by Mike Ridley
(Ed. Note: For those asking, yes, Arizona was favored by 2.5 points in Sunday's game against San Francisco.)
Winners in seven of their last eight, the Arizona Cardinals entered Sunday's contest as one of the hottest teams in football. The only problem was that their opponent may have been even hotter.
When we talked about Arizona in this space last week, they were coming off a win against the heavily-favored Seahawks in Seattle, despite four Carson Palmer interceptions. Their defense was suffocating, limiting the Seahawks to 192 total yards. On Sunday, the 49ers surpassed that mark in first 28 minutes.
San Francisco staked itself to an early lead with good field position, a stout defense and Anquan Boldin. They took advantage of short fields during their first two opportunities to mount a 10-point cushion in the first seven minutes. Their next possession started at their own 26, but they quickly found themselves with a first-and-goal situation after Boldin took a third-and-4 pass 63 yards to the Arizona 3-yard line, his sixth reception of the quarter. Colin Kaepernick found Vernon Davis on the next play, putting San Francisco up 17 with just under a minute left in the first.
Arizona's defense would eventually settle down, allowing just 104 yards in the middle frames, including three three-and-outs and a fourth-and-1 stop. As the defense stifled Kaepernick and the Niners, the offense began to gain some steam. With 10:30 left in the second quarter, Carson Palmer led Arizona on a 10-play, 88-yard drive, capping it off with a touchdown to Jake Ballard, cutting the lead to 10.
Eventually the Cardinals would knot the game at 17 with a field goal by Jay Feely and a touchdown to Andre Roberts.The two teams would trade field goals over the next three minutes before San Francisco rallied in the last 29 seconds to kick a game-winning 40-yard field goal.
By the VOA
The Cardinals' special teams proved to be their undoing in both VOA and the final score.
|Special Teams Woes|
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
Jay Feely had two missed field goals, which lowered the Cardinals' VOA without providing a boost to San Francisco. Phil Dawson's missed 24-yard chip shot brings down what would have been an outstanding special teams performance by the 49ers. San Francisco averaged 28 yards on kick returns and 15 yards on punt returns, compared to the Cardinals averaging 15.7 and 2.0, respectively.
This continues a season-long trend for Arizona, who currently ranks 31st in both punt return average and DVOA's punt return metric. Last year wasn't much better, with their respective ranks being 24th and 31st, which begs the question: what happened to Patrick Peterson, ace punt returner?
Sequence of the Game
Moments after tying the game at 20, Feely kicked off to LaMichael James, who received the kick five yards deep in the end zone. James darted out of the end zone and weaved his way through traffic before being tackled at the San Francisco 36-yard line after a 41-yard return. On the first snap of the possession, Kaepernick hit Boldin for a ninth time, putting the 49ers in Arizona territory. Following a delay of game penalty, Kaepernick found Quinton Patton with single coverage by Antoine Cason along the right sideline. He floated the ball up for the rookie wide receiver, who reached over Cason to secure his third catch of the season, a 22-yarder to put the Niners in position for the winning field goal with two seconds remaining.
Niners Playoff Push
Thanks to sharing a division with the Seahawks, the 49ers find themselves at 12-4 and on the road throughout the playoffs (unless the Saints beat the Eagles and Seahawks on the road). Their first stop will be Lambeau Field, where San Francisco will play Green Bay for the fourth time in 16 months.
The Niners have been the Packers kryptonite of late, beating them in their last three matchups by an average of nine points and scoring at least 30 each time. The latest victory came in Week 1, when Kaepernick led a fourth-quarter rally to score 10 points in the final six minutes for a 34-28 win. In that game, he threw for a career-high 412 yards, three touchdowns, gaining 206 DYAR and picking up the slack for a running game that averaged just 2.6 yards per carry and had a DVOA of -45.7%.
Now, with a full season in the books, we can see San Francisco's offensive formula looks quite different. Kaepernick has become more of a game manager, averaging just 186 yards per game after Week 1, with Sunday being his only other 300-yard game. The rushing attack, which was 27th in DVOA after three weeks, rebounded to finish in the top half of the league with a 2.2% DVOA. In the last four weeks they accumulated 121 DYAR and have a DVOA of 11.1%, making Frank Gore and company the likely vocal point on Sunday when they face DVOA's third-worst rush defense.
Should the running game stumble again, the 49ers will be able to find success through the air. Missing from the Week 1 bout was Michael Crabtree, who has been working his way back from a torn Achilles. While Crabtree hasn't returned to his pre-injury form, he presents another option that the league's 28th-ranked pass defense has to account for. Even if he ends up being a non-factor, Boldin and Davis present matchup nightmares for a defense that was 30th against team's top receivers and 24th against tight ends.
Rise in Phoenix
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The Cardinals entered Sunday with a slim shot of making the playoffs, and although they fell short, they're still a team heading in the right direction. Bruce Arians has a legitimate shot to win Coach of the Year for the second straight season. They have a young general manager in Steve Keim who has already shown an ability to identify hidden talent (Andre Ellington), take risks (Tyrann Mathieu) and has a willingness to bring in quality veterans (Karlos Dansby, John Abraham) to go along with the cornerstone players they have at receiver, along the defensive line and in the secondary.
Even with these building blocks in place, the Cardinals are still a few pieces away from truly achieving success. The first key is to find a long-term quarterback. Palmer has certainly proven to be serviceable in Phoenix (and a major upgrade over his predecessors) but even he knows he's not the future of the Cardinals. Finding a successor to Palmer in what appears to be a quarterback-rich draft should be a major priority.
Keim should also focus on finding a replacement for Rashard Mendenhall, who will be a free agent. Mendenhall, despite being below average for much of the season, saw a majority of the touches in Arians' two-back system to limit the wear-and-tear on Ellington. The practice is good in theory, but needs a better option. As we discussed last week, Mendenhall has an inordinate amount of carries that result in two yards or less, putting the offense in tough situations. This has contributed to Arizona's recurring problem of falling behind early.
Being put in a hole early works against the strengths of Arizona. This season, their offense ranks 25th in DVOA when they trail by nine or more points and are 18th when the deficit is less than eight. Palmer's 20 interceptions when tied or trailing are the second most in the league. However, when the Cardinals find themselves with a small lead, their offense becomes a model of efficiency. Palmer leads the league with a 49.1% DVOA when up by less than nine; a major reason the Cardinals offense has the fourth-best DVOA in those situations.
If Keim can address Arizona's long-term need at quarterback and find a running back to improve the 25th-ranked rushing attack -- allowing the offense to put points on the board early -- the Cardinals could find themselves following in the steps of the Seahawks and 49ers as perennial NFC favorites.