The Arizona Cardinals start the second act of their 2021 campaign on Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
Despite the absences of their superstars, Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, for the entire month of November, the Cardinals have been able to maintain their lead in the NFC playoff hunt. During that time, Arizona went 2-1 behind backup quarterback Colt McCoy and has a league-best 9-2 record.
With their bye week now behind them, the Cardinals travel to Chicago for a showdown with the 4-7 Bears. It will mark Arizona’s first visit to Soldier Field during the month of December since moving to the Valley in 1988.
The Cardinals will be seeking their 10th win of the season. For that to happen, here are a few keys to look for.
Over the past few seasons, Arizona has struggled in games following a bye week. In 2019, they were walloped by the Rams, 34-7. Last season, they lost to Miami behind a rookie quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, making only his third start in the NFL, 34-31.
Both of those losses, however, were played at home. This Sunday, against the Bears, they will travel to Chicago. Dating back to 2009, the Cardinals have won their last 2 visits to Soldier Field and they are a perfect 6-0 on the road this season.
After a 37-day absence, all signs point to the return of Kyler Murray. How effective he will be in his first game back still remains to be seen. Naturally, there should be an expectation of Murray being rusty after a long absence.
Early on, expect the Cardinals to rely heavily on the run and on short to intermediate completions in the passing game. The focus should be to help Murray find his rhythm and timing with his receivers while protecting the ball.
Should Murray still be shelved, this game plan plays right into what Colt McCoy does best.
Weather is expected to be a factor on Sunday. Forecasts show temperatures in the mid-40s, a 70% chance of rain, and 15 to 25 mph winds. In these conditions, the football can become slick and difficult to catch.
With both teams facing the same elements, the expectation is for both squads to focus primarily on running the ball to move downfield.
While many still think Arizona employs the Air Raid offense, the reality is the Cardinals have been one of the best running the ball this season. They rank 4th in attempts, 10th in yards, and first in rushing touchdowns. James Conner leads the team with 12 rushing touchdowns, 2nd best in the NFL, and he is 10th in yards after carry (320).
For the Bears, both David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert average more than four yards per attempt. Chicago ranks eighth in the league in rushing and eighth in rushing attempts. However, after logging six straight 100-plus yard games on the ground, the Bears have struggled to hit the century mark in their past two.
With Chicago opting to start quarterback Andy Dalton over rookie Justin Fields, their dual-threat at quarterback has been muted. Fields is nursing a rib injury and will likely serve as the Bears back-up quarterback. While it is still possible Fields sees some designed run packages, it won’t be an every-down situation.
In December football games, warm weather teams who travel to cold city climates tend to struggle because of the elements. Turnovers become a huge factor in determining the outcome of the game. With the promise of cold, windy, and wet conditions, Arizona will be well-served if they are able to avoid turning the ball over.
This season, the Cardinals have protected the ball well. They are currently No. 5 in net turnover difference (+8) and No. 4 in limiting turnovers (11). They will need to continue that trend to secure their 10th win of the season.
The game plan against the Bears should be to establish the run and employ the short passing game when needed, all while protecting the ball in the process — a grind-it-out type of game. If the Cardinals can do that, they should easily secure their sixth conference and 10th overall win of the season.