Who is the biggest darkhorse Super Bowl contender?
By: Jake Rajala
The 2021 Arizona Cardinals team is a noticeably different animal than the 2020 Cardinals squad. Despite the vast number of upgrades to the roster and key young players garnering an offseason of growth, the new-look Cardinals team has been vastly underrated appreciated in the wide view of football media.
Prior to Week 1 kicking off, NFL.com writer Dan Hanzus placed the Cardinals at a mediocre 18th spot. The Cardinals came in just one spot ahead of the Dallas Cowboys, who were third in the NFC East last season, and two spots behind the Indianapolis Colts, a team whose QB was sidelined for disastrous play last season. This ranking is mind-boggling, especially since an NFL.com article projecting the Cardinals to be astounding came out just one day prior.
Cynthia Frelund, who has mastered NFL Network’s projections as an analytics expert, predicts the Cardinals to make the playoffs and she hands them the third-highest win ceiling in the NFC (behind TB and GB). It isn’t exactly a contradicting output, but yet it is a hysterical notion that some experts feel the Cardinals are a step from a step away from being a dangerous, NFC contending team — while in-depth analytics from a simulation of 81,600,000 projects the Cardinals to be elite.
I believed the Cardinals were a Top 10 team heading into the season and surely and can be an 11-12 win football team. After the Cardinals monster victory over the hyped-up Tennessee Titans, NFL..com surprisingly moved AZ up a mere four spots. Their current predicament is three spots behind the Chargers, two spots behind the Packers, and just one spot ahead of the New England Patriots. I believe it’s still a bizarre spot for the already very impressive AND talented NFC West team.
Frelund projected the Seahawks as the odd team out in the west prior to Week 1. I would feel comfortable with having the popular 49ers squad as the team out in the West. The 49ers seemed to try really hard to hand the Lions, who arguably have the NFL’s least talented roster, a victory last Sunday. To say I’m bullish on Jimmy G’s arm strength and charisma to bring a somewhat depleted defense to the playoffs in the brutal NFC West would be an understatement. The defense hardly showed the ability to complement their subpar QB against a below mediocre Lions offense in Week 1. The Lions had a whopping 438 total yards against SF’s defense, while Goff had 318 passing yards in his offense’s total effort. An unsettling cherry on top for the 49ers defensive concerns has to lie with the fact that they didn’t only allow Goff to shred their secondary, but the Lions had their will at running the football against the 49ers front seven. The Lions ground game was also were very efficient with a 4.83 YPC and 116 rushing yards. I believe the 49ers, whose defense and run game are a far cry from what the team that competed in the 2020 Super Bowl, have to be seen as the odd man out in the wild west.
The Cardinals are truly a juggernaut team. They have Chandler Jones, who was the NFC defensive player of the year in 2019, back and hunting down QBs. He showed up with a legendary performance in Week 1 with an astounding five sacks. I believe the Cardinals made a brilliant move in improving the short Super Bowl window by acquiring J.J. Watt and letting Haason Reddick leave in free agency. I believe this team is gunning to “win now” and they also made that visible by picking up A.J. Green in free agency. The players that were/are great rookie pickups in the ole Madden 12 fantasy draft really still have years left of high-caliber play left in the tank. DeAndre Hopkins has also stated that he feels Green is “still in his prime”.
The more dangerous, yet underlooked Cardinals team will finally look to close out more games with a more seasoned Kyler Murray. The electric dual-threat QB has already taken very positive strides in his young career. Murray went from winning offensive rookie of the year in 2019 to a more robust version of himself in 2020. Murray threw six more touchdowns and improved his passer rating from 57.7 in 2019 to 68.9 in 2020. The 5’10 Murray could realistically take that big stage step into his third year, just like Bills big arm Josh Allen had done. A more dazzling Murray with a team under the radar in its own division may very well unfold to be the third NFC West team to play in the Super Bowl in the past three years.