A pair of teams scrambling to stay in the periphery of the NFC playoff picture square off Sunday in the desert when the Arizona Cardinals host the Atlanta Falcons. Both teams already have fallen three games behind in their respective divisions. Injuries have hampered the Falcons in their NFC South title defense, but they could have a key offensive player back this week as running back Steven Jackson returned to practice Wednesday after missing four games with a hamstring injury.
The Cardinals were unable to dig out of a 14-0 hole last week in a 34-22 loss to division-leading Seattle, dropping their second straight game following a modest two-game win streak. "That's one thing I stressed to the team, that we've got to start faster at home," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians told reporters. "Defensively, offensively, the entire team. We need to get off to a better start in the first quarter." The Falcons have won two straight meetings and six of the last seven, including a 23-19 victory in Atlanta last season.
TV: 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX. LINE: Cardinals -2.5. O/U: 45.
ABOUT THE FALCONS (2-4): Atlanta's offense may be beginning to hit its stride as Matt Ryan earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after going 20-of-26 for 273 yards and three touchdowns against the Buccaneers - his sixth straight game with at least two touchdown passes. Harry Douglas filled the void left by Julio Jones' injury last week, catching seven passes for a career-high 149 yards and a touchdown. The Falcons have been solid against the run but rank 23rd against the pass, allowing 266.7 yards per game.
ABOUT THE CARDINALS (3-4): Arizona boasts the league's No. 7 run defense and should be able to shut down Atlanta's 30th-ranked run game and force the Falcons to be one-dimensional. The questions is whether the Cardinals can generate enough offense to keep pace. They have some talented offensive players in Larry Fitzgerald (422 receiving yards, 4 TDs), Michael Floyd (416 receiving yards, 1 TD) and rookie running back Andre Ellington (179 rushing yards, 190 receiving yards) but have coughed up 17 turnovers, the third-most in the league.
1. Atlanta TE Tony Gonzalez has caught a pass in 201 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in NFL history.
2. Fitzgerald needs four receptions to become the youngest player in NFL history to reach 800.
3. The Falcons are 34-2 when Ryan starts and has a rating of 100 or better.
PREDICTION: Cardinals 23, Falcons 20