Even after the gut-wrenching loss to Washington, the Dallas Cowboys are still tied with four other teams for the most wins in the league with a 6-2 record. And the only team in the NFC with a better record, by a half a game, is the upcoming opponent. The Arizona Cardinals are 6-1. Like the Cowboys, the Cardinals were not really expected to be one of the top franchises in the NFL. The expectations for them were not nearly as low as they were for the Cowboys, being based more on the perception that they were in perhaps the league's toughest division, the NFC West. But like Dallas, the Cards have once again proven that preseason predictions are a fool's game.
I was curious to try and figure out how they have arrived at their lofty position to get a sense of what the Cowboys are facing. I took a look at the raw statistics for the team, and then compared them to the grades handed to them by the people at Pro Football Focus. One thing immediately jumped out.
Stats and PFF's system explain absolutely nothing. As a matter of fact, looking at those two things would lead you to believe the Cardinals are one of the worst teams in the league, not one of the best.
According to the numbers compiled at ESPN, the Cards have a defense that is towards the back of the pack, ranking 24th in yards per game (Dallas is currently 14th). However, they are even better than the Cowboys are at being a bend, don't break defense, which is one stat that tells a lot about them. They are an impressive 5th in points allowed, four places better than the Cowboys. (The points differential is exactly 1, 19.9 to 20.9.) Tied directly to that is the give/take away margin, probably the most important stat in figuring out what this team is all about. They are second in the league with a +9. The defense has been pretty good at getting the ball, taking it away from the opponent 14 times, but the real story here is that the offense has only coughed it up five times. In particular, Carson Palmer has been brilliant in this area, only throwing one interception all year. Dallas has been the definition of average over the season, with 13 takeaways and 13 giveaways.
That ability to protect the ball is what is carrying the team offensively, along with the field position advantages that go with taking the ball away. Arizona is again towards the back of the pack in yards gained, at 25th. But they jump all the way to 15th in points scored per game. Dallas should have an advantage, since they are much better at scoring, ranking eighth overall in the league. But with questions still looming over whether Tony Romo will play, and how effective he will be if he does, that is not a given.
PFF shows a similar tale. The number they compile are a bit distorted by the one less game Arizona has played, but still show that the offenses are operating in entirely different strata, at least based on the criteria used. Dallas is far and away the NFL leader offensively under their grading system, accumulating a rather impressive +58.2 score, 17.3 points better than the second ranked Pittsburgh Steelers. Arizona is near the opposite end of things, coming in 28th in the league with a -69.1. Without getting into a lot of detail or judgement of how valid PFF's system is, I do want to mention that it is based on how each player does on each play as an individual, and then all those grades are added up. Obviously, since each player does not contribute equally on every play, it is only a part of the story, but it does show that the Cardinals are much less proficient on offense than Dallas.
While it is not as extreme, the defensive scores at PFF tell a similar tale. Dallas, despite some ongoing issues, has managed to grade out with the 13th best score. The +14.3 is worth mentioning because last year's final total of -118.7 (which would average out to -59.35 after eight games) was so horrible. Meanwhile, Arizona has a -18.5, sitting at the 24th spot. One big surprise individually is Patrick Peterson, who is returning this week from a concussion. His score is a fairly bad -4.8, with the pass coverage component being -5.8. That makes him their worst defensive back in coverage (Antonio Cromartie grades out as their best).
While I was checking out statistically derived ratings, I also pulled up what Football Outsiders had to say about the teams' chances going forward. Using their proprietary Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) system, they give the two teams virtually identical chances of making the playoffs. Arizona is just ahead of Dallas at 78.2% to 78.1%. That places them fourth and fifth among all teams in the league, and only the Detroit Lions are ahead of them when you just consider NFC teams. But when they looked at the chances of winning the Super Bowl, Dallas is third in the league, with 7.2%, the best among all NFC teams. (The Denver Broncos are the runaway favorite under this method, with a 30.3% chance for Peyton Manning to catch up with his younger brother in rings.)
Of course, you can't scout just by stats. I went to our sister SBN site Revenge of the Birds, and found an article addressing whether the Cards were legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Among other things, it helps explain why the stats don't tell the whole story.
In fact, the Cards' boast a top-five run defense (something Super Bowl teams often have), while they've given up the fourth fewest points in the league (another stat Super Bowl teams tend to own).
Take away a 40+ point outburst by the Denver Broncos in a game that was actually close and merely got out of hand, and Arizona might be even better than we think.
There are also some concerns about the team going forward, and when I was reading these, they seemed hauntingly familiar.
For one, a 34-year old Palmer who already dealt with a shoulder/nerve issue is going to have to stay both effective and healthy. How likely is that? Only the stars know, as Palmer already missed three games with the issue and something like that could very easily pop up again.
Old quarterback with continuing health issues? Yeah, been there, doing that.
One other key issue for the Cardinals is their alarming lack of a pass rush. Stopping the run and holding teams to under 20 points per game on a regular basis is awesome, but how long can it keep up for a team that has just seven total sacks?
Wait. Wasn't almost that exact same thing said last week about the Cowboys?
Needless to say, Arizona's pass defense remains their Achilles heel. Even if Palmer and Ellington are fine and the run defense stays elite, the pass defense is the worst in the league and enough on it's own to end a solid playoff run before it starts.
As you can see, there are some flaws (and strengths as well - they have a good running attack) that the two teams have in common. This has the potential to be a very engrossing game. The keys for Dallas look to be hanging onto the ball, getting pressure on Palmer (hello, DeMarcus Lawrence), protecting the quarterback (obviously), and getting back to the run first identity that they had established prior to the mess they had against Washington. Not exactly rocket science, I know, but both the stats and analysis make those points pretty clear.