only themselves to blame for their shortcomings through 10 games. But injuries are beginning to pile up for the Birdgang, and it sure is difficult to picture this Arizona team going on the road to take down the NFL's most prolific offense.
Make no mistake: The Cardinals are toast if they don't win on Sunday. Motivation won't be an issue, but unlike last year's 13-3 team, this year's Cards aren't greater than the sum of their parts. Expect Ryan and the Falcons to expose this fact once again on Sunday.
Falcons 30, Cardinals 20