What Should We Expect From the Arizona Cardinals the Rest of the Season?

How far can the Arizona defense take the Cardinals this year?

Year two of Bruce Arians in Arizona is going as well as Cardinals fans have hoped. Last year the Cardinals finished at 10-6 but barely missed the playoffs. This year, though, the team is 9-1 and very much in control of the NFC West this season. The defense is still playing at the high level from last season, and the offense looking better than it did in 2013.

But is Arizona the team to beat in the NFC? Green Bay is riding the hot hand of Aaron Rodgers, and Philadelphia and Dallas seem destined for the playoffs as well. And you can’t count out division foes Seattle and San Francisco.

So what do our numbers say about the Cardinals season so far? And do they give them a chance to be the first team to host and play in the Super Bowl? Let’s take a look!

Favorable Schedule

Of the 10 games that the Cardinals have played this season, only four teams are currently in the top 13 of our power rankings. And against those four teams, the Cardinals weren’t very effective according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics. NEP measures points above or below expectation - or what an average team would be expected to accomplish on a given play.

OpponentAdj. NEP/PAdj. Pass NEP/PAdj. Rush NEP/P

Their only loss came against the Broncos, and you don’t have to stare at the data for long to figure out why. As we look at the Cardinals overall adjusted (for strength of schedule) NEP per play, this game was flat out ugly for the offense from an efficiency stand point.

Drew Stanton was starting in place of Carson Palmer at the time, and he led the passing offense to their second-worst outing of this season. The running game didn’t help either as the unit also put up its second-worst showing to date. In all, the passing offense lost 4.50 Passing NEP for the Cardinals while the running game lost 4.20 Rushing NEP.

On one hand, it's tough to blame the Cardinals for losing once to one of the best teams in the league, but against other top-tier opponents, the offense didn’t look great either. When the Cardinals played the Eagles, Cowboys, and Lions, they only averaged 0.01 NEP per play as an offense. That rendered these birds as a pretty average offense, not something you’d expect from a 9-1 team.

Their NEP marks against the rest of their schedule should look better as they faced lesser teams, but it hasn’t really been all that much better. Let’s take a look at how many points the Cardinals contributed in the rushing and passing games with our Passing and Rushing NEP metrics.

OpponentNEPPassing NEPRushing NEP

The Cardinals had their best game offensively against the 49ers, the 16th-best team in our power rankings. The running game did its part by posting one of only two positive NEP contributions on the year. The passing offense was sharp, too, in Stanton’s second start of the year as the game against the Niners is the team’s best performance in 2014.

It is interesting to note the offense’s lackluster performances against the Giants, Redskins, and Raiders. The Giants game was the worst showing by the passing offense as they cost the team nearly a touchdown. But in the end, it was a punt return for a touchdown and three turnovers from the Giants that helped the Cardinals secure a victory.

That wasn’t the only game this season where he defense has bailed out the Cardinals. The Cardinals rank fifth in league with 20 turnovers this season, and four of them came against the Redskins. The defense did what the running game couldn’t do: provide a much needed-boost. The Cardinals defense came up with a pick-six at the end of the game.

Trouble in the Backfield

In the Redskins and Raiders tilts, the rushing offense couldn’t gain any traction. It was two of the worst performances by the Cardinals’ running game this season.

Against the Redskins, the ground game lost 0.04 points per play for the team, resulting in a -2.90 Rushing NEP for the Cardinals. The rushing offense lost 3.37 points the next week against the Raiders as well.

But we really shouldn’t be surprised that the Cardinals rushing attack hasn’t been that great. The game against the Giants was against a rushing defense that is 25th against the run according to our Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP. Only two other opponents the Cardinals played rank in the bottom half of the league; the rest are 13th or better against the run.

That’s not all to say the Cardinals rushing attack should get a pass – they are still a liability as the performances against some of the worst rush defenses were not as good as they could have been. There is still cause for concern, and it could haunt them when the playoffs start.

Slippery Road Ahead

The Cardinals still have the Chiefs, Seahawks (twice), and 49ers remaining on their schedule and each team is currently in the top half of our team rankings. The games against the Rams and Falcons should be easy wins for the team, but as evidenced by the Rams' victory over the Broncos - and the Raiders' victory over the Chiefs - nothing is guaranteed in football.

The best thing going for the Cardinals is their defense. They are stout, ranking ninth against the run and have kept 16.12 points off the board this season according to our metrics. Their pass defense is even better, ranking fifth.

Overall, the defense is one of the best in the league, and that should allow for breathing room in their division. Their nERD, 5.50, indicates that they would beat an average team on a neutral field by 5.50 points, thanks in large part to their defense. However, with the liability of the running game, they could be due for a lot of close games the rest of the way.

But with the way they are playing, the Cardinals could indeed be the first Super Bowl host team to play in the Super Bowl as our algorithms give the Cardinals the highest chance to win their division (88.4%) of any team in the league and to become Super Bowl champions (15.2%).

So watch out Green Bay, Philadelphia and Detroit. The NFC road to the Super Bowl is currently routed through Arizona.