Preview and pick for Cardinals at Rams Wild Card game
The Arizona Cardinals were the last undefeated team left in the NFL. And at that point in time they look like a bona fide Super Bowl contender. But that is not the way they have come down the stretch. With an opportunity to win the NFC West last week, they lost to the Seattle Seahawks. And they do not have their top wide receiver, who is indeed one of the best in the game.
But they obviously have to make the best of it, because they're in the NFC playoffs. And on Monday night, they will take on the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, with 8:15 p.m. Eastern time to schedule kickoff for this wild-card affair.
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The Cardinals come into this game with a record of 11-6, and they are 10-7 against the spread. Through the first eight games of the season, they averaged 29.9 points per game, but over the last nine that total has reduced to 21.6. Part of the reason for that, obviously, is that they haven't had all of their offensive weapons on board. Most prominent is the absence of DeAndre Hopkins, who had knee surgery after Week 14 and has still not been cleared for action. Kyler Murray also had an ankle injury that slowed him down, and in fact took him out of three games entirely.
For the season, Murray completed 69.2% of his passes for 3787 yards, and he rushed for 423 yards, which is really not a huge total, considering his ability. But what really comes in handy for him is the capacity to escape the pass rush, and he'll need that against Aaron Donald, who pressured him no less than 15 times in the last meeting, more than any other player this season.
The Rams lost their season finale to San Francisco, and they will be playing this game rather short-handed in the secondary, as two starting safeties — Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp — will be out of action. But they have an offense that has been explosive on occasion, with perhaps the best wide receiver in existence.
In the NFL playoff betting odds posted on this game by the folks at BetOnline, the Rams are the favorites at home:
Los Angeles Rams -3 (-120)
Arizona Cardinals +3 (+100)
Over 48.5 Points - 110
Under 48.5 Points -110
While Hopkins will have to sit out, the Cardinals got some encouraging injury news with the probability that JJ Watt is going to play. The three-time defensive player of the year suffered multiple injuries and had surgery before the halfway mark of the campaign. We are talking about a torn rotator cuff, labrum and bicep tendon, among other things. But Watt has always been an inspirational leader, as Arizona won all seven games in which he was in the lineup.
There's a banged-up backfield here too, but they are hoping James Conner can get over his rib injury and participate. Connor led the NFL with 18 touchdowns this season. And he was a big contributor to this team converting 45.3% on its third down conversions.
Without Hopkins, Murray we'll have to spread it around to a number of different receivers. AJ Green and Christian Kirk combined for 188 receiving yards in the Week 14 meeting of these clubs, which resulted in a 30-23 Rams victory. Picking up tight end Zach Ertz, who has caught 56 passes, was a key move. In the Cardinals are still waiting for Rondale Moore to show what he is fully capable of.
Speaking of receivers, the Rams have a real MVP candidate in Cooper Kupp, who had 145 catches fro 1947 yards. Suffice it to say that he will be with a guy Matthew Stafford looks to in any and all situations.
Stafford, who threw for 4886 yards and 41 touchdowns, has never won a playoff game in his career. And he has won only 31% of his starts against winning teams, straight up. So there are some obstacles for him to clear.
Arizona has a glaring weakness in that it has difficulty defending against the run, giving a 4.6 yards-per-carry. But one of their strengths has been the ability to go out on the road and win games. In fact, the Cardinals have eight victories in nine road starts, both straight up and against the spread. That's a big factor here, especially as Stafford makes mistakes, with 17 interceptions to tie for the league lead.
Honestly though, it's difficult to back a Cardinal team that just doesn't come in with any semblance of a head of steam, can be beaten on the ground, and may not be able to protect its quarterback well enough against what will be a relentless pass rush. So we'll lay the points here.
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