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NFL Playoff Preview - Arizona (11-6) at New Orleans (13-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - After coming out on top in the highest-scoring postseason game in NFL history last weekend, the Arizona Cardinals now have to prepare themselves for another potential shootout when the defending conference champions head to the Louisiana Superdome this Saturday to take on the high- powered New Orleans Saints in a NFC Divisional Playoff that should provide plenty of thrills.
Arizona kept alive its quest to become the NFC's first repeat Super Bowl representative in 12 years by outlasting the Green Bay Packers in an epic 51-45 overtime classic during last Sunday's Wild Card round. Ironically, a game which produced a combined 1,024 yards of offense and 62 first downs was decided on a defensive play, with Cardinals nickel back Michael Adams forcing a fumble on a sack of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Karlos Dansby returning the loose ball 17 yards for the winning points.
Dansby's score helped atone for an otherwise shaky performance from a defense that surrendered 403 net passing yards and four touchdowns through the air and allowed Green Bay to reach the end zone on five consecutive second-half drives to erase a 31-10 deficit early in the third quarter.
The Cardinals will need to shore up that area in order to advance again this week, as New Orleans topped the NFL in both points (510) and total offense (403.8 ppg) en route to a sensational 13-3 record that established a franchise best for wins in a season and earned the Saints their first-ever No. 1 seed in the NFC's postseason tournament.
New Orleans won't be heading into the playoffs with a whole lot of momentum, though, after losing its final three contests following a 13-0 start. Two of those defeats took place in the Superdome, including a shocking 20-17 overtime setback to three-win Tampa Bay in the second-to-last regular-season game.
The Saints will also be trying to reverse a dubious playoff history, with the long-suffering club having dropped six of eight lifetime outings in the second season.
If New Orleans needs to restore any lost confidence, it can look to the 2008 Cardinals as a source of motivation. Arizona limped into last year's NFC Playoffs with losses in four of its last six regular-season tilts, but bounced back to string together three straight postseason wins to claim the conference title.
An opportunistic defense that forced a difference-making 12 turnovers over those three wins played a major part in the Cardinals' surge to the Super Bowl, as did the outstanding play under center from ultra-clutch quarterback Kurt Warner. The two-time NFL MVP was on top of his game once again in last week's ousting of the Packers, piling up 379 passing yards and five touchdowns without an interception while connecting on an astounding 29-of-33 attempts.
Warner is now 9-3 all-time as a starter in the playoffs, and his 312.3 passing yards per game and 66.5 percent completion percentage are both the best marks in league annals for the postseason. The 38-year-old's 104.6 quarterback rating over those 12 games ranks second in NFL history, trailing only Hall of Famer Bart Starr.
New Orleans possesses an accomplished gunslinger of its own in Drew Brees, who established a league single-season record with a 70.6 completion percentage in delivering a fourth straight 4,000-yard campaign. The four-time Pro Bowl selection's 92.7 postseason passer rating is second only to Warner among active players, although his teams haven't garnered the same amount of success as those of his counterpart.
Brees is 1-2 in the playoffs, with the lone victory coming in the Divisional round of the Saints' most recent postseason appearance in 2006. New Orleans reached its only NFC Championship Game that season, coming out on the short end of a 39-14 decision to Chicago.
Arizona is seeking to become the first repeat NFC champion since Green Bay did so in 1995 and 1996.
The Cardinals hold a 13-12 edge in their all-time regular series with the Saints, but were 31-24 road losers when the teams last met, in Week 15 of the 2007 regular season. Arizona won the previous meeting, a 34-10 victory at Sun Devil Stadium in 2004, and the Cardinals have won seven of the last 10 overall. Arizona is 0-2 at the Superdome since last winning there in 1996.
The Saints' Sean Payton is 1-0 against both the Cardinals and head coach Ken Whisenhunt.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Even though Arizona has sported one of football's most feared passing offenses over the past few years, Whisenhunt is still a run-first coach at heart, and it wouldn't be surprising if his team opts to attack a New Orleans defense that really struggled against the rush down the stretch via the ground. The Cardinals posted a healthy 156 rushing yards on a strong Green Bay stop unit last weekend, with talented rookie Beanie Wells (793 rushing yards, 7 TD, 12 receptions) coming through with 91 yards on only 14 carries. Arizona is a perfect 8-0 this season when running for 100 yards or more. That doesn't mean the team will abandon its potent aerial assault, however, especially with premier players such as Warner (3753 passing yards, 26 TD, 14 INT) and star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (97 receptions, 1092 yards, 13 TD) at its disposal. Like his quarterback, Fitzgerald has earned a reputation as an elite playoff performer, having recorded an eye-opening nine touchdown catches in five career postseason games after hauling in two of Warner's five scoring strikes last Sunday. The sure-handed wideout has averaged over 125 receiving yards over that stretch as well. Arizona was without three-time Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin (84 receptions, 1024 yards, 4 TD) against Green Bay due to a high left ankle sprain that has Fitzgerald's running mate questionable to play on Saturday, but was able to compensate for his absence with outstanding games from the reserve corps. Usual No. 3 receiver Steve Breaston (55 receptions, 3 TD) stepped up with a career-best 125 yards and a touchdown on seven catches, while seldom-used sophomore Early Doucet (17 receptions, 1 TD) had 77 yards on six grabs along with two big first-half scores.
The Saints used their well-timed week off to attempt to repair a leaky defense that was gashed for an average of 166.3 rushing yards over the course of the club's three season-ending losses. New Orleans also gave up over 235 yards per week through the air (26th overall) during the 16-game schedule, but that rather high number can be at least partially attributed to teams being forced to throw while playing from behind. The Saints finished third in both pass efficiency defense and interceptions (26) behind a secondary that contains a superb playmaker in veteran free safety Darren Sharper (71 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 15 PD), who set an NFL single-year record with 376 return yards on his nine picks that tied for the league lead. The backfield will be at full strength for the playoffs as well now that its two best cornerbacks, Jabari Greer (44 tackles, 2 INT, 13 PD) and Tracy Porter (57 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD) have returned from injuries that caused the duo to miss a combined 11 games. The Cardinals must also account for end Will Smith (49 tackles, 1 INT), whose 13 sacks in 2009 were the second-most in the NFC, while Bobby McCray (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks) notched double-digits in that category with Jacksonville a few years back.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Moving the football and lighting up the scoreboard have rarely been problems for a New Orleans offense that generated 30 points or more nine times this season and led the NFL in total yards for the third time in the past four years. It all starts with Brees (4388 passing yards, 34 TD, 11 INT), whose exceptional accuracy and leadership skills are eclipsed only by his amazing track record at the Superdome. The standout triggerman had a sensational 20- to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completed over 73 percent of his throws in the Saints' eight home tests of 2009. Brees isn't solely responsible for his team's prolific production, however. With three-time 1,000-yard receiver Marques Colston (70 receptions, 9 TD), emerging star Robert Meachem (45 receptions, 9 TD) and big-play threat Devery Henderson (51 receptions, 2 TD) all out wide, not to mention a pair of terrific pass-catching running backs in Reggie Bush (390 rushing yards, 47 receptions, 8 total TD) and Pierre Thomas (793 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 8 total TD), New Orleans doesn't lack weapons when it airs it out. And don't forget tight end and four-time Pro Bowl participant Jeremy Shockey (48 receptions, 3 TD) and slotman Lance Moore (14 receptions, 2 TD), who accumulated 79 catches and 10 touchdowns a year ago. Both are now healthy after sitting out much of the latter portion of this season with injuries. The Saints can run the ball effectively as well, placing sixth overall with an average of 131.6 yards per game on the ground. Thomas will get the bulk of the ball-carrying duties provided he's able to tolerate a few broken ribs, and most of those attempts figure to come behind a road- grading right side of the line consisting of Pro Bowlers Jahri Evans and Jon Stinchcomb.
The Cardinals gave up plenty of yards and points in last week's wild win over Green Bay, but the unit also had a few big moments that were crucial to the final outcome. Adams' game-changing sack of Rodgers was Arizona's fifth of the day, while a forced fumble by Dansby (109 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and a key interception from Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (50 tackles, 6 INT, 25 PD) were both turned into early touchdowns by the offense. Veteran end/linebacker hybrid Bertrand Berry (10 tackles, 6 sacks), who came up with two sacks last Sunday, and linemen Darnell Dockett (51 tackles, 7 sacks) and Calais Campbell (48 tackles, 7 sacks) will need to keep the heat on Brees this week in order to protect a secondary that showed more than its share of holes against the Packers. Rodgers-Cromartie is a lock-down defender on one side, but both Adams (40 tackles, 1 INT) and cornerback Bryant McFadden (69 tackles, 15 PD) will have to rebound from rough games to give the Cards their best chance of advancement. The team has one injury concern along the front seven, as inside linebacker Gerald Hayes (62 tackles) spent part of this week's practice in a walking boot after spraining an ankle in the Wild Card round, and could be a game-time decision.
Arizona kicker Neil Rackers nearly turned out to be the goat of last Sunday's matchup after badly shanking what would have been a game-ending 34-yard field goal try on the final play of regulation. The 10-year pro was much more reliable in the regular season, when he converted 16-of-17 three-point attempts. New Orleans' Garrett Hartley is a less-proven commodity, having attempted only 24 field goals in his two seasons. He went 9-of-11 in that area upon taking over in December, but his long was only 38 yards.
The Saints also have a young punter in rookie Thomas Morstead, but the 23- year-old proved his worth by recording a solid 43.6 yard average and finishing among the NFL leaders with 26 touchbacks while handling kickoffs. He still takes a back seat to the Cards' Ben Graham, who set a team season record by averaging 47 yards per punt and placed a league-best 42 kicks within the opponent's 20-yard line.
Both teams possess fine kick returners, with the Saints' Courtney Roby ranking fifth in the league with a 27.1 average and Arizona rookie LaRod Stephens- Howling (24.2 avg.) making an impact in that department as well. Each had a touchdown during the course of the year. Neither the Cardinals' Breaston (6.7 avg.) nor New Orleans' Bush (4.8 avg.) were particularly good taking back punts, although both have had success there in the past.
It's going to be hard to top the excitement created in Arizona's last game, but this all-important showdown shouldn't lack for fireworks with a pair of explosive offenses directed by top-notch quarterbacks and two defenses that have shown to be vulnerable at times during this season. In what should be a most competitive contest between two quality teams that appear to be evenly matched, the Cardinals' pedigree could wind up being the x-factor. Arizona has proven time and time again to have a knack for rising to the occasion when the stakes are at their highest, and this is a team that likely won't be intimidated by the hostile surroundings of the Superdome. The problems the Saints displayed on defense during the stretch run are legitimate concerns as well, and that could prevent what's been a storybook season from having a fairy-tale ending.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 27, Saints 24
01/13 16:13:47 ET