I don’t believe there is a strict numeric probability attached to the term “puncher’s chance”. But if there was one, I’d put it somewhere around 10%-15%. Because the Arizona Cardinals currently have an 11.6% chance to make the playoffs, I’m officially giving them a puncher’s chance.
Their odds at making the postseason would be even better if not for some unfortunate scheduling down the home stretch. Not only do the Cards play the Seahawks and the 49ers — perhaps the two best teams in the NFL right now — these last two weeks, but they also play them in the wrong (for them) order. If they played and beat the 49ers this weekend, then they’d have a realistic chance of making the postseason heading into next weekend regardless of what happened in other games. And they’d also then get the Seahawks in the final game of the season when the ‘Hawks would probably have everything clinched and be resting some of their starters. It would work out much better for Arizona if they could swap their Week 16 and Week 17 opponents.
But, they can’t, so in Seattle they will be, Sunday afternoon. And it’s difficult to see how they leave with a victory. The strength of the Cardinals, as discussed previously, is their stout defense. DVOA has them ranked second overall, and although I do think they’re really good, I wouldn’t put them as the number two D in the league right now. For one thing, Tyrann Mathieu is out*, and although his loss isn’t enough to make the unit go from really good to subpar (not with Daryl Washington, Karlos Dansby, and Patrick Peterson still in the lineup), it does make a difference. Honey Badger was having a tremendous rookie season. For another thing, I believe a lot of the Cards DVOA love comes from opponent adjustment, and that’s a tricky thing to quantify accurately. By most the traditional measures, the Cardinals rate as a top-10 defense, but one of the best two or three in the league. Lastly, for it what it’s worth, Arizona just gave up over 450 total yards last week to a mediocre Titans offense.
All of this is to say, I doubt the Cardinals can stymie the Seahawks offense the way, say, the 49ers did two weeks ago. If Ryan Fitzpatrick could light up a depleted Arizona secondary (to the tune of 402 passing yards), I think Russell Wilson will be able to move the ball okay. Earlier this season, Marshawn Lynch pumped out a very workmanlike 21 for 91 against the Cards, and a repeat performance seems quite possible. I don’t think the ‘Hawks run up nearly 60 on the Cards like they did last year, but 27 points and 350 total yards sounds about right.
Offensively the Cardinals have improved a tick in recent weeks, but it’s not like they resurrected Ollie Matson and coaxed Kurt Warner out of retirement. They’re still the same basic team they’ve been all year. And now they (possibly) have some big-time injury issues. Larry Fitzgerald is a bold-face question mark with a concussion, and the statuses of Andre Ellington and Michael Floyd are also uncertain. Starting tight end Rob Housler is probably out with a groin (an injured one, at that), and Carson Palmer has a bum ankle, to boot.** If all these guys are available and healthy the Cards still probably struggle to move the ball. If they aren’t? Well, can you see a gimpy Palmer finding Jaron Brown and Andre Roberts for big plays, while Rashard Mendenhall curves up the Seahawks front seven? Me neither.
Although I wouldn’t mind seeing the Cardinals back door their way into the playoffs, I (obviously) don’t want them to win this week.*** And I don’t think they will. For this week’s doppelganger game you don’t have to go back very far. I think it plays out very similarly to how it did in Arizona, maybe with one less touchdown each. Prediction: Seahawks 27, Cardinals 16.
**This begs the question, “How can you even tell when Carson Palmer has a bad ankle?”
***Even if the Cardinal’s lose, they would still get in if 1) Carolina loses both their final games (New Orleans and @ Atlanta), which is unlikely, but not ridiculous. 2) They beat the 49ers. Being that the Niners might have everything clinched and the game is in Arizona, this also is not ridiculous.