8:15 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Cardinals -1, Over/Under: 49
Happy holidays from everyone here at Oracle Sports, and what better way to spend the day than with family and football, as the Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals exchange pleasantries on Christmas Day from State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. At this advanced point of the regular season, you would be hard-pressed to find few teams hotter than the Colts (8-6, 2nd in AFC South), who after getting off to a disappointing 0-3 start have since won eight of their last eleven games and as a result find themselves in not just the thick of the playoff race, but the AFC South as well. In many respects, Indianapolis could be even better off than they are right now if not for some excruciatingly close losses; two of those defeats during this span have come in overtime, with all three going down to the wire. So, what has changed in Indianapolis, you ask? Well, (Sophomore Tailback) Jonathan Taylor (270 CAR, 1,518 YDS, 5.6 Y/A, 17 TD) has absolutely exploded to the point where his name is among the candidates for MVP honors, of which he is certainly deserving. The 22-year-old came on strong a year ago, and after a lukewarm start to 2021 has been the driving force for their success with a whopping 1,347 rushing yards and seventeen touchdowns over the last eleven contests, averaging a robust 122.5 yards on 5.91 yards per carry, while also hauling in twenty-eight receptions for another 266 yards and two more scores to boot. Leading the National Football League in rushing attempts (270), yards (1,518), and touchdowns (17), Taylor is just 192 scrimmage yards shy of passing Edgerrin James for the most in a single season in franchise history. Furthermore, he has hit the 100-yard threshold in eight of the last eleven outings, totaled 100 yards from scrimmage in all but one of those games, has tied a franchise record with at least one touchdown in every one of those contests, and with one more score will join an exclusive club consisting of some names that you’re no doubt familiar with: Eric Dickerson, Terrell Davis, Larry Johnson, and LaDainian Tomlinson. When we last saw him, the young rusher enjoyed his moment in the sun as he ran wild against a staunch Patriots defense that had been on fire previously, trampling them to the tune of 170 yards on twenty-nine carries in a 27-17 victory. (Head Coach) Frank Reich’s charges dominated the affair through the first three quarters of play, leading 20-0 heading into the final stanza on the strength of an eight-yard touchdown toss from (Quarterback) Carson Wentz (62.7%, 3,005 YDS, 6.24 NY/A, 23 TD, 6 INT, 58.1 QBR) to (Tailback) Nyheim Hines (84 TCH, 531 YDS, 6.3 Y/T, 3 TD) and a blocked punt courtesy of (Special Teams ace) E.J. Speed (21 TKL, 1 PD) that was recovered in the end zone. With that said, New England came roaring back late with seventeen unanswered points on three consecutive drives, aided by a missed field goal and interception of Wentz. However, with the momentum squarely in the corner of the visitors with just over two minutes left to play, Taylor burst through the left side of the Offensive Line and rocketed sixty-seven yards downfield for the clinching touchdown. As a team, the hosts did the bulk of their damage on the ground with all but forty-nine of their total yards coming via the run, rushing for 226 yards which just so happened to be the second-most relinquished by Bill Belichick’s defense this season. Though they frequently came up short on third down (2-of-11), Reich bullishly rolled the dice on fourth down on three occasions and converted every single one of them, two of which led to successful field goals. Wentz only attempted a dozen passes and completed just five of them, though his early touchdown to Hines set the tone early. And speaking of the veteran signal-caller, Wentz has predictably thrived in his first season in Indianapolis reunited with Reich, who played a key role in his early development in Philadelphia. By now we’re all acquainted with how things fell apart for Wentz in the City of Brotherly Love, and it should come as no surprise that he’s managed to regain his form in a more positive environment; after posting career-lows in a slew of categories including an NFL-worst FIFTEEN interceptions in just twelve games, the 29-year-old has tossed twenty-three touchdowns in comparison to just six interceptions, while improving his net yards per attempt from a dismal 4.71 to 6.24 thus far. Of course, the key here has been that in addition to being in a run-heavy offense he has also been the recipient of excellent pass-protection, suffering only twenty-three sacks a year after leading the league with a career-high of FIFTY, which is paramount when you consider his lengthy injury history. Another reason for their success has been the play of their defense which has been the most opportunistic unit in the NFL thus far, with a staggering THIRTY-ONE takeaways (1st Overall). The Colts have forced at least one turnover in every game this season, with multiple takeaways in all but three of their fourteen outings. (Defensive Coordinator) Matt Eberflus may not have many household names on this side of the football, but that’s not say that he doesn’t have his share of playmakers; (Linebackers) Darius Leonard (107 TKL, 4 TFL, 3 QBH, 6 FF, 1 FR, 3 INT, 7 PD) and Bobby Okereke (110 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 4 PD) have become as good a tandem as there is in the league, while (undrafted Cornerback) Keeny Moore (83 TKL, 5 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 4 INT, 13 PD) has been a pleasant surprise, with (Defensive Lineman) DeForest Buckner (55 TKL, 8 TFL, 16 QBH, 6.5 SK, 3 PD) continuing to be a wrecking ball in the trenches since arriving via trade with the San Francisco 49ers a year ago. After the Titans won on Thursday night, the pressure is on the Colts to win out if they are to have a chance at surpassing their division rivals; remember, Tennessee has already swept the season series with Indianapolis, essentially holding a two-game lead in the standings. Outside of the AFC South, Indy is stuck in the middle a group of five teams sporting an 8-6 record and are currently holding on to the fifth seed due to tiebreakers, meaning that any lapse in performance could spell falling out of the playoff picture altogether. Fortunately, the remaining schedule is far from perilous, for after tonight’s trip to the desert their final two matchups include the fading Las Vegas Raiders and the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. Reich & Co must like their chances against both opponents, for they curb stomped the Raiders in a 44-27 meeting last year, while already besting the NFL-worst Jags back in mid-November (23-17).
Meanwhile, forgive us if we are feeling for the Cardinals (10-4, 1st in NFC West), who after enjoying their best start in franchise history have begun to unravel in recent weeks, losing back-to-back games for the first time this season. Indeed, everything was roses for Arizona after racing out to a 7-0 start in one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, a period in which they were leading the league in scoring at a prolific 32.1 points per game on 402.1 total yards. However, since suffering a narrow 24-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers on a late-October night have barely survived at 3-4. So, what in the name of Pat Tillman is going on in the desert, you ask? Well, it certainly didn’t help that both (third-year Quarterback) Kyler Murray (69.8%, 3,039 YDS, 7.31 NY/A, 20 TD, 10 INT, 56.1 QBR) and (All-Pro Receiver) DeAndre Hopkins (42 REC, 572 YDS, 13.6 Y/R, 8 TD) suffered sprained ankles in that loss to the Packers and would go on to miss roughly a month of action. Simply put, Murray and Hopkins are the two most indispensable components of (Head Coach) Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, with his young Quarterback making a sizable leap in his third season as the starter. 2021 has been a banner year for Murray, who was selected no. one overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, setting career-highs in a slew of categories including completion percentage (69.8%), passing yards per game (276.3), touchdown percentage (5.5%), yards per attempt (8.4), yards per completion (12.1), net yards per attempt (7.31), and passer rating (102.3). While performing at an MVP level during their torrid start (73.5%, 286.0 Y/G, 8.33 NY/A, 17 TD, 5 INT), he has struggled to regain that form since his return in completing just 62.8% of his passes for an average of 254.3 yards on 6.67 net yards per attempt, with as many touchdowns as interceptions (3). Though it’s reasonable to point to the health of his ankle and the effect it has had on his mobility (which is a HUGE part of his game) for his decline, there is a growing train of thought that Kingsbury’s offense is doing him no favors. For the third year in a row, the Cardinals’ attack has fallen off the rails over the second half of the season, with Kingsbury’s simplistic spread attack becoming a little too predictable for opposing defenses. Over the last seven games following their perfect start, Arizona has averaged just 21.8 points on 350.7 total yards, including just 16.5 points on 337.0 total yards in their four losses. The tipping point was last weekend’s stunning 30-12 loss to the lowly Detroit Lions, who prior that afternoon owned the NFL’s worst record at 1-11-1. Watching this one unfold, you would have thought that the Cards were the team with only one win, for they were never in this affair; the visitors were rendered scoreless in the first half, punting on their first three possessions before turning it over on downs shortly before intermission, while the hosts outscored them 17-0 and outgained them by a whopping 179 total yards. Things would only get marginally better in the second half, for after finally getting on the board with a field goal and immediately getting the football back following a Detroit fumble, Kingsbury’s troops gave it right back with an interception of Murray, which the Lions turned into yet another touchdown to make it 24-3. In the end, Arizona may have racked up 398 total yards with Murray throwing for 257, but those numbers didn’t represent what really happened at all. First, Murray needed FIFTY passes to get to that total and completed just over half of them (21), and while the Cards completed 7-of-15 third downs, they were just 1-of-3 on fourth down, essentially losing the turnover battle 3-1. Conversely, (Lions’ Quarterback) Jared Goff authored what was arguably his finest performance of the campaign, completing an efficient 21-of-26 attempts for 216 yards and three touchdowns, two of which traveling over twenty yards. Furthermore, Detroit really leaned on their size in the trenches, rushing for 126 yards on thirty-four attempts. And now for the bad news: in suffering their second consecutive loss, the Cardinals have not only fallen out of the top seed in the NFC but have dropped to the fourth seed with the potential to fall even further as the Los Angeles Rams are hot on their trail. Two weeks ago, Arizona held a commanding two-game lead over their division rivals, but after a loss to the Rams and last weekend’s blunder in the Motor City they stand virtually tied at 10-4 with only a better division win percentage separating them at the moment. Of course, if the postseason began today then these teams would be playing each other, and when you consider that 30-23 affair two weeks ago, we get the sense that they would rather avoid Aaron Donald & Co altogether. And with that in mind, the Cards clearly face the tougher remaining schedule, for after tonight’s matchup with Indianapolis they will travel to Dallas for a HUGE meeting with the Cowboys, which will be absolutely ripe with playoff implications, before closing out the regular season at home against the tricky Seattle Seahawks. Most teams would be happy hosting two of their final three outings in a playoff race, but for some reason State Farm Stadium hasn’t been a happy home for the Cardinals in 2021; Arizona is a subpar 3-4 at home thus far compared to a near-perfect 7-1 on the road, losing each of their last three in the desert. Turnovers have been a big reason for their struggles in this regard, with eleven giveaways leading to a minus-7 differential in such contests. It would certainly help to have a healthy Hopkins back in the mix, but the team effectively shut down the five-time Pro-Bowler for the remainder of the regular season due to that nagging sprained ankle that cost him three games after the Green Bay affair. The 29-year-old hauled in seven catches for eighty-six yards and a touchdown in two games before he was placed on the shelf once more, with Kingsbury stating the plan was to preserve for the postseason.