The Arizona Cardinals playoff hopes were stomped by the feet of Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and the lackluster play of their own offensive line on Sunday. The Cardinals had been picked as a playoff favorite and Super Bowl contender in preseason but Arizona team which is chalk full of talent has struggled to live up to the hype.
While the Cardinals' defense is currently ranked No. 1 overall according to NFL, their biggest deficit has been in the rushing defense. Devonta Freeman made the Arizona team's glaring weakness evident as he racked up two touchdowns. Even an interception by the Cardinals defense couldn't help put points on the board, however.
Arizona's elite corps of receivers once again failed to make some necessary plays with the exception of the steady hand of veteran Larry Fitzgerald. Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd, who has been struggling with a hamstring injury, only pulled the ball in for 31 yards. In fact, it was Cardinals running back phenom David Johnson who brought in the most receptions for 103 yards and one touchdown. Johnson continues to impress both as a runner as well, though Arizona struggled to open up the field for him.
Though many have been critical of Arizona's aging quarterback Carson Palmer, the biggest hole in the Cardinals' game plan appears to be the one the offensive line is leaving open. The first drive by the Cardinals offense was reminiscent of last year's team that made it to the NFC Championship game. Palmer connected repeatedly and Arizona marched down the field to score a touchdown. But as the game lingered on, pressure from the Atlanta defense took its toll on the struggling Arizona offensive line.
The Cardinals offensive line has struggled to replace veteran Jared Veldheer who suffered a torn bicep earlier in the season. None of the solutions seem to be working for Arizona. Carson Palmer has been sacked 32 times this season so far and is frequently manhandled by opposing defenses. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians discussed the mounting pressure on Palmer due to the lack of offensive line support.
"It's always a concern," coach Bruce Arians said according to the Arizona Cardinals official website. "Your quarterback gets hit 20 times. I don't care if he's 25 years old, if he gets hit 25 times during a game, he's going to get hurt, sooner or later."
While Palmer has been critical of himself, he too acknowledges that the offensive line issues are wreaking havoc on Arizona's ability to score, "The one thing you want up front, for peace of mind with those guys, is continuity and experience next to each other," Palmer said.
"That's out the door. That is not the situation. But whoever is in there, we've been banged up and guys are in and out and playing different positions, but whoever is in there, be ready to roll."
And for the first five minutes of today's game, the Arizona Cardinals offensive line did seem ready to roll. But slowly, it began to roll over. Palmer had a fumble after a bad snap. David Johnson was stopped with minimal yardage. Palmer under pressure threw the ball in an obvious intentional grounding. And as the Cardinals offense slowly melted down, Atlanta's offense was the one on fire.
While Carson Palmer and Matt Ryan threw nearly identical yardage and matching touchdown for touchdown with one interception each, Ryan had a higher completion ratio. And that Arizona defense that is ranked number one gave up one of the most points it has all season.
Though the Cardinals sit in second place of the NFC West, the likelihood of a playoff berth is almost as much of a sure thing as the Browns winning a game this season. The NFC is full of teams with better records including the Giants, the Seahawks, the Redskins, the Falcons, the very dominant Dallas Cowboys, and more.
The Cardinals have proven they are able to hang with some of the best. Who can forget the Sunday Night Football game against the Seattle Seahawks that ended in a touchdown-less tie? Yet instead of finding ways to win, the Arizona Cardinals keep finding ways to lose in spectacular fashion. And our hearts weep for Larry Fitzgerald as he misses another chance at a Super Bowl ring.
[Featured Image by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images]