NFL Playoff Preview: Cardinals’ offense needs to find balance

With their 34-10 win over the St. Louis Rams in Week 14, the Arizona Cardinals clinched the NFC West for the first time since the league realigned the divisions in 2002. At 8-5, the Cards secured home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs and essentially felt pretty good about their chances of making a deep postseason run thanks to their explosive offense.

Then all hell broke loose for two weeks.

Arizona was hammered by the Minnesota Vikings, 35-14 at home in Week 15 and were trounced 47-7 by the New England Patriots in Foxboro the following week. In those two losses, the Cards turned the ball over four times and averaged just 43.5 rushing yards. If it weren’t for their salvaging 34-21 win over the Seahawks in the final week of the regular season, ‘Zona would have limped into the playoffs losers of three straight.

While NFL purists love to note how explosive the Cardinals’ passing game is, the key for them beating the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs is creating offensive balance. If they can’t run the ball, the Falcons should have no problem sitting back in coverage and allowing defensive linemen John Abraham, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux to pin their ears back and get pressure on Kurt Warner.

The Cardinals have averaged just 73.6 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks them dead last in the NFL. While Tim Hightower demonstrated his powerful running style at times this season, his inconsistency has forced Ken Whisenhunt to give veteran Edgerrin James more carries in efforts to try and revive his team’s dead running game.

Led by Warner and a trio of 1,000-yard receivers in Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston, the Cardinals are going to move the ball through the air on Saturday. But if the Falcons are able to stop the run using just their front seven, it’ll allow safeties Erik Coleman and Lawyer Milloy to stay back in coverage and help corners Dominique Foxworth, Chris Houston and rookie Chevis Jackson blanket the Cards’ talented receivers. Arizona must run the football effectively and force Atlanta to bring Milloy up to help in run support, or else the Cardinals will be one and done this postseason.

The Falcons offense ranks sixth in the league in yards per game and is scoring 24.4 PPG, so they’re equipped for a shootout if one were to break out on Saturday. Given how poor the Cardinals’ defense has played at times this season, it would be a mistake to think ‘Zona will go anywhere this postseason if they can’t run the ball and strike balance on offense.

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