The Cardinals' rise to division champion has been one of this season's best stories. Victories over Miami, Buffalo and Dallas seemed to show that the Cardinals were not just lucky to play in a woeful division. However, since their Week 6 throttling of the Cowboys, the Cardinals have beaten only NFC West foes and have now lost four straight to playoff-caliber opponents. They may be headed to the playoffs, but it seems increasingly likely their stay there will not be long.
On Sunday, they were steamrolled by an ever-improving Minnesota Vikings squad. Lost amidst the Vikings' anemic passing attack is the emergence of the best defense in the NFC. If defense really does win championships, then the Vikings will definitely be factors in the playoffs.
The Vikings controlled all aspects of the game. They shut down the Cardinals' high-flying passing attack with relentless quarterback pressure and sound tackling in the secondary. On offense, the Vikings overpowered the aggressive Cardinals defense at the point of attack and made enough big plays in the passing game to run up a 35-14 score.
The most important matchup was the Minnesota defense's disruption of the Cardinals' passing game. The Vikings in recent years have been a defense built around the ability to stop the run, but the offseason addition of Jared Allen has made them a complete unit. Allen's ability to rush the passer and demand double-teams has suddenly made the Vikings one of the top pass-rushing teams in football. On Sunday, they sacked Kurt Warner four times.
To add to the pass rush, the Vikings have blitzed aggressively at times this season. The blitz remains Warner's Achilles' heel, as he gets noticeably flustered in the face of pressure. The Cardinals have developed an offense that relies heavily on short passing to protect Warner against aggressive pass-rushers. However, the Vikings played the Cardinals' talented receivers tight on underneath throws and rarely allowed yards after the catch (the Cardinals' lone offensive touchdown by Jerheme Urban being the notable exception).
The Vikings' pass rush is relentless and comes from all directions. Allen and stud defensive tackle Kevin Williams do most of the heavy lifting, but linebacker Chad Greenway is third on the team with four sacks. With a similar secondary, the Vikings ranked 23rd in pass defense in last year's advanced Football Outsiders stats but have improved to third this season. The Allen trade should rightfully be on the short list of high-impact acquisitions in recent NFL history.
Warner, while having a great season, gets jittery when facing a pass rush and starts forcing throws (as a former Mike Martz quarterback, he suffers from a disease known as "Post-Traumatic Blitz Disorder"). He threw only one interception on Sunday, but three other balls were dropped by defenders. Against the equally blitz-happy Eagles, Warner threw a season-high three interceptions.
The Cardinals do not have the running game necessary to protect Warner and slow down opposing pass rushes. He will need to connect on a few balls down the field and have Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin make big plays after the catch to take advantage of the blitz. The Cardinals' inventive schemes that get the ball to their receivers quickly in space are being countered by aggressive opposing defenses which force Warner to hold the ball longer than he wants.
Of course, the offense is hardly the primary problem for the Cardinals. Instead, they gave up four passing touchdowns to the oft-maligned Tarvaris Jackson. Jackson lost his job after only two starts, but he might actually give the Vikings the best chance to win going forward. Gus Frerotte has a more complete control of the passing game, but Jackson makes fewer mistakes.
He has only one interception in 97 pass attempts, compared with 15 for Frerotte in 337 attempts. Given the strength of the Vikings' defense, a punt is not a negative play but a means of controlling field position. It may be an outside-the-box arrangement, but Jackson should run the offense when the game is close and the Vikings should not hesitate to call on Frerotte if they are forced to abandon the run and take to the air.
The talented Vikings are playing as well as any team in the NFC, but they haven't clinched a playoff spot. They close with the Falcons and Giants and need one more win or a Bears loss to reach the playoffs. Most importantly, the Vikings will be without the incomparable Pat Williams, who fractured his shoulder on Sunday. The absence of Williams, the game's best run-stuffing tackle, will be particularly felt against two opponents dedicated to the run. If the Vikings can slip into the playoffs, they will return to the postseason for the first time since 2004. Once there, if Williams has recovered, their dominant defense makes them a sleeper pick to make a Super Bowl run.
Arizona's playoff spot is assured, but the Cardinals are not a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The team is as one-dimensional as any in football, and that dimension has been increasingly slowed in recent weeks. Absent the game's best passing attack, the Cardinals are just a mediocre team with a subpar running game and pass defense. Every possible NFC playoff opponent (save the long-shot Bears) features an above-average pass rush, meaning the Cardinals will likely be unable to outscore their opponents the way they must to win games. The first playoff trip in over a decade is something to cheer, but the Cardinals have work to do if they want to build a Super Bowl-caliber team.
Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.