Had the Arizona Cardinals taken care of their business earlier this year they would be in the thick of the NFC Conference wild card race. Instead, they are mathematically alive but on life-support for any chance at the Super Bowl. The Cleveland Browns' season can only be summed up with the word, disappointing.
The Browns were hoping that Peyton Hillis would give the Browns' offense a solid rush attack while quarterback Colt McCoy matured in his second year. The Browns have had to rely on McCoy and that has been too much. McCoy has seemed to digress in his second year, but without a consistent running game teams have been able to put pressure on McCoy and his receivers. Cleveland's defense has been fairly consistent but without a dynamic offense they have struggled to win games.
Arizona comes into this matchup unable to lose another game and as a 7 point favorite according the opening NFL odds. Arizona's slow start to the 2011 campaign has left them on the outside looking in for the last NFC wildcard spot. The 49ers have already wrapped up the NFC West division. With the offseason trade for Kevin Kolb, the Cardinals thought that they had solved their quarterback quandary. Kolb has been up and down for most of the season and injured the past 5 weeks. In his absence, John Skelton has stepped up and led Arizona to wins in 5 of their last 6 games, including three in a row. The game will most likely come down to Cleveland's ability to shut down the Cardinal's passing game and make Beanie Wells beat them. Wells comes into the game as one of the league's most feared running backs but has been bothered by knee injury most of the season. Making Wells have to carry a lot could leave Arizona without much chance to score. Cleveland must keep the game close because of their offensive woes.
Leading the charge for Arizona is Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is quite possibly the league's most feared receiver. His precise routes, great hands, and blazing speed make him a matchup nightmare. Cleveland does come into the game ranked in the top 5 in pass defense but Fitzgerald will put that to the test early. A strong pass rush is a must to keep Kolb or Skelton from having time to throw. This pass rush will most likely come from Jabaal Sheard the left defensive end. He leads the Browns with 5.5 sacks and has been a disruptive force off of the edge. If Sheard and the other defensive lineman can maintain their blocks, the Browns' linebackers can move in to keep Wells from running wild.
The other major story is the concussion of Colt McCoy. McCoy suffered a concussion late in the game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. At the time, trainers and doctors did not suspect a concussion and McCoy finished the game. Over the past several years, the NFL has adopted much stricter concussion laws that prohibit players from playing if they display any concussion symptoms. Only a doctor can clear them to play again. If McCoy is not ready to play, backup quarterback Seneca Wallace will step up in McCoy's absence. Wallace briefly came in for McCoy during the Steelers game and was pulled several plays later. Wallace did not seem too happy about not staying in while McCoy appeared to have concussion-like symptoms but has not publically brought up the issue. With so many side-stories surrounding this game it likely comes down to which team's quarterback can stay upright, mobile, and deliver the ball to his receivers. It becomes incumbent on the offensive line to give their quarterbacks time to scan the field and make their throws. This could be a low scoring game with special teams playing a huge factor in deciding the winner.