Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 6:30 PM
It's been a year of surprises in the NFL already. But, there's no greater surprise than the fact that the Arizona Cardinals sit at 4-0 heading into Thursday Night's nationally televised game in St. Louis. They weren't supposed to be a playoff contender. And, a brutal early schedule had them facing Preseason Super Bowl favorites New England and Philadelphia in back-to-back weeks.
It's hard enough to go 4-0 against an easy schedule in this league (which Houston has managed to do). Arizona went 4-0 the hard way:
The Cards were underdogs in their season opener against Seattle...a team that had ignited a bandwagon run with a hot exhibition slate. Some pundits were picking Seattle to surge past San Francisco this year in the NFC West. Many Vegas sharps had made the Seahawks a big bet over the Cards on that first Sunday of the season. Arizona survived a thriller to start the season 1-0.
The Cards were the biggest underdogs of the short season the next time they took the field in New England. The Patriots played poorly, and Arizona's defense played very well. The Cards were in position to steal an upset when a late fumble set up the Pats for a gift victory. New England missed the field goal! That moved Arizona to 2-0.
The Cards were 4-point underdogs at home vs. Philadelphia in what struck the handicapping world as a natural letdown spot. Yeah, a letdown for Philadelphia! After barely getting by Baltimore, the Eagles self-destructed with major miscues that put Arizona at 3-0 through three weeks.
The Cards were favored for the first time last week vs. lowly Miami. They were outplayed by quite a bit (as you'll see in a moment in the boxscore). Yet, the survived in overtime to stay unscathed a month into the season.
This team could very easily be 1-3...which would have been the projected market record based on their pointspreads. Instead, Arizona is 4-0 and thinking about the playoffs.
Let's see what the numbers say about a possible detour being thrown in their path tonight.
ARIZONA CARDINALS at ST. LOUIS RAMS (8:20 p.m. on NFL NETWORK)
Las Vegas Spread: Arizona by 1.5, total of 38.5
Home field advantage is typically worth three points in the NFL. The market opened Arizona at -3 late Sunday, suggesting Arizona would be -6 on a neutral field, and -9 at home. Sharps didn't buy that at all, and hit the home underdog Rams right away. The current line of Arizona by 1.5 suggests -4.5 on a neutral field. The very low total is out of respect for both team's defenses...and the lack of confidence the market has in either quarterback to do well vs. quality defenses. This is Kevin Kolb vs. Sam Bradford we're talking about! That would have been a high scoring college game, but projects to a low scoring NFL game based on their track record as pros.
Arizona: 4-0 (vs. Seattle, at New England, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Miami)
St. Louis: 2-2 (at Detroit, vs. Washington, at Chicago, vs. Seattle)
We've already looked at Arizona. St. Louis has played a representative schedule that's had them missing the high end and the low end of the spectrum. Three of the four games were nailbiters, which suggests the Rams can play with most anybody at home...and the bottom half of the league on the road. To this point, it has been a big difficult to determine for sure which teams belong in the top half or bottom half. It could turn out that Arizona is a 6-10 caliber team that's been incredibly lucky. Maybe tonight's when the Cards prove they're more like a 10-6 team that deserves legitimate respect. Note that both teams won close games vs. same site common divisional opponent Seattle.
St. Louis: -4
This has helped separate these teams in the standings. We talked about the importance right now of turnovers in the NFL in our Wednesday edition of the NOTEBOOK. Arizona had enjoyed some good fortune. You can't say it's bad luck for St. Louis though. Bradford has yet to show he's mastered the risk/reward elements of being an NFL quarterback. Frankly, he hasn't shown that he's mastered anything at all even with ample opportunity. He's about a month away from officially being labeled a flop!
Arizona: 271.0 yards-per-game on 4.3 yards-per-play
St. Louis: 287.0 yards-per-game on 4.7 yards-per-play
You regulars know that most of the league is in the 5's right now, with the elite offenses still in the 6's because sample size issues haven't knocked them down yet. These are both very poor offenses in terms of moving the ball and getting things done. This is why the Vegas total is in the 30's. There haven't been many of those in what's been a high scoring season.
Arizona: 357.0 yards-per-game on 5.0 yards-per-play
St. Louis: 348.8 yards-per-game on 5.5 yards-per-play
The defenses look soft by comparison. But, these aren't horrible numbers when you adjust for how little help their getting from their offenses! Arizona is only allowing 5 yards-per-play, which is good enough to get the job done for sure. Remember, their schedule included New England and Philadelphia, teams known to pile up stats even when they're not winning. St. Louis has the lesser of the two defenses when you adjust for context. Each would seem able to handle their challenge tonight give the poor offensive numbers.
LAST WEEK'S BOXES
ARIZONA 24, MIAMI 21 (in overtime)
Total Yardage: Miami 480, Arizona 297
Rushing Yards: Miami 86, Arizona 28
Passing Stats: Miami 26-41-2-394, Arizona 29-48-2-269
Turnovers: Miami 4, Arizona 2
Third Downs: Miami 37%, Arizona 25%
Vegas Line: Arizona by 5.5, total of 40
A few things in play here for Arizona's defense. They were in a flat spot off the Pats and Eagles...and they allowed some yardage in attempts to force turnovers against a rookie quarterback. They DID force turnovers while holding Miami to 21 points in regulation plus extra time. The gambit worked. Think how good Arizona's defensive stats must have looked before this game! Note that Kolb threw almost 50 times, which means that passing yardage volume isn't very impressive. Anything over 250 seems good at first glance...but it's a negative if it takes 50 passes to get there.
ST. LOUIS 19, SEATTLE 13
Total Yardage: Seattle 319, St. Louis 286
Rushing Yards: Seattle 179, St. Louis 75
Passing Stats: Seattle 17-25-3-140, St. Louis 17-31-1-211
Turnovers: Seattle 3, St. Louis 1
Third Downs: Seattle 22%, St. Louis 38%
Vegas Line: Seattle by 3, total of 39
Well, a lucky win here. You regulars know how much weight we place on rushing yardage. The Rams were outclassed badly in that stat, and were outscored 10-3 in points scored on drives of 60 yards or more (something we've talked about a lot in the past too). The Rams won here thanks to their turnover advantage, and a great day on field goals from their rookie kicker. Yes, give them credit for holding Seattle to 140 passing yards. And, for the takeaways. Just remember that no defense has yet figured out how to force three per game on purpose!
You get the sense that both teams are going to try to win on defense...keeping the reigns pretty tight on quarterbacks who are hard to trust under pressure. Any intangibles in our view would have the TV home underdog. Arizona is due to fall back to earth. And, this team just isn't good enough to win games when not bring peak intensity. Any level of arrogance at all will bring about a rude awakening.
So, if you think Arizona had its flat spot last week vs. Miami, maybe the Under is the way to play it. If you think the laws of math are about to spank the Cardinals hard, then a small upset call is in order. Of course, fading Sam Bradford in "winnable"games has been a decent strategy since he became a pro...so a case can be made for Arizona sneaking to 5-0 before reality comes knocking at their door later in the season.
JIM HURLEY has been working very hard with his team of experts to find you the best betting options on the Thursday Night schedule. In addition to Cards-Rams, the college schedule features USC-Utah on ESPN, Arkansas-Florida International on ESPNU, and East Carolina-Central Florida. You can purchase NETWORK'S top plays during the day Thursday here at the website with your credit card. Or, call the office at 1-800-323-4453 to get more information. This is a great time, by the way, to lock in for a football-baseball combination package that includes the full playoffs and World Series on the diamonds.
Back with you Friday to talk college football (we'll have a stat preview of Georgia-South Carolina on Friday, then West Virginia-Texas on Saturday). Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY to stay on top of major handicapping developments. And, log in DAILY for BIG JUICY WINNERS from JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!