Cardinals believe they can overcome adversity again

TEMPE, Ariz. — The storyline of the Cardinals’ season has been overcoming adversity. Arizona has lost impact players on both sides of the ball, including inside linebacker Daryl Washington, outside linebacker John Abraham, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, quarterbacks Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton and running back Andre Ellington.

Somehow, the Cardinals matched a franchise high in wins and came within one victory of wrapping up the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

That didn’t happen, and now the odds are stacked against the Cardinals again. Linebacker Larry Foote has some experience with this sort of thing. In 2005, Foote’s Pittsburgh Steelers finished as the No. 6 seed in the AFC, yet won three playoff games on the road before defeating Seattle to win Super Bowl XL.

"You guys counted us out then, and I’m quite sure you’re going to do it again," Foote said this week. "It’s your right and you’re supposed to, but that’s why we play these games."

Just like Arizona lost its top two quarterbacks to injury this season, Foote’s Steelers lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and backup Charlie Batch during that Super Bowl run, forcing Tommy Maddox into action. Unlike the Cardinals, however Pittsburgh got its starting QB back when Roethlisberger returned for the playoffs. That’s the main reason these two teams sport such different prospects heading into the postseason.

Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley made progress from his first start of the season against the Seahawks to his second in the season finale against the 49ers in San Francisco. Still, it is asking a lot of a third-string quarterback to win a road game, and that is why it is imperative for the Cardinals to regain their defensive identity. 

It’s a well-documented statistic, but five of Arizona’s last six opponents have rushed for at least 100 yards and the past two have topped 200. The Cardinals defense isn’t producing turnovers the way it was earlier this season either.

Cardinals (11-5) at Panthers (7-8-1)

When: 2:35 p.m. (MT), Saturday
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
National TV: ESPN (Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters)
Local TV: KASW Ch. 61.

2014 Offensive rankings: The Panthers are 16th overall at 346.7 yards per game (19th passing, 219.4 yards; 7th rushing, 127.2 yards; 19th scoring, 21.2 points). The Cardinals are 24th overall at 319.8 yards per game (14th passing, 238 yards; 31st rushing, 81.8 yards, 24th scoring, 19.4 points).

2014 Defensive rankings: The Panthers are 10th overall at 339.8 yards per game (11th in passing, 227.8 yards; 16th rushing, 112 yards; 21st scoring, 23.4 points). The Cardinals are 24th overall at 368.2 yards per game (29th passing, 259.5 yards; 13th rushing, 108.7 yards; 5th scoring, 18.7 points). 

INJURY REPORT

Cardinals: QB Drew Stanton (knee) is out. DT Dan Williams (foot) and G Jonathan Cooper (wrist/knee) are questionable. DE Frostee Rucker (ankle), LB Larry Foote (knee), DE Calais Campbell (hip), S Tyrann Mathieu (thumb/hip) and C Lyle Sendlein (back) are probable.

Panthers: S Thomas DeCoud (hamstring) is doubtful. OLB A.J. Klein (ankle) is questionable. QB Derek Anderson (ill), G Fernando Velasco  (non-injury), RB DeAngelo Williams (hand) and DE Charles Johnson (non-injury) are probable.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Um. Staying alive. The winner moves on to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. The loser’s season ends.

OUTLOOK

If Drew Stanton were playing, we’d like the Cardinals chances a whole lot more. The Panthers have won four straight, but those wins were over New Orleans (7-9), Tampa Bay (2-14), Cleveland (7-9) and Atlanta (6-10). Despite its success in producing turnovers (26), Carolina’s defense gives up points (23.4 per game). Panthers QB Cam Newton also makes mistakes (12 INTs, 3 fumbles), but it is a lot to ask Cardinals QB Ryan Lindley to move the offense consistently and avoid turnovers in his first road playoff game ever.

PREDICTION

Panthers 21, Cardinals 17

 

That has to change and the Cardinals have to hope Lindley can minimize mistakes to give the team a chance at posting its sixth playoff win since arriving in the Valley in 1987.

"It’s a new season, so you just wipe the slate clean of everything that has happened before," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "Ryan is our starting quarterback now and we believe in him."

Coach Bruce Arians believes his team is prepared mentally and physically after a week of practice in which it was able to don the pads on Wednesday.

"Yesterday’s practice in pads was as good as any playoff practice I’ve ever seen," he said. "You had to say ‘Whoa!’ You didn’t have to say ‘sic em.’ They were getting after it pretty good." 

With four decades of coaching experience, Arians understands Saturday’s situation as well as anyone. But doubt is not a sentiment he is about to let creep into his team’s line of thinking — not when his team has overcome so much already.

"We’ve done it all year," he said. "The last two weeks, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves, especially offensively where we’re at right now and what it’s going to take to win. When you go through it all and you stack it up, there’s no reason not to believe."

The Cardinals run D straight up the gut: Arians noted how Carolina’s offense is unusual in that quarterback Cam Newton runs between the tackles. The Cardinals have been susceptible to the run over the second half of the season so they’ll have to focus on it, but running back Jonathan Stewart (809) adds another worry and tight end Greg Olsen will burn the Cardinals in the seam of they bite on run fakes.

Ryan Lindley’s game management: The Cardinals QB made some good throws last week in San Francisco, but he threw three bad interceptions, too. That simply can’t happen for the Cardinals to have a chance. A punt is a much better outcome than a turnover — assuming the Cardinals defense can regain its early season form. If not, Saturday could be a long day.

Wrinkles: Does Arians have something up his sleeve to help the Cardinals manufacture points with a third-string QB? 

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