Setting the stage
Week 15 of the 2013 NFL season pits the Arizona Cardinals against the Tennessee Titans in a game between two teams on the outside looking in in their respective playoff races.
After taking care of business last week against the Rams, the Arizona Cardinals still find themselves at the seventh seed in the NFC and therefore out of the playoffs. Despite that, a win would go a long way for Bruce Arians and company, as with three games left, there is plenty of time for the Cardinals to catch up and hopscotch either San Francisco or Carolina in the standings. The two have been too solid to expect a collapse, but the Cardinals are definitely an able enough team to take their place in a playoff situation.
Tennessee, on the other hand, is all but eliminated. However, at 5-8, mathematically speaking, they aren’t officially eliminated due to the weak nature of the AFC this season, so they aren’t necessarily throwing in the proverbial towel on the season just yet.
When healthy, this is a dangerous team offensively, boasting several young, explosive receivers such as Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. Alas, it’s not always that simple in the NFL, as quarterback Jake Locker has long been sidelined with injury. Prior to his injury, Locker was starting to look like the guy Tennessee hoped they were getting when they drafted him in the first round of the 2011 draft. Ryan Fitzpatrick has been solid in relief, but it hasn’t been enough for the Titans to distinguish themselves in a contested AFC playoff picture.
Here’s a look at some of the matchups to watch in Sunday’s game:
Larry Fitzgerald vs Alterraun Verner
Currently listed as questionable for the game on Sunday, Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner has quietly been putting up Defensive Player of the Year numbers for Tennessee, with five interceptions and an NFL-leading 20 pass deflections on the year. The four year vet out of UCLA is truly enjoying a breakout season and has an opportunity to match up against one of the best the NFL has to offer in Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald.
That may be easier said than done, as Fitzgerald has been undefendable these past couple weeks. The rapport with Carson Palmer is as sharp as it has been all season, as the All-Pro receiver has five touchdowns in his last four games.
Cardinal fans are well aware of how Fitzgerald impacts the game, but Verner may be one of the few in the league who can keep up on him one on one.
Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack vs Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’amu
The unsung heroes of the stifling Cardinals defense, the interior linemen duo of Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’amu have been stellar in the Todd Bowles system, stuffing running lanes and generating consistent pass rush all season. As Bob McManaman describes in this article for AZcentral.com, the two have fostered a competitive symbiosis, something the two point at as large contributors to their success.
They’ll be met by one of the better guard tandems in the NFL in the form of Andy Levitre and rookie Chance Warmack. Levitre in particular has long been considered one of the best pass blocking guards in the game, and faces a tough task in guarding the Cardinals down lineman. He may even see some matchups with defensive end Calais Campbell, with the tackles occupied with John Abraham and the Cardinals pass rush.
Either way, the trenches will be a thing to watch Sunday in Nashville.
Chris Johnson vs Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby
Few running backs in the NFL have the top speed of Chris Johnson, and even when he’s not carrying the ball, he’s a huge impact on the defensive game plan.
Needless to say, Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby will need to be at the top of their game physically as well as mentally. Chris Johnson is a guy that can punish the missteps of an over-pursuing linebacker. Such a dynamic works both ways, because if the linebackers hesitate to close the gap, Johnson will have the time and space to turn on the jets. From there, it’s off to the races.
Washington has above average closing speed for a linebacker, but Dansby is still a little suspect given his age, even if he has been playing out of his mind all season. Against a back like Johnson where every inch counts, we may see a couple plays where they get burned, and that could be the difference.
Against the AFC South, the Birdgang is 3-0 for the season. In addition, the Cardinals have been in playoff form for quite a while, so there really is no reason to expect anything other than a win over the lowly Titans. Much like last week, I expect the Cardinals to win on all phases against a lesser opponent, to the tune on ARZ 30-10 TEN.
The game will begin at 4:25PM ET on Sunday, December 15, and will be televised from LP Field in Nashville Tennessee on FOX.