Early Moment of Truth: Buccaneers v. Cardinals

For every championship football team, there are signature wins where one must prove to themselves they are among the league’s elite by beating a quality opponent. Another psychological building block on the way to the playoffs or a championship season is to conquer a desperate quality team that knows you’re coming. Such will be the case Sunday when the 1-0 Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to an 0-1 Arizona Cardinals team that has Super Bowl aspirations.

David is swallowing intermediate receivers and runners coming into his area.

David is swallowing intermediate receivers and runners coming into his area.

Last year Tampa finished with a top ten defense which figures to be one again this year. Leading the way is a linebacking corps where Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander might be the best set of linebackers in the NFL. These two combined for 251 total tackles, 6 sacks, 5 interceptions returning 1 for a touchdown. Alexander is off to a torrid start with a 17 tackle 1 sack performance in a week 1 win over Atlanta. This is going to be his breakout year where he will join David in the Pro Bowl and is an early favorite for Taylor Blitz Times Defensive Player of the Year.

This is the breakout year for Kwon Alexander.The Cardinals live and die on the intermediate routes of Larry Fitzgerald, RB David Johnson as Carson Palmer works the crossing routes underneath 15 yards over the middle.  They have to establish the run to suck these athletic linebackers up and clear those areas.

Last week the Cardinals were able to establish the run early but when G Evan Mathis left the game with a foot injury they lost offensive continuity. He will be back this week and has to deal with Pro Bowl DT Gerald McCoy in Tampa’s defensive line rotation.

johnsonAfter a lackluster postseason Carson Palmer had a good game in the opener against the Patriots. They can’t get off to the slow start they did when they lost to New England. It took the ball out of David Johnson’s hands and half the Cardinal playbook was moot when they fell behind 10 Sunday Night. Inevitably Johnson wound up with 92 yards on 16 carries in the game but they need to get him running right at Tampa’s defense and keep Jameis Winston on the sideline. His bruising style can wear down the Bucs athletic defense and open up passing routes later in the game.

This could be the coming out party for Jameis Winston as he has the chance to pull off a second straight upset and establish the Bucs as a team to be reckoned with if they go 2-0. Last week he outplayed Matt Ryan throwing for 281 yards and 4 touchdowns while completing 71.9% of his throws. He had more TD passes (4) than incompletions (3). As long as he is supplemented by Taylor Blitz Times favorite Doug Martin, he will throw against a balanced defense that will resort to blitzing if they can’t get to him.

The strongest suit for the Cardinals is to lean on their passing game late. If they come out and fast break they allow the Bucs defense to clog the passing lanes and force turnovers and 3 and out series. The Cardinals need to have the “Red Sea” make noise and help make it uncomfortable for Winston.

Who will win this game?

Don’t forget these two teams were picked to be the NFC Wildcards in Taylor Blitz Times NFC preview. Arizona Head Coach Bruce Arians likes to show off his passing attack and will play right into the hands of this Buccaneer defense. The Cardinals won’t stay with the running game long enough to sustain offense early. Winston and his tall receivers will expose the surprising Achille’s Heel of the defense and that is their secondary.

Tampa wins this one in an upset and establish who they are in 2016 with a 34-24 win…

2016 NFC West Previews & Predictions

Michael Bennett & Cliff Avril sandwich Drew Brees amid the din of Qwest Field.

Michael Bennett & Cliff Avril sandwich Drew Brees amid the din of Qwest Field.

If you go back to last year’s NFC Divisional Round, the Seattle Seahawks learned the hard way how valuable the homefield advantage was they had enjoyed the previous two seasons. After having traveled 8,931 miles in round trips to Phoenix, Minnesota in the Wildcard, then taking the field in Carolina, they were an exhausted team. Falling behind 31-0 by halftime to the eventual NFC Champion Panthers. Their season came to a close with a 31-24 defeat at the hands of Cam Newton and company.

In an attempt to make it to their 3rd Super Bowl in 4 years, Seattle needs to draw teams up to the Pacific Northwest. Let them fatigue with the travel. Yet a question remains: So who are they?? The team that fell behind big in Carolina or the team that came roaring back outscoring them 24-0 in the 2nd half??

seahawksalt22016 NFC West Predictions

Seattle Seahawks 12-4**

Arizona Cardinals 10-6*

San Francisco 49ers 6-10

LA Rams 4-12

The first question that will arise from the desert will invariably be: “What about the Arizona Cardinals? They won the NFC West last year?”

Which is 100% true. Yet let’s take you back to week 17 of the 2016 campaign and offer the genesis why they aren’t favored.

In week 10 the Cardinals had knocked off the Seahawks in a rousing 39-32 road win to become the media darling of the NFC West. National sports shows and pundits flocked to the desert to interview this team. Some even waxed philosophical about Carson Palmer for league MVP, he was having that good of a season. Yet a date with an old bully loomed in the last week of the season.

There was an outside chance the Cardinals had a shot at homefield advantage, and more important could knock the Seahawks from the playoffs. Just as important to the Cardinals psyche was the chance to sweep their nemesis and prove to themselves the first win was no fluke. They had become the heavy in the NFC West and this would cement that notion to both teams…to everyone.

carsonpalmerWell the Seahawks punched the Cardinals right in the mouth as Palmer deteriorated (12 of 25 for 129 yards 1 TD / 1 int) into his worst performance of the year. He was pulled in the 2nd quarter in the middle of being routed 30-6 by intermission, finally falling 36-6. His spotty play continued against Green Bay in the divisional round of the playoffs, as the offense struggled for continuity in a 26-20 overtime win.

The only reason they won that game was Larry Fitzgerald early in overtime caught an intermediate route, cleared Clay Matthews, and in normal circumstances runs out of bounds with a 1st down. However Fitzgerald knew he had to take matters into his own hands and turned upfield instead of going out of bounds. He ran like the Cardinal’s playoff life depended on it going 75 yards to the Green Bay 3. Winning the game with a shovel pass 2 plays later.

Then comes the 4 interception and 2 fumble meltdown 49-15 loss to the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game. Palmer finished with 3 poor games when the stakes were the highest and has to prove he’s not a shot fighter. He hasn’t had a good postseason outing since the 2002 Orange Bowl in college. Only problem is Pete Carroll was his coach then and not the division rival as he is now. Much like a boxer after a vicious knockout loss, the Arizona Cardinals need to win the battle with themselves psychologically. Starting with Palmer. That is why they aren’t favored.

Bruce Arians and the window for the Arizona Cardinals is going to close after this season. Its now or never to make it to the Super Bowl with Palmer (37 yrs of age) and Larry Fitzgerald (33 yrs of age) leading the charge. David Johnson is coming into his own at RB and should rush for 1,300 yards this season.

The Cardinals had the 5th best defense in football and pulled off a coup of a trade picking up OLB Chandler Jones from New England. However his addition is offset by Tyrann Mathieu rehabbing another blown out knee. Can Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher get enough out of top pick DT Robert Nkimdiche and Jones in the rush to keep from his exotic blitz packages?? Mathieu had CB like coverage skills when 100% healthy. This season he could get exposed by those blitzes so they need the front seven to get after opposing QBs.

rams.takingfield.losangeles

The L.A. Rams taking the field for the 1st time in the 21st century.

In Los Angeles we had 90,000 come out to the LA Coliseum to witness the Rams returning to Southern California, and we are in the honeymoon stage. Lets not forget this was the 32nd or dead last offense in the NFL last season, and 1st pick Jared Goff needs a lot of work.  Despite RB Todd Gurley’s 1,106 yd 10 TD debut season, this is a team that had to take a QB#1 overall after tossing an anemic 11 TDs last season. It looks like journeyman Case Keenum will start as the prized rookie (Goff) learns the pro game from the sidelines. The question that arises… Can Coach Jeff Fisher and QB Coach Chris Weinke get Goff ready to be an NFL signal caller?? Maybe they will…but not this season.

The 49ers could be the surprise of the season with Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick leading a new charge under Chip Kelly. Carlos Hyde will have to become the every down back Frank Gore used to be and rush for 1,200 or better. Kaepernick and an improved Gabbert will win 6 games this year as the 49ers build back to respectability.

Now Russell is as big a threat in the pocket as outside of it.

Now Russell is as big a threat in the pocket as outside of it.

Which brings us to Seattle. The Seahawks had a dress rehearsal of the upcoming year without Marshawn Lynch in 2015.  Wilson became the focal point of the offense and developed as a total signal caller. In completing 329 of 483 for 4,024 yds 34 TDs to just 8 ints, Wilson graduated from being the resourceful scrambler to a bonafide elite QB add MVP candidate.

With so much attention on Wilson, Rawls (830 yds / 4 TDs) was able to settle into the RB position along with Christine Michael. The defense is still one of the NFL’s best although they lost LB Bruce Irvin to the Raiders. Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman are still patrolling the secondary with LBs Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright eating up the passing lanes underneath. The Seahawks have to get more from Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett up front this year. At times the pass rush wasn’t there last year and exposed the back 7 some.

Seattle is the class of this division and should challenge for homefield advantage.

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