The Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons enter Saturday's NFC Wild-Card Game going in two different directions. The NFC West champion Cardinals faded down the stretch after a 7-3 start, losing four of their last six games. The Falcons grew stronger as the season went on, winning five of their last six to finish 11-5 and earn a wild-card berth.
Momentum can be a factor, but so can home-field advantage. The Cardinals, who are hosting a playoff game for the first time since 1947, are 6-2 at University of Phoenix Stadium this season and average 30.3 points per game there. The Falcons are 4-4 away from the Georgia Dome and haven't scored 30 points in a road game.
Let's dig a little deeper into this game.
When the Falcons have the ball
Expect Atlanta RB Michael Turner to exceed his average of 23.5 carries per game for two reasons. The Cardinals give up 4.0 yards per carry, and, Turner, who's second in the NFL with 1,699 rushing yards, can keep Arizona's high-powered offense off the field with successful runs. Jerious Norwood is more than a change-of-pace back and a fine kick returner, and he should have some touches.
Ryan was deserving of Rookie of the Year honors, but he threw just 16 touchdown passes in 16 games while Cardinals QB Kurt Warner had 17 in his eight home games. It's hard to see the Falcons winning a shootout on the road, but they have the running backs and offensive line to control the ball and score on the ground.
Arizona's defense will use a variety of run blitzes and changes up front in an attempt to slow down Atlanta's run game. Ryan must find safety Adrian Wilson because any pre-snap read that indicates run pressure will expose a secondary on which the QB can throw. Cardinals coaches could turn up the heat on Ryan, who was sacked four times and threw four interceptions in his last three games. Still, it's possible to see WR Roddy White having close to 100 receiving yards against an Arizona defense that gave up a league-high 36 touchdown passes.
When the Cardinals have the ball
Warner will waste little time throwing the ball, and he has three 1,000-yard wide receivers. The Falcons will struggle to cover Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston, who have 26 touchdown receptions between them. And don't forget about Jerheme Urban (34 catches for 448 yards, four touchdowns), who comes in when Arizona goes with a four-receiver set.
Atlanta will be forced to use six defensive backs, and expect a heavy dose of man-under, two-deep zone packages. Warner is no threat to run with the ball, and the risk of turning and running with receivers is worth it for the Falcons. One of the Cardinals' receivers told me this week that he has seen a lot more of this coverage in recent weeks, but his team has a good plan to attack it.
Releasing four wide receivers vertically will occupy six defenders (the four in man coverage and the two safeties), so just five defenders will be left for pass rush and run defense. Keep in mind that running backs Tim Hightower (34), J.J. Arrington (29) and Edgerrin James (12) have combined for 75 receptions this season, so the checkdown pass, draw play and screen could be big parts of Arizona's game plan.
The Falcons need DE John Abraham to apply pressure on Warner, who has been sacked just 10 times in eight home games this season, and they will miss DE Jamaal Anderson if he can't play because of an ankle injury. Atlanta also doesn't have a solid match-up cornerback for Fitzgerald in the red zone, and Boldin works the middle of the field off the "rub" routs (picks) as well as anyone. Therefore, the Cardinals should score close to 30 points.
The bottom line
The Falcons are No. 2 in the NFL in rushing, and that's not good news for the Cardinals, who already have played six of the league's top nine rushing teams and lost to them all. Arizona also hasn't beaten a team with a winning record since Week 6. Atlanta should be able to run the ball much like Minnesota did in a 35-14 victory over the Cardinals in Week 15. This game will be a lot closer, but I'll give a field-goal edge to the Falcons.