Without a doubt, the Arizona Cardinals enter this Sunday's contest against the New England Patriots as underdogs. Most Vegas odds favor the Pats by two full touchdowns, and many pundits predict even more.
It's easy to see why. Tom Brady is, of course, an elite quarterback, and Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are one of the most prolific receiving groups in the NFL.
In 2012, the Cardinals secondary was regularly exploited as it's young corners, Patrick Peterson in particular, struggled to adjust to life in the NFL.
And as injuries leave the team even more questions on offense every single week, it would be a brave man to bet against the Pats
But Bill Belichick isn't buying the hype.
"They're a hard team to prepare for scheme-wise, they do a lot of different things" said Belichick on the Cardinals, according to the Boston Herald. "It's going to be a tough week."
The Cardinals defense is one of the up and coming units in NFL right now, and are very tough to scheme against.
While their were indeed tempo and coverage issues in the first half of 2012, by the end of the season, their defense found its groove, and gave up relatively few points. Although their preseason was at times sketchy, in week one against the Seahawks, the Cardinals looked every bit the defensive powerhouse that Ray Horton knew that they could be, especially when it rally mattered.
The Cardinals were able to hold the Seahawks to just 153 yards passing, and 115 rushing yards, giving up just a single touchdown. They also stymied the Seahawks on third (5/16) and fourth (0/1) down, in the Red Zone (1/4), and even managed to block one of Seattle's field goal attempts.
Indeed, the margin could have been much greater had a lack of discipline, and more than a fair amount of questionable calls by the replacement officials, not gifted the Seahawks more than 100 additional penalty yards and first-downs.
Clearly, the New England Patriots, in many ways, present a much bigger challenge than Seattle do. But the Patriots are also a lot more predictable. Their offense was dominant in 2011, going 13-3, for sure, but it is virtually unchanged in 2012. This gives the Cardinals a lot of game footage to study in preparation for this game.
The Seahawks offense is very balanced, with an almost equal chance of run and pass on any given play, and the Cardinals were forced to stack the box in order to prevent Marshawn Lynch running wild over them.
The same cannot be said of the Patriots. Though they have a number of competent running backs on their roster, they understandably remain a pass first team. Josh McDaniels is trying hard to change that, but when the pressure is on, the Patriots still depend on their passing game to pile on the yardage and points. If the Cardinals can keep the game close in the early phases, by containing the passing game, the Patriots rushing game will take care of itself. Compared to the Seahawks, the Cardinals the Patriots rushing game is decidedly weaker, which helps the Cardinals-their run defense is it's weakest component.
The Cardinas are particularly good at locking down the sidelines, without sacrificing pressure on the quarterback. Their front seven caused no end of problems for the Seahawks experienced offensive line, and look set to do the same against an inexperienced and much changed Patriots unit.
Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are two of the leagues elite defensive ends, Sam Acho and Daryl Washington are quickly developing into some of the most disruptive linebackers in the game today, and Paris Lenon and O'Brien Schofield are no pushovers either. Coupled with the Cardinals ability to mix things up, and blitz on almost every play, from any position, without sacrificing coverage, to say that the Patriots line will have their hands full is a real understatement.
William Gay and Patrick Peterson both looked solid against the Seahawks, significantly limiting their passing options, and Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes round off the Cardinals secondary, providing experience, poise and killer instincts. Wilson remains one of the top safeties in the league, especially when matched up against tight ends.
The Cardinals defense may just be the most underrated unit in the NFL, and if they can keep up the pressure against the Patriots, then they give the Cardinals a real chance to get into the game.
The Cardinals offensive line, tipped to be one of the worst in the league in 2012, actually managed to perform admirably. Their starting tackles, D'Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie both looking significantly better than their experience would suggest-neither had previously started a professional game at Left or Right tackle respectively.
Sure, their were issues, not least of which during the third quarter, when the Cardinals were unable to do anything offensively, but throughout the first half, and final quarter, the Cardinals O-Line was competent enough to give John Skelton and Kevin Kolb the time in the pocket they needed to lead two touchdown drives. The Seahawks stacked the box, and brought pressure, but sacks and hurry ups were much fewer and better contained than almost anyone was expecting.
Kevin Kolb especially, who is known to take off running at even the slightest sense of pressure, finally looked poised and confident behind this line, which will be critical if the Cardinals hope to succeed.
Kolb will be starting in place of the injured Skelton against the Patriots, and will be more motivated than ever before, having lost the starters job to Skelton in the preseason. If he has finally turned a corner, and if he is finally willing to stand tall in the pocket behind this offensive line, and lead drives like he did against the Seahawks, then the Cardinals certainly have the receiving talent to capitalise on the deficiencies in the Patriots own secondary.
Larry Fitzgerald undoubtedly remains one of the top receivers in the game today, and can beat anyone in the league single coverage, so long as the pass is even half decent. If blanketed, he can still be effective, and Andre Roberts, tight end Todd Heap and rookie receiver Michael Floyd all have the requisite skill set to punish any openings and keep drives alive.
The Cardinals running game struggled against the Seahawks, but again, both Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams have the ability to make things happen if given the opportunity.
With all of that said, however, the Patriots remain the favorites to win this game.
They are dominant at home, and traveling east is always a very tough ask for west coast teams. Brady's rapport with Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski, and his developing relationship with Brandon Lloyd will be tough for the Cardinals to match up against. Even if they can lock down any part of it, Brady's options remain are numerous.
Brady's protection has been inconsistent throughout his career, and as a seasoned veteran experienced making plays under pressure. The Cardinals have one of the toughest pass rushes in the NFL, and it will certainly prove a challenge for their offensive line and for Brady, but it's a challenge he has certainly faced before, and one he appears more than up for.
For the Cardinals, Kolb has been decidedly hit-and-miss. Coming off the bench to lead his team to a touchdown will certainly have inspired him, but he has always looked better playing at a high tempo in the hurry up offense. Sadly, that pace just isn't possible to maintain over the course of an entire game.
And though the Cardinals O-Line was serviceable through three quarters, the damage that a team like New England can inflict in a even single period if given the chance may well be more than the Cardinals can overcome.
Expect a Patriots win, but rule out Arizona at your own peril. The Cardinals defense in particular is a much stiffer competition than most would expect, and on the evidence I've seen, a whitewash is far from a given.