Schrager’s Week 9 Cheat Sheet: Cardinals D set for coming-out party

On Jan. 2, 1999, a 9-7 Arizona Cardinals team that was outscored by opponents in the regular season 378-325 went into Texas Stadium and beat the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys 20-7 in the wild-card round.

That ’98 Cardinals team, coached by Vince Tobin and led by quarterback Jake Plummer, was one of my favorite random NFL squads ever. They won six of their final nine regular-season games, with all six wins coming by a margin of either two or three points. Plummer was tremendous in his second season as a pro, teaming with guys like Eric Metcalf, Adrian Murrell, and Frank Sanders to get the Cardinals franchise their first playoff victory since 1947. Plummer was a magician seemingly anytime the team fell behind in the second half, finding ways to win every week when it mattered most. This included three straight victories to complete the regular season and clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth in 16 years.

To this day, the playoff win over Aikman, Smith, Irvin and the rest of that Cowboys squad in Dallas goes down as one of the franchise’s best. Sixteen years later, another Cardinals team that has some NFL fans scratching their heads goes to Dallas for as big an NFC regular-season matchup that we’ve seen this year.

If there’s an unsung hero in Arizona this season, it’s defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The former Washington Redskins defensive back, now in his 15th season as an NFL assistant coach, has pressed all the right buttons, dialed up all the right blitzes, and as rookie safety Deone Bucannon said this week, "he continues to put us in positions to succeed." No Dockett. No Dansby. No Daryl Washington. No John Abraham. And yet, the Cardinals defense is No. 1 in the league against the rush and is statistically better, across the board, than it was a season ago.

Sunday versus the Eagles, Bowles was as aggressive as he’s been all season, dialing up to seven pass rushers in the game’s final drive. Instead of a prevent defense meant to preserve a lead, Bowles pulled the lever and went all-out blitz. The Cardinals won 24-20, putting them at 6-1 for the year and alone atop the NFC in the conference standings.

Bowles, whose name surely will be a hot one come Black Monday as a potential head-coaching hire, could take a page out of Washington’s playbook and send the dogs at Tony Romo on Sunday. Even before the Keenan Robinson knee to his back, the Redskins pass rush gave Romo fits on Monday night.

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Watching that game back on film this week, it appeared Jim Haslett, Washington’s D-coordinator, dialed up a heavy dose of blitzes, utilizing safety Brandon Merriweather as a roving rusher on both the left and right side of the line of scrimmage.

Don’t be shocked to see Tyrann Mathieu used in a similar fashion. A banged-up Romo could only mean more pressure from the blitz-happy Bowles.

This won’t be the shocker it was in 1999, but it could make for quite the eye opener for those who haven’t seen the Cardinals defense in action this season.

Week 9 NFL Cheat Sheet Trivia Question of the Week:

Who was the offensive coordinator of the 1998 Cardinals team that beat the Cowboys in the wild-card round?

THROWBACK JERSEY OF THE WEEK

Each week, we’ll direct you to a throwback jersey worth purchasing. In honor of his tremendous performance Monday night in Dallas, here’s a Colt McCoy/San Francisco 49ers jersey from the 2013 season. In the annals of forgotten seasons in NFL history, Colt McCoy’s 2013 stint with the 49ers is right up there on top of the list.

Now, on to the picks.

We were red hot last week. Let’s keep it going in Week 9.

Week 8 Record: 12-3

2014 Overall Season Record: 80-40-1

THURSDAY NIGHT

New Orleans at Carolina: Last week I said the Saints were still in fine shape to win the NFC South. Why? Six home games left and well, the other three teams are really, really bad. The defending division champions just can’t get going. For whatever reason, Carolina’s offense can’t get going on the same weeks the defense does. If one unit’s clicking, the other seems to be lagging behind. The Saints are 0-4 on the road and the Charlotte crowd could be rocking, but I think New Orleans gets it going. The season’s still mighty young, and the Saints still remember last year’s loss in the rain.

The Pick: Saints 27, Panthers 21

The Result: Saints 28, Panthers 10

SUNDAY

Tampa Bay at Cleveland: Back in August, I approached a few contacts at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers about doing a piece on the team’s first two draft picks: twin towers Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Every time we started the discussions, the conversation drifted back to rookie running back Charles Sims. The West Virginia back was the star of the spring and was having an incredible camp before getting injured and ultimately missing the team’s first seven games. With Doug Martin out and Sims reportedly good to go, look for him to have a big afternoon. I’m still taking the Browns, but I think we get big things out of the Bucs’ rookie running back.

The Pick: Browns 20, Buccaneers 16

Arizona at Dallas: If the playoffs were to start today (note to readers: THEY DON’T), the Arizona Cardinals would be the No. 1 seed in the NFC, with a bye in the wild card round and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Monday night was bad for the Cowboys. Not only did they see Tony Romo lying on the ground, but they lost starting linebacker Justin Durant for the season with a torn biceps. Durant, the team’s leading tackler, had been one of the main reasons the defense has been so good, despite losing linebacker Sean Lee in camp. Folks might not think the Cardinals are ready for the big stage, but I can’t pick against them. Not with that defense, and not with what we saw from Romo in Monday night’s final few drives.

The Pick: Cardinals 27, Cowboys 22

Philadelphia at Houston: Chip Kelly nailed it on J.J. Watt this week, saying, "He does things that defensive linemen don’t do. For contacts with the ball, it’s the most we’ve seen and we’ve faced, and then the ability just to disrupt things if he doesn’t get to the quarterback just by batting balls down is really a unique set of skills that he has. It’s a credit to him. He’s that type of player. You’ve got to know where he is on every play, you’ve got to game plan for him on every play, and then hope you’re right in terms of how you’re trying to approach him and how you’re trying to block him." Watt has 23 quarterback hits, seven sacks and three touchdowns already this year. The Philadelphia offensive line has been better than it was earlier this year, but I see Watt and rookie Jadeveon Clowney giving the unit fits on Sunday. Houston wins at home.

The Pick: Texans 24, Eagles 20

New York Jets at Kansas City: I watched John Idzik’s rambling, meandering, mind-numbing press conference address on Monday, and kept thinking the same thing, "What is this ‘Jets Nation’ he speaks of?" Over and over again, Idzik referenced Jets Nation. I’ve lived in New York most my life and have seen the Jets start Browning Nagle, Rick Mirer and Quincy Carter at quarterback. At no point in any of those eras was there ever such a thing as Jets Nation. Jets Nation? Not every fanbase needs to be referred to as "nation." Of course, my rant on this pales to the number Mike Francesa did on FOX Sports 1 on Monday afternoon. No matter how much we want to will it to be true, Michael Vick is not the Michael Vick of the 2000s, and that Michael Vick is not returning anytime soon. He will have a long day in Kansas City on Sunday. So will the rest of Jets Nation.

The Pick: Chiefs 30, Jets 10

Jacksonville at Cincinnati: I was in Cincinnati on Sunday for the Bengals’ very much-needed win over the Ravens and was impressed by just how much faith the Bengals players have in Andy Dalton. Not just the young guys, but the veterans. You know the deal — three years, three trips to the playoffs, no wins in the postseason. But that hasn’t shaken the confidence of guys like Adam Jones, Andrew Whitworth or Reggie Nelson. I loved what Jones told me after the game, when I hung by his locker: "Andy’s our $100 Million Man. We better trust him."

The Pick: Bengals 27, Jaguars 16

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San Diego at Miami: I’ve been riding the Dolphins for a bit now, and don’t see that train stopping. Miami boasts a punishing run attack that ranks sixth in the league, a solid defense that’s third against the pass, and a competent quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who seems to get better and better each week. The schedule isn’t pretty the next few weeks for Miami. After the Chargers on Sunday, they’ve got the Lions, Bills, and Broncos. Then, after a trip to New York to face the Jets, it’s the Ravens and Patriots. That’s a rough seven-game stretch. I like them to notch a W in this one.

The Pick: Dolphins 27, Chargers 20

Washington at Minnesota: The fun little subplot in this one is head coaches Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden, the coordinators in Cincinnati the past three years, squaring off as head coaches for the first time. Zimmer’s not too excited about it. "You know, I like Jay an awful lot," the Vikings head coach said via conference call Wednesday morning. "We’re friends, we worked together for years. You know, I really don’t like playing against my friends." Zimmer added, "It’s just the personal aspect. You know, you get a relationship with somebody and you know one of us is going to feel bad after the game, and so you hate for the other guy to do that. I have a lot of respect for what Jay did in Cincinnati and what he is doing there in Washington." The Vikings got a very much-needed win on Sunday, but face a fired-up Redskins team in Minnesota this weekend. I’ve been around a lot of winning locker rooms this season. No scene, at all, has matched the Redskins’ one in Dallas after winning in overtime on Monday night. Whether it’s RG3 or Colt McCoy, it will come down to that Washington defense taking advantage of rookie Teddy Bridgewater and a depleted Minnesota offensive line.

The Pick: Redskins 23, Vikings 14

St. Louis at San Francisco: The 49ers got a very much-needed bye week and have this potential trap game between showdowns in Denver and New Orleans. They’re getting healthy, and — don’t look now — could see the return of Glenn Dorsey (practicing this week), Mike Iupati and Patrick Willis. The Rams went out and acquired Mark Barron, a former first-round pick who wasn’t a fit in Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2 scheme, but it doesn’t offset all of their losses on defense. San Francisco could be caught looking ahead, but I doubt the Niners will fall to St. Louis at home.

The Pick: 49ers 33, Rams 17

Denver at New England: The Patriots we saw on Sunday, blowing out the Bears with Darrelle Revis in lockdown mode and Rob Gronkowski catching everything and knocking down everyone in sight? That’s the Patriots team I saw in training camp and the one I picked to win the AFC back in August. You’ll read a lot about Brady and Manning this week, and rightfully so, but this one could come down to the defensive fronts getting to the quarterbacks. New England’s without key cogs Chandler Jones and Jerod Mayo, but I love what guys like Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork, and rookies Zach Moore and Dominique Easley did last week. They stepped up. This one has all the makings for an AFC Championship Game preview — and if the playoffs were to start this weekend, these would be your Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the AFC — and I’m taking the home squad. Brady (30 of 35 for 5 touchdowns) was quickly overshadowed by the numbers Ben Roethlisberger put up last week. But since his egg of a game in Kansas City a few weeks back, Brady’s been on fire. If this is in Denver, that’s another story. In Foxborough, give me the Patriots.

The Pick: Patriots 31, Broncos 27

Oakland at Seattle: Believe it or not, Oakland rookie quarterback Derek Carr has played very well the past few weeks. Carr’s not afraid to throw at top corners. He’s done it against Joe Haden, Patrick Peterson, and Darrelle Revis already this season. Seattle isn’t losing this one, but don’t be shocked if Carr performs better than expected against the Legion of Boom.

The Pick: Seattle 27, Oakland 16

STUBBLE TROUBLE

Baltimore at Pittsburgh: The Ravens got the best of the Steelers in Week 2, but face Pittsburgh without their top cornerback on Sunday night. Jimmy Smith was having an All-Pro caliber start to the season, but suffered a mid-foot sprain in Cincinnati last week. The Ravens have just three healthy cornerbacks on their roster at the moment and none of them match up particularly well against do-it-all weapon Antonio Brown. It’s Ravens-Steelers. You know it’s going to be a one-possession game heading into the final frame. The way Roethlisberger’s throwing the ball lately? I can’t take Baltimore and that cornerback group against him on the road.

The Pick: Steelers 24, Ravens 20

Indianapolis at New York Giants: This used to be The Manning Bowl. Now, it’s the Hakeem Nicks Bowl! Or something like that. I don’t expect the Colts offense to stop firing on all cylinders anytime soon, and it could have a field day on a Giants defense that’s missing Jon Beason. Andrew Luck seems to save his best for the spotlight games. This is one of them.

The Pick: Colts 31, Giants 20

READER EMAIL OF THE WEEK

Peter,

I enjoy your NFL articles, but can’t seem to get mentioned in your Reader Email of the Week. So I’m going to go out on a limb and name five things I know as fact. I want your responses. You better include these next week.

1.   Taylor Swift’s new album is the best pop album to be released in the last twenty years.

2.   The Jets are going to draft Marcus Mariota in the first round of next year’s NFL Draft.

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3.   The best "Seinfeld" episode ever is "The Bottle Deposit".

4.   The Broncos are winning the Super Bowl this year, finally answering the Brady or Manning question once and for all.

5.   You will be outraged by whatever the College Football Playoff Committee reveals come December 7th.

Respond to each, please!

Josh, Hewlett, NY

What is this? A gameshow? If it is, I think I’d watch it. FOX Sports 1 should consider this format. Just "Josh From Hewlett" saying random things and then guests have to respond. We can call it "Josh From Hewlett." If I saw that on my television guide, I’d stop. With that, here goes nothing.

1. Haven’t heard the much-anticipated album outside of the one single that’s on the radio 99 percent of the day, but I’m excited for the New York City phase of Taylor Swift’s career. I’m just waiting for her to show up on my Taxi TV, being interviewed on Cat Greenleaf’s stoop.

2. Mariota’s a nice looking quarterback and will be a top 10 pick, but don’t sleep on guys like Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion and even Jameis Winston. And don’t assume the Jets will have the first pick. Remember, Tennessee will be looking for a quarterback, too.

3. Best "Seinfeld" episode ever is "The Bizarro Jerry." This will not be debated over email, Josh.

4. I still have the Packers beating the Patriots in a fun aerial shootout in the desert come February. Of course, that prediction is off if Aaron Rodgers’ hamstring isn’t back to normal soon.

5. Very few things outrage me, Josh. Saying "The Bottle Deposit" is the best episode of "Seinfeld" might be one of them.

That was fun. Pilot, green lit.

WEEK 9 NFL CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER OF THE WEEK

Current Bears head coach Marc Trestman, 42 years old at the time, was the offensive coordinator of the 1998 Arizona Cardinals.