Week 15 of the NFL regular season offers a few important games leading up to the playoffs. There is Saints/Ravens, Jaguars/Colts and Chiefs/Rams. Our game? Two rookies are starting at quarterback for the 4-9 Arizona Cardinals and 1-12 Carolina Panthers. Jimmy Clausen and his 55.0 QB rating will start for Carolina, while John Skelton and his 55.5 QB rating starts for the Cardinals.
No, it's not exactly the matchup it was in the 2008 playoffs, but it's what we have. The Panthers are playing for pride and for their jobs and the Cardinals are playing with the ever slim chance of winning the NFC West. At 4-9, they have not been eliminated.
To win the division, it requires them to win out, San Francisco to lose one more game and for Seattle and St. Louis to lose twice and tie in their Week 17 game against one another. It is obviously highly unlikely, but even if that does not happen, they are looking forward to 2011 hoping to have had some momentum.
Neither team has had much success offensively. Arizona and Carolina are 26th and dead last, respectively in scoring per game. They are the two worst passing teams in te rms of yards per game in the league. Carolina has had only seven touchdown passes all year and have not scored more than 23 points in a game this season.
The Cards, on the other hand, have the league's lowest completion percentage at 50.4 percent. As Darren Urban noted recently, Arizona also is the worst at throwing "catchable throws," as only 57.8 percent of throws are deemed as catchable. Add on top of that the fact that Arizona receivers have the highest percentage of dropped passes (12.7 percent) and the fifth worst rushing offense at 90.3 yards per game, and you have yourself an offensive mess.
It would be wise for Arizona to try and run the ball. Tim Hightower is coming off of a career-best game of 148 yards against Denver, Beanie Wells should be ready to go after fighting a stomach illness for the last week and the Panthers give up over 130 yards on the ground a game.
On the other side of the ball, though, Arizona is allowing opponents to rush for over 140 yards per game. Carolina has a talented and dangerous running back in Jonathan Stewart, so the defense's focus should be stopping their rushing attack. As noted, the Carolina passing attack is not much of a threat.
Arizona's defensive backs should be licking their chops. Panther quarterbacks have thrown 19 interceptions, five of which have been returned for touchdowns. Arizona's defense, while it has had trouble stopping teams from moving the football, has been very opportunistic in scoring touchdowns. I would expect to see at least one defensive score in this game.
Turnovers are the trend for these two teams when matched up, and Sunday's game could easily be a repeat of this. Carolina turned the ball over six times in their loss to Arizona in the 2008 playoffs. The Cardinals returned the favor in a loss to the Panthers last season, giving the ball up six times.
On the injury front, Arizona may only be without Derek Anderson, who is still recovering from a concussion sustained at some point during the Rams game. Several players are listed as probable, and likely will all play. For Carolina, only receiver Armanti Edwards is listed as doubtful. The other players are probable.
If you are watching the game, you may note something different - music in the background. Fox NFL is testing out the idea of using music to change the viewer experience, much like a soundtrack does for a TV show or a movie.
What to expect to see?
I would expect some turnovers, as already noted. Also, expect many appearances by the punters. Carolina's Jason Baker has punted 77 times this season and Arizona's Ben Graham is only three behind in attempts.
As Arizona's defensive game plan will likely focus on stopping Jonathan Stewart, look for Adrian Wilson to be near the line of scrimmage for most the game. This would be the type of game where he fills a stat sheet.
John Skelton did not get a touchdown pass in his first start. Look for him to hook up with Larry Fitzgerald, who is still three TDs from adding his name to the top of another franchise record.
Expect a heavy dose of Hightower, Wells and Stewart from both teams.
What not to expect? A lot of scoring. Yes, The Cardinals put up 43 on the Broncos, but that has not been the norm. A low scoring game is likely in order.
So, while the Phoenix Suns are busy making changes, remember there is still a football game on, one where the Cardinals should have a good shot of getting their second win in a row.