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The Week in Overreactions: 'Cardinals still aren't a playoff team'

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com


Can Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer lead the Cardinals to the playoffs? (USATSI)

New storylines emerge every week. Some are reasonable, most are not. "The Week in Overreactions" focuses on the latter. Those items that offer a cursory "How do you do?" as they blow past reality straight for THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING THING EVER! We're here to keep everything in perspective. Questions, comments, casserole ideas? Hit us up on Twitter at @ryanwilson_07.

About those Arizona Cardinals...

Confession: Despite a new coach, a new general manager and a new (to Arizona, anyway) quarterback, we gave little consideration back in August to the 2013 Cardinals being anything other than a last-place team in the NFC West. The thinking went something like this: The Seahawks will be better than last year's playoff squad, the Rams will finally put it all together (we seem to fall for this every freaking year), and the 49ers will take a step back but still win nine or ten games.

That left the Cardinals, 5-11 a year ago, with huge questions at quarterback (despite the addition of Carson Palmer) and offensive line.

Arizona's 3-4 start this season confirmed our suspicions. Even though there were glimpses of what this team could become (See: wins over the Lions and Panthers), they still seemed a few players away from being a legit playoff contender. Three weeks and three wins later, the Cardinals are 6-4 and suddenly ... a legit playoff contender.

Yes, the three-game winning streak includes beating the Falcons, Texans and Jaguars, a group that has combined for five victories, but all the Cardinals can do is play whomever's on the schedule. As is stands, they are seventh in the NFC, one game out of the wild card, just behind the 49ers, who are also 6-4.

How has this team gone from afterthought to in the thick of it?

First, Todd Bowles. The defensive coordinator who had almost no success in Philly last year (to be fair, no one did), has been exceptional in Arizona. The Cards have the league's No. 2 defense (2nd vs. the run; 4th vs. the pass), according to Football Outsiders, behind only the Panthers.

Second, the offensive line, even without first-round pick Jonathan Cooper, has been mediocre. This is a compliment. The unit is 15th in pass protection and 16th in run blocking.

Palmer, meanwhile, has been something less than that. He's 29th in Football Outsiders' QB efficiency metric (just ahead of Matt Schaub and Ryan Tannehill) and conventional stats confirm as much: 14 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 79.7 passer rating.

In our mind, Palmer hasn't been the same since the 2008 season, when he missed 12 games with an elbow injury. He played two more replacement-level years in Cincy before a trade sent him to Oakland for two more. Now 33, he's certainly an upgrade over Kevin Kolb or John Skelton, but he's clearly not the long-term answer in Arizona.

Then again, he doesn't have to be. This season will be a success if the Cardinals are still playing in January. (Forget the annual "Super Bowl aspirations" talking points we hear every August from all 32 clubs. Realistically, that applies to a handful of teams; everyone else would happily settle for a postseason appearance.)

So how does that happen? The easy answer is "win the rest of your games." It's slightly more complicated than that, and, frankly, they're going to need some luck. In looking at the schedule, Arizona's fate could come down to a Week 17 matchup with the 49ers.

Here are the Cards' final six regular-season games: Colts, at Eagles, Rams, at Titans, at Seahawks, 49ers.

And here's the rest of the 49ers' schedule: at Redskins, Rams, Seahawks, at Buccaneers, Falcons, at Cardinals.

On paper, San Francisco appears to have the edge, but if Arizona can go 3-2 over heading into that Week 17 matchup with the 49ers, they could -- wait for it -- control their destiny in the regular-season finale.

Of course, there are other considerations, namely the Bears (8th in the NFC, 6-4 overall), Cowboys (9th, 5-5) and Packers (10th 5-5). They are all on the outside looking in and desperately need wins down the stretch.

The Cardinals are well aware of this, as well as their place in the current playoff picture.

“We have talked about how the playoffs have already started [for us] -- you lose, you're out,” first-year coach Bruce Arians said Sunday. “We are a game behind teams so we have to keep winning. We have to take a playoff attitude every week, that this game is a playoff game and we have to win to catch up. The guys have done it.”

It would be an incredible story and one that, from the perspective of mid-November, seems eminently plausible. Now all the Cards have to do is go out and win.

'That fake field goal cost the Lions the game'

Here's the scene: The Lions dropped 27 points on the Steelers in the second quarter Sunday and Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson looked a whole hell of a lot like, well, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. So when Detroit faced a 4th and 5 from the Steelers 10-yard line with 13 minutes to go in the fourth quarter and leading 27-23, we were shocked to see them attempt a fake field goal.

Mostly because it was unexpected given the situation, but the element of surprise is sort of the point.

But even though the play failed -- punter Sam Martin took a huge hit, fumbled, and Steelers safety Ryan Clark recovered at the Pittsburgh 3-yard line -- we had no real issue with the call. For starters, the Steelers had the ball 97 yards from their end zone.

If the 2013 season has taught us anything, it's that this Pittsburgh offense has perfected the demoralizing three-and-out in much the same way Peyton Manning has perfected the precision passing offense or Matt Schaub the pick-six.

Of course, Ben Roethlisberger marched the Steelers on a 16-play drive that took up 8:03 and ended in a one-yard touchdown pass. For some perspective on just how improbable that touchdown drive was, consider this: According to AdvancedNFLStats.com, the Lions still had a 75 percent chance to win the game after the failed fake field goal attempt.

It didn't happen, but if you're looking to assess blame, how about the interception Stafford threw on the ensuing possession, with the Lions trailing 30-27 with four minutes left in the game? Or the missed touchdown passes to wide-open Reggie Bush or Kevin Ogletree in the first half?

"[The fake field goal] had nothing to do with mindset,” coach Jim Schwartz said afterwards. “It had to do with trying to make the plays to win the game. We didn't make it. But look, you can say whatever you want.Y'all say whatever you want about me.

“Don't say I'm scared because we ain't,” he continued. “This team's going to be aggressive. We're going to play our very best. We didn't play well enough to win this game, but it's not because we're passive or anything. We went for it on the fourth down also. We didn't make enough plays to win this game, offense, defense and special teams.”

'There's no way Case Keenum should've been benched'

There is no silver lining to the Texans' 2013 season. By any measure, it's an unmitigated disaster. The team has lost eight straight and there's no reason to think things will magically improve over the final six weeks. Second-year quarterback Case Keenum was one of the lone bright spots in recent weeks but the former undrafted player out of Houston was benched in the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Raiders for ... well, we have no earthly idea.

Here was coach Gary Kubiak's explanation after the game:

"What was happening was, we had to make a lot of changes from a protection standpoint to handle some of the things they were doing," he said. "Trying to create some tempo and do that. And it made it very tough on Case, in my opinion, being a young player. I knew that Matt [Schaub] could get done some of the things that I wanted to get done, real fast, and to give us a chance to win the football game. So that's why I did it."

Worth noting: In his first three starts, Keenum had thrown for 822 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He was 13-of-24 for 170 yards with one TD and a pick when Kubiak decided to replace him with Matt Schaub. This is the very same Schaub who had twice been featured in Coach Killers this season, and as mentioned above, has an uncanny ability to throw touchdowns to the other team.

Long story short: Schaub came in, the Texans lost. Even Andre Johnson, who later admitted he was wrong, was frustrated.

And while Kubiak's decision to yank Keenum remains hard to fathom, here's your upside, Texans fans: The 2014 draft class is stacked with quarterbacks, and NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang has the Texans taking Oregon's Marcus Mariota in the first round.

By Monday, Kubiak had named Keenum the starter for Week 12's game against the Jaguars and offered more details as to why he pulled him.

“I was really thinking about him (Keenum),” the coach said of benching Keenum. “I've been in this league for a long time and dealt with a lot of quarterbacks. I'm trying to develop one right now. Right or wrong I made that decision because of the situation I thought I was fixing to put a young player in from my standpoint, coaching wise. Which I don't have time to explain that to y'all. That's why I did what I did. He (Keenum) knows that, I talked to him about that.”

Even with Keenum's play, we don't think there's a Texans fan on the planet who is averse to the team drafting a quarterback early. But there is a scenario where Schaub is released but Kubiak returns and he finally decides to go with either Keenum or T.J. Yates.

Or worse: Kubiak trades, say, a second-rounder for Kirk Cousins, the Redskins' backup who is familiar with Kubiak's offense because he plays for Mike Shanahan, the man who was Kubiak's boss when both were in Denver. That would put the Texans in full-on rebuilding mode a season after a lot of people thought this team could represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

And that doomsday scenario should be what scares owner Bob McNair into finally parting ways with Kubiak, who by all accounts is a swell guy but just hasn't gotten it done in Houston.

So, yes, Keenum's benching made little sense, but hopefully it wasn't done in vain; Kubiak's insistence on sticking with Schaub could end up costing both of them their jobs. And in the long run, that's probably in everyone's best interests.

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