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Giants - Cardinals Preview: Critical Test for Giants Defense

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Who are the Arizona Cardinals? Are they the version who ranked among the worst playoff teams ever, or the one that arguably outplayed the Steelers in the Super Bowl? Are they the team that blew out the Seahawks last week to go along with two other decent wins, or are they the team that got embarrassed on national television by the Colts? If you're thinking that the Cardinals are enigmatic, you're right: As Mike Tanier pointed out in his weekly New York Times Fifth Down blog piece, the Cardinals are the most inconsistent team from game-to-game this year as measured by Football Outsiders' Variance statistic.

By the same token, who is the Giants defense? Are they the unit that has dominated the inept offenses this year, or the one that has been dominated by "ept" units? This game represents the Giants' third game against a decent offense this year. After getting gashed on the ground by the Cowboys and picked apart in the air by the Saints, they're hoping the third time is a charm.

Injury Notes: Both teams come into this game relatively healthy, or at least with similar personnel as they've had the past few weeks. The Giants will play without the same guys they've been playing without: Boley, Canty, Ross, and obviously Phillips. Both Manningham and Kareem McKenzie, who were iffy at the beginning of the week, will play.

For the Cardinals, Anquan Boldin will be limited with a high ankle sprain ankle, and tight end Stephen Spach is likely out with an ankle injury. On defense, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has a finger injury that affects his ability to catch the ball but will play.

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Cardinals Offense vs. Giants Defense

Passing team: The Cardinals offense-driven Super Bowl run was another data point contradicting the already well-debunked fallacy that teams must establish the run. The Cardinals ranked 28th against the run last year and rank 31st this year, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA stat, which puts traditional stats in context based on game situation and opponent. If you like traditional stats, the Cardinals are averaging a pathetic 2.9 yards per carry. In both 2008 and 2009, they have ranked dead last in attempts. The bad running game has persisted despite the drafting of running back Beanie Wells in the first round this year. In both years, they have ranked dead last in rushing attempts.

So they can't run the ball, but their passing game is basically as good as it was last year. Last year, the Cardinals' 29.7% passing DVOA ranked 8th in the league. This year, their DVOA is a nearly identical at 29.3%, but it ranks 13th because the first few weeks of the NFL season have been so pass happy. Either way, Kurt Warner and his receivers are a scary prospect for a Giant defense that looked horrible against the pass last week.

Larry Fitzgerald is as good as ever this year, and is coming off a 13-reception, 100 yard game against the Seahawks. Arizona's second-best receiver is actually Steve Breaston, rather than Anquan Boldin. Fitzgerald and Breaston rank 9th and 10th in Football Outsiders' Defensive-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement stat, while Boldin ranks 68th. (The league leader in this stat is Marques Colston. The Giants' Steve Smith ranks 3rd, while Mario Manningham ranks 23rd.)

Expect the Giants Pass Rush to Improve: The lack of pass rush was as much to blame for last week's disaster as the shoddy secondary play. As bad as C.C. Brown and company looked, the Giants only touched Drew Brees three times. Expect both areas to improve because of simple regression to the mean, but especially the pass rush. In spite of the Saints game, the Giants have been good overall at getting to the quarterback this year, ranking 5th in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, a FootballOutsiders stat that adjusts sacks for passing attempts and situation. Last year, the Giants ranked 7th in this category. In other words, one bad game does not a poor pass rush make. Plus, the Saints' line has allowed half as many sacks as the Cardinals this year and ranks 4th in ASR to Arizona's 13th. Drew Brees is known for getting rid of the ball quickly. Warner, as we know from his days in New York, is not. Last year, the Giants sacked Warner twice but hit him an additional 12 times.

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Giants Offense vs. Cardinals' Defense

Here's something I bet you didn't know: The Cardinals' defense has actually been pretty good this year. I had no idea either. I had assumed it was bad because it was bad during last year's regular season (the Giants scored 37 points on them), choked against the Steelers on the final drive Super Bowl, and looked horrendous in the Cards' Sunday night game this year against the Colts. But I assumed wrong, at least according to the results of their first five games, after which the Cardinals rank 8th in overall DVOA.

The Cardinals defense has been especially strong against the run, ranking 1st in the league by a considerable margin. Last year, the Cardinals were decent against the run, ranking 15th. But they did a good job against in the Giants game, holding them to 3.2 yards per carry.

Instead, the Giants are more likely to do damage in the passing game. The Cardinals ranked 25th in DVOA against the pass last year and rank 17th this year. Eli Manning did not look good last week, but a bounce-back performance would seem in the offing. It will be interesting to see how the Giants apportion playing time between their three main receivers not named Steve Smith: Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks, and Domenik Hixon. Most Giants fans would surely want to see more Manningham and Nicks and less Hixon, but the team seemed to feature Hixon last week in his first action since the beginning of the season.

The Cardinals have done a good job getting after the quarterback this year, ranking 11th in Adjusted Sack Rate. But they ranked 23rd in this category last year. Last week's catastrophic blindside hit notwithstanding, the Giants have done a good job protecting Eli this year, ranking 3rd in the league in ASR.

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Prediction: This game is hard to predict: You really have no idea what you're going to get out of Arizona or the Giants defense. But here's one scenario: The Giants defense bounces back big-time and rattles Warner with pressure, perhaps leading to a couple of important picks. The offense does a good enough job and the Giants earn a convincing victory in front of a lively crowd. Giants 27 - Cardinals 13.