So what happened to the Cardinals?
Heading into these playoffs there may not have been a more lightly regarded participant than the Arizona Cardinals. After losing four of their final six games by a combined score of 198-125 few, if any, experts viewed Arizona as a serious contender for Super Bowl XLIII. Of course we all know what's happened so far; but, as always, we wonder why? What our examination revealed is that there is not any one, definitive factor. Rather there are a number of contributing factors, some of which we include here:
- A genuine commitment to running the ball: If Arizona wins the Super Bowl this may be the reason. Despite shutting down Darren Sproles in the San Diego game, the Steelers surrendered 73 yards of rushing versus Baltimore, and gave 95 yards or more in each of their final five regular season games. Meanwhile Arizona, which averaged 73.6 yards of rushing in sixteen regular season games has averaged 111.0 yards rushing in their three playoff games (an increase of 33.7%). The interesting aspect of this change is that the per rush average during the playoffs is actually lower than their per rush average during the regular season (3.3. yards during the playoffs versus 3.5 during the regular season).
The real change is in the play calling (specifically outside of the red zone) ~ during the entire regular season the Cardinals rushed the ball 340 times (a per game average of 21.25), but in three playoff games the they have already rushed the ball 100 times (a per game average of 33.33). It may be obvious, but this change in play calling is most evident in the early downs. For example, according to statistics provided by the NFL, during the regular season, when facing first-and-10, the Cardinals ran the ball 42.82% of the time. However, when facing that same situation in the playoffs they have called a running play 67.57% of the time. The change in play calling on second down is just as stark. During the regular season Todd Haley's offense was more likely to throw than to run in every situation except second-and-one. Conversely, during the playoffs the offense has run more than pass in every situation except second-and-six (60% pass), second-and-seven (80% pass), second-and-eight (57.14% pass), and second-and-ten (67.67% pass).
- Turnover differential: During the regular season Arizona was tied for seventeenth in turnover differential with a differential of 0 (i.e. the number of turnovers they committed was equal to the number their defense forced). By way of comparison the Steelers were tied for eleventh with a +4. However during the playoffs the Cardinals lead all teams with a +9 turnover differential, powered in large part to the exceptional game the defense had versus Carolina (they were a +5 in that game alone). After averaging nearly two turnovers per game during the regular season (30 in 16 games) the Cardinals have turned the ball over three times in three playoff games (two interceptions and one lost fumble). Perhaps even more importantly, after having forced thirty turnovers in sixteen regular season games the Arizona defense has forced 12 in three playoff games. By way of comparison, the Steelers are #2 in playoff turnover differential with a +5.
- Larry Fitzgerald: Anyone who has participated in a fantasy football league knows that the kickers always lead the league in scoring. So it is was with some amazement that we discovered that, in the playoffs, Larry Fitzgerald is the leading scorer on the Arizona Cardinals (he currently leads kicker Neil Rackers in scoring 30-25). During the regular season Mr. Fitzgerald averaged 14.9 yards per reception and had 12 touchdown receptions. During the playoffs he has averaged 18.2 yards per catch (an increase of 18.2%) and has 5 touchdown receptions. The loss of Anquan Boldin was supposed to hurt the Cardinals. Instead it provided a challenge, and opportunity, for Mr. Fitzgerald to elevate his play ~ a challenge he has met, and an opportunity of which he has taken full advantage.