On November 15, 1864, after capturing the city of Atlanta, the Union Army’s General William Tecumseh Sherman set off with his troops to capture the port of Savannah. Seething with malice, his men laid waste to military targets, civilian property, infrastructure and industry, cutting a swath of destruction that crippled transportation networks, the Confederacy’s economy, and the morale of the civilian population.
Today, Coach Bruce Charles Arians’ Arizona Cardinals hope to take Atlanta in a more gentlemanly fashion, well-padded and without such dire consequences. To a team that started the year feeling poised to take the next step on a path laid out by Arians on the day of his hire in 2013, defeating the Falcons today in the Georgia Dome has a do-or-die air to it. The Cardinals sit at 4-5-1 after losing only three regular season games last year. The division title and a shot at the playoffs are sliding away, the offensive line and the receiving corps are banged up, and field general Carson Palmer isn’t commanding quite the degree of respect he earned last year.
On top of this, Arians felt chest pains after the Cardinals returned from Sunday’s road loss to the Minnesota Vikings, and his wife drove him to the hospital for evaluation. He survived the scare and rejoined the team Wednesday.
The debilitating effects of stress have been well documented, and one can imagine how the cruel memory of the Vikings’ high-flying win might have lodged in Arians’ chest. With the first half winding down and Arizona marching toward a touchdown and the lead, Minnesota cornerback Xavier Rhodes intercepted Palmer at the goal line and scampered 100 yards for a score and a 20-10 Vikings advantage. It was one of two picks on the day for Rhodes. Palmer helped answer that blow by marching the offense downfield for a touchdown, capped by a 29 yard pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham. This helped buoy the Cardinals’ spirits, and they jogged to the locker room down 20-17.
Arizona took the field in the second half properly fueled by anger and inspiration, but the air was swiftly sucked from their lungs by Cordarelle Patterson, who returned the second half kickoff 104 yards for a score to put Minnesota up 27-17, a margin the Cardinals couldn’t surmount. Ultimately the Cardinals fell 30-24, failing to overcome the Vikings’ two big plays. How big were they? The Vikings are the first team to score touchdowns on a 100-yard interception return and 100-plus yard kickoff return in the same game since the 1962 Dallas Cowboys.
On to Atlanta, where Georgia Dome crowds have been treated to a career year from QB Matt Ryan and the continued ascension of wide receiver Julio Jones. If it’s lonely at the top, Jones is a downright solitary figure, leading the world with 1,105 yards. Arizona All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson looks to slow down the talented Jones and erase the memory of their 2014 meeting, when Jones hit for 10 catches, 184 yards and a touchdown.
It’s a battle of #1s–Atlanta’s top-ranked offense v. Arizona’s top-ranked defense. The game may hinge on the performance of Cardinals running back David Johnson, who has quietly taken his place among the NFL’s elite. He has topped 100 yards from scrimmage in every game this season. Sounds reasonably impressive, but consider the full extent of it: Johnson is only the fourth player to accomplish this since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Arizona victories this season have proven more elusive than fans expected. With playoff chances waning, a win might be found in Johnson’s legs or Palmer’s arm, in the collective will of a sturdy defense or the team’s DNA under this coaching regime. Whatever the result today, Arians’ heart and the Cardinals’ resolve will be tested once more.
This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.