The Arizona Cardinals enter Week 14 of the 2017 season mathematically in the race for the playoffs. Any loss in the remaining four games and the calculations end with an early off-season for the Cardinals. This Sunday the Tennessee Titans make their way to the University of Phoenix Stadium for an important clash for both squads in the lead up towards the postseason. Which team has what it takes to come away with the victory?
Setting the Table
The Cardinals enter Sunday’s matchup with a 5-7 record and three games back from the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC. Arizona struggled last week in their loss to the Rams but are in need of a rebound victory to save their season. The Titans have an 8-4 record and are currently leading the AFC South. Tennessee is currently the three seed in the AFC. They sit ahead of the Jaguars due to the head-to-head tiebreaker. This is the fourth and final time the Cardinals will face off against an AFC South team. The Cardinals lost in Houston but won against the Colts on the road and at home against the Jaguars.
When Arizona Has the Ball
Blaine Gabbert remains the quarterback for the Cardinals. The former first-round pick has battled inconsistency since becoming Arizona’s third starting quarterback of 2017. The offense is currently listed as 10th in passing yards and 32nd in rushing yards. Regardless of the numbers, the Cardinals game plan needs to control the ball with the run game. Last week rookie Kerwynn Williams had his best game of the season with a 97-yard performance on just 16 carries. With Adrian Peterson remaining a question mark with injury concerns, Williams has the chance to solidify his place for the remainder of the season against the third-best defense in rushing yards allowed.
The Titans’ strength on defense is stopping the run. However, the Cardinals will need to get the ball moving early to open up the play action passing game. Outside of Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals will need another playmaker to step up to help the offense put pressure on a Tennessee pass defense ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in yards allowed. Expect Arizona to utilize inside zone runs out of the single-back formation with the play action coming later. It is the most popular run for the Cardinals and provides extra time for Gabbert and his receivers to find openings.
When Arizona Plays Defense
The Cardinals defense is similar to the Titans in terms of strength and weakness. Arizona plays the run well, ranked ninth in yards allowed while being middle of the pack against the pass. Defensive linemen Josh Mauro and Corey Peters were limited in practice this week due to lingering ankle injuries. Both players are keys to clogging the middle of the Tennessee line and stopping the run game.
The Titans can run out of power formations with multiple tight ends or out of a more spread alignment with quarterback Marcus Mariota running the read option. Mariota is buoyed by running backs Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray. Both backs are each over 500 yards rushing, with Henry averaging five yards per carry, with Mariota adding an additional 213 yards on the ground. The front seven will need to heal up and get ready for a battle up front on Sunday.
The Titans passing attack centers around tight end Delanie Walker. Walker is familiar to many Cardinals fans from his time with the 49ers. Since signing with the Titans after the 2012 season, Walker has become a major receiving threat with his size and athleticism at the position. The key for Arizona will be to get pressure around Mariota. Much like playing against Seattle’s Russell Wilson, the pass rush needs to squeeze the pocket without losing containment and allowing Mariota to run free for big gains. Mariota has been banged up this season and has not looked comfortable in the pocket. As a result, expect the Cardinals to bring pressure and make Mariota uncomfortable. The Cardinals secondary should be able to stay with the Tennessee receivers. They should also be able to make some plays, as Mariota has thrown 12 interceptions through his 11 starts.
This has the hallmarks of a sloppy and boring game. Clearly, both offenses have struggled to score consistently and both defenses are the obvious strengths of their teams. On paper, this game should be one-sided in favor of the Titans, but the Cardinals have shown the ability to play inspired football against the AFC South in 2017. It will be a fight, but inconsistency will once again sink Arizona. Titans win, 24-17.