It has gone largely unnoticed, but a sudden surge has turned the Arizona Cardinals into one of the NFL’s better second-half stories. The unlikely emergence of quarterback John Skelton has been a key.
The Cardinals opened the season 1-6 before embarking on a 6-1 run heading into today’s game at Cincinnati.
Kevin Kolb was the high-priced quarterback Arizona pinned its hopes on, yet Skelton helped revive a lost year. Skelton is 4-1 as the starter, and he is expected to get the call again with Kolb recovering from a concussion.
Each of the Cardinals’ six recent wins came by margins of six points or fewer, and they reeled off three consecutive home victories over Cleveland, San Francisco and Dallas.
Ken Thomson, a SportsXRadio.com handicapper and host of a show at 7 p.m. weeknights on KDWN-AM (720), is not overly impressed by Arizona’s surge. Thomson is siding with the Bengals, who remain in position to make a postseason run at 8-6, as 4-point favorites.
“I know a lot of people like Arizona and I respect that. The Cardinals won three in a row at home, but they stole all three of those games. They should have lost all three,” Thomson said. “The Bengals are going to win by at least a touchdown and stay alive for the playoffs. They will make their last game against Baltimore meaningful.”
Cincinnati, tied with the New York Jets for the final AFC wild-card spot, has been steady offensively behind rookie quarterback Andy Dalton (3,012 yards passing, 18 touchdowns) and running back Cedric Benson. Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green is expected to play despite a shoulder injury.
Thomson said the threat of cold weather in Cincinnati also could work against Arizona.
“I’m relying on Dalton. He’s not a rookie anymore. He’s a sophomore now and he’s ready,” Thomson said. “The Bengals need the game.”
Thomson scouts the rest of today’s Week 16 schedule:
■ Oakland at Kansas City (-2½): Kyle Orton makes the Chiefs a different team. There is no doubt he’s a quarterback who can put points on the board, unlike Tyler Palko. When the game kicks off, Kansas City will still be alive for the postseason. The Chiefs (6-8) need the Broncos to lose at Buffalo so the Week 17 game at Denver will be meaningful. I’m taking Kansas City. I like the way Romeo Crennel brings a calm presence to the sideline as coach.
■ Denver (-3) at Buffalo: The Bills are finished after losing seven straight games. I like what quarterback Tim Tebow brings to the table, winning seven of his nine starts for the Broncos, and running back Willis McGahee is going to play. The Broncos turned it over against New England, but they will cut down on the mistakes.
Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick has basically been a bust, leading the NFL in interceptions with 19. When the Bills lost Fred Jackson, they couldn’t run the ball anymore, and they can’t beat you being one-dimensional. I’m going with Denver.
■ Jacksonville at Tennessee
(-7½): I think the Titans take out their frustrations and cover the number. Tennessee is not going to make the playoffs, but there is still a chance and that will be the motivation going into this game. Maurice Jones-Drew leads the league in rushing with 1,334 yards, but the Jaguars (4-10) have lost four of five and they are done.
■ Miami at New England (-9½): The Dolphins’ defense has improved, allowing 14 points or fewer in four of the past seven games. Reggie Bush rushed for 203 yards in a win at Buffalo and is playing a bigger role in the Miami offense. The Patriots have struggled to score at home more so than on the road. I’ll take the points, but I could flip a coin on this one.
■ Cleveland at Baltimore (-12½): Seneca Wallace will start at quarterback for the Browns, and he will help them get points on the board. I like the Ravens to get to the Super Bowl, but they played with no sense of urgency at San Diego. I’ll take the points with Cleveland because I think the margin will be inside 10 points.
■ N.Y. Giants at N.Y. Jets (-3): The Jets’ running game doesn’t scare me and they still don’t have enough weapons to take the pressure off quarterback Mark Sanchez. He has had a couple of good games against mediocre competition. When it’s a big game, Sanchez hasn’t really been there. Losing safety Jim Leonhard was a major loss for the Jets’ defense. It’s such a tough game to figure that I’ll take the field goal with the Giants.
■ Minnesota at Washington (-6½): The Redskins (5-9) are playing with some heart now as coach Mike Shanahan attempts to get the team close to .500. Rex Grossman can throw the ball if there’s no pressure in his face. Washington’s defense, behind linebackers London Fletcher and Brian Orakpo, has been stingy. I don’t like laying so many points, but it’s less than a touchdown so I’ll go with the Redskins.
■ Tampa Bay at Carolina (-7½): If the Panthers (5-9) continue to play like this, they will finish 7-9. The only way Carolina does not cover is if rookie Cam Newton throws three interceptions. This score could be 31-10. The Buccaneers can’t match points with the Panthers, who have a very good offense.
■ St. Louis at Pittsburgh (-15): This has 20-0 written all over it, so I can’t take the Rams. It will be ugly. But the Steelers won’t allow a score unless it’s a fluke. Pittsburgh’s defense gets linebacker James Harrison back, and that’s big. Ben Roethlisberger wants to play with a sprained left ankle and will be a game-time decision, so it could be Charlie Batch at quarterback. But look for the Steelers to get a productive game from running back Rashard Mendenhall.
■ San Diego at Detroit (-2½): I’ve been on the Chargers and I’m going to stay with them. Philip Rivers is hot throwing the ball and he has tight end Antonio Gates and receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd finally healthy. Rivers just better keep an eye on Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, because Rivers can’t move and that’s the one guy who can put him down and out. Ryan Mathews is running the ball better and San Diego is getting some continuity back on its offensive line.
■ San Francisco (-2½) at Seattle: The 49ers are fighting New Orleans for the No. 2 seed in the NFC, so they can’t slip. Seattle is tough at home (4-3) and has won five of its past six to get to 7-7. Tarvaris Jackson has been solid at quarterback and running back Marshawn Lynch is a stud. But I’m going to go with San Francisco and respect Jim Harbaugh to outcoach Pete Carroll. The 49ers’ defense is better and will force a key turnover.
■ Philadelphia at Dallas (-1½): Look over the total (50½). The Eagles (6-8) are playing much better with no pressure on them. Michael Vick is getting healthy and he has the weapons around him. LeSean McCoy ranks second in the league with 1,274 yards rushing and he has 17 rushing touchdowns. Everyone had them out of it, but they are still playing hard. I’ll stick with Philadelphia.
COMPILED BY MATT YOUMANS/REVIEW-JOURNAL