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Surprising Cardinals Worth a Look in NFL Futures...By Jay Graziani

While all NFL eyes are on the undefeated Titans, and to a lesser degree the dominant NY Giants, another team has quietly been making a case for postseason success. The Cardinals are now sitting on a 5-3 record, representing their best showing at the halfway point in nearly 15 years, and one likely to improve to 6-3 after tonight. where they have been installed as nearly 10 point favorites against their struggling divisional rivals, the 49ers.

A win tonight would give Arizona an imposing 6-game lead over the whole NFC West and all but assures the Cardinals of making the playoffs (last week they were listed as 40-to-1 favorites to win their division). They are already well on pace to exceed the preseason posted season wins total (7-1/2), at which point they were about 40-to-1 longshots to win the Superbowl and a 3-to-1 underdog in their division.

Unfortunately, history is not on the Cardinals' side. They haven't seen the playoffs in 10 years, and have had only one non-losing season in that span (rallying to go 8-8 last year). In the Superbowl era, the Cardinals have reached the playoffs only 5 times, and managed but a single postseason victory in their history. Backing a team who hasn't been able to put together a winning season in a decade may not seem like the wisest move, but this year's incarnation of the Cardinals is much improved from past squads.

Their losses have all come to above average teams in the Redskins (6-3), Jets (6-3), and Carolina (7-2). Despite a frustrating 56-35 shootout loss to the Jets, the Cardinals were able to stay within one score in their other two losses and have outscored their opponents on the season by an average of over 6 points.

The Cardinals' offense is among the most potent in the NFL, averaging nearly 390 yards and a league-high 29.2 points per game. This is thanks to the aerial assault of Kurt Warner, 2nd in the league with an impressive 104.2 passer rating for the season, and top targets Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Both are top 10 in the league in yards and scoring (13 combined TDs this season), despite Boldin missing two games earlier in the year after a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit. While Warner's ability to play championship football at 37 years of age may be a concern, he remains the 2nd highest rated passer in NFL history and leads an offense ranked 1st in total points, 2nd in passing yards, and 3rd in total yards.

The weak link in the offense has been the rushing game, but that may be changing. Edgerrin James has been largely ineffective, leading the Cardinals to a 28th ranked rushing offense that has not averaged even 100 yards per game. However, 5th round draftee Tim Hightower has added a spark to the ground game in recent weeks, earning him his first start in Arizona's last game. While his performance against the Swiss cheese known as the St. Louis defense should be taken with a grain of salt, his 115 combined yards and a TD is at least a hint of a running game that should only improve as the season progresses.

The defense, while certainly possessing some flaws, has at least been good enough to allow the offense to stay ahead. They have managed to stay middle-of-the-pack statistically, though they do benefit from a weak schedule. Nonetheless, when you have the strongest offense in the league, an "average" defense is generally more than enough to win games.

The "computer rankings" also support the Cardinals' chances at a Superbowl run. Jeff Sagarin of USA Today rates Arizona either the 6th or 7th best team in the NFL, and Kenneth Massey has them as the 9th best NFL team. This corresponds to 4th and 6th best team, respectively, in the NFC conference. Further, the Cardinals turnover differential is only +1 for the season, indicating that they haven't been the recipients of any particular good or bad luck.

Their remaining schedule could hardly be more favorable. Including tonight's game, half of Arizona's remaining games are against opponents with only 2 wins apiece this season. Those teams, of course, are the other NFC West squads. The other four games are against more worthy opponents in the Giants, Eagles, Vikings, and Patriots, but even including these playoff-caliber teams the Cardinals' remaining opponents combine for a mere 32-39 record this season.

The schedule overall argues for about 6 more wins, allowing the Cardinals to end 11-5 and shoot for a potential 3 seed in the playoffs with the ensuing home game in the wild card round. This would also give them first shot at the team just squeezing into the playoffs and a chance to avoid the top seed until the NFC Championship game.

Arizona Superbowl futures were widely available at 19-to-1 prior to kickoff of this past weekend's games. While most sportsbooks will keep NFL futures off the board until after Monday Night Football, odds equivalent to 17-to-1 were available at Tradesports and 19-to-1 at Betfair (for non-U.S. bettors).

Do the Cardinals have what it takes to win Superbowl 43? They have shown that they can run with any offense in the NFL, and while a strong defense is generally a key to Superbowl success, the Cardinals defense has been able to perform well enough to let their offense win games for them. Kurt Warner led similar teams to victory with "The Greatest Show On Turf" almost a decade ago.

At odds of nearly 20-to-1, the Cardinals look like a reasonable wager to win the Superbowl. We get the best offense in the NFL, a favorable schedule, and a near-guaranteed playoff spot. While the chances of them winning are still slim, there's plenty of value in the present number. At the very least this should present favorable hedging opportunities once the playoffs begin.

Jay Graziani

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