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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, November 23, 2016 at 11:43 AM

It’s been a rough season thus far for the Arizona Cardinals. They’re 4-5-1 and with a three-game margin separating them from the Seattle Seahawks, any NFC West title hopes are all but gone. The Cardinals are two games back of the Washington Redskins for the final wild-card spot. There’s hope there, but time is running short and a visit to NFC South-leading Atlanta looms as a must-win. It’s been a definite drop down for fourth-year head coach Bruce Arians, who won double-digit games in each of his first three seasons in the desert.

The season has been even worse for Arizona’s backers at the betting window. The Cardinals are 3-7 ATS. With a flicker of playoff hope still alive though, and the NFC potentially being a wide-open bracket in January, Arizona is as intriguing a longshot as anyone. Could they first sneak into the playoffs and then make good on a 25-1 price to reach the Super Bowl and a 50-1 payout if they win it?

Arizona’s underachievement has come due to problems on offense. That’s borne out by their #18 ranking in points scored and by the fact six of their ten games have played to the Under. And those offensive problems can be summed up in three words: No Big Plays.

Carson Palmer is generating 7.2 yards-per-attempt. That’s middling by any standard and for the Cardinals it’s worse because Palmer led the league in this stat a year ago. While Larry Fitzgerald is playing well and has caught 74 balls, his own 10.1 yards-per-catch is the lowest among the NFL’s ten leading pass catchers.

We can certainly trace some of the problems to the offensive line. The pass protection on both edges is poor and you aren’t going to get the ball down the field if the quarterback doesn’t have time to set and scan the field. But some of it falls on Palmer’s shoulders as well—his shorter passes haven’t resulted in increased efficiency. His 61.5% completion rate is 23rd among starting quarterbacks. The TD/INT ratio of 13-10 is poor.

Arizona is in contention because of a defense that ranks 10th in points allowed and the yeoman’s work of running back David Johnson. Johnson is third in the league in rush yardage, and his 4.4 yards-per-carry are good for a back with the workload size he takes on. Johnson is also the team’s second-leading receiver behind Fitzgerald, though in a roundabout way that illustrates the problem this offense has getting the football down the field.

Defensively, the Cardinals have few weaknesses. They have excellent players at all three levels and the secondary is one of the league’s best. Even with Tyrann Mathieu’s health in question, Patrick Peterson continues to be a lockdown corner and the solid work of Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger can get lost amidst the name recognition of their more famous teammates.

The defensive front is led by Chandler Jones, who gets pressure off the edge and Calais Campbell who anchors the middle. Deon Buchanan and Markus Golden key a good group of linebackers. And with Corey Peters on the verge of returning to the lineup the front seven still has an upside.

Keep a close eye on the Cardinals. They’re well-coached, can run the ball and play good defense. Even if they can’t make a longshot run at a Super Bowl, that’s still a good formula for winning some games down the stretch—and covering pointspreads, as the market ceases to price them like a contender.

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