Kurt Warner (Stephen Dunn/Getty)
The Arizona Cardinals are considered the underdogs when they host the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday. But both teams have concerns. The Falcons have been on a hot run, winning five of its last six, but QB Matt Ryan has thrown six picks in five games. The Cardinals have been in a slumb and turning the ball over. Here's a game prediction, keys to the game and more.
KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 ET
TV: NBC (Tom Hammond, Cris Collinsworth, Tiki Barber)
SERIES: 25th meeting. Cardinals lead the series, 14-10. This will be the first postseason meeting between the two franchises. The Cardinals hold an 8-2 advantage when playing at home. They beat the Falcons 30-27 in overtime last season. The Falcons won the previous four meetings, including a 34-14 win in Phoenix in 2001.
PREDICTION: Falcons 24-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons have to be a bit concerned about rookie QB Matt Ryan, who has thrown six interceptions over the past five games and has struggled more with his accuracy in general.
Atlanta will attempt to ease him into the game by giving RB Michael Turner plenty of early work. The Cardinals are solid against the run, allowing 110.2 yards per game, but will still have to use a safety in run support. That leaves CBs Hood and rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie more vulnerable against WRs Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, who have been dangerous big-play targets for Ryan off play-action. ...
Cardinals RB Edgerrin James showed fresh legs as the coaching staff re-inserted the veteran as the lead back last Sunday. Look for that to continue as Arizona needs to show some semblance of a running game.
The Falcons' pass rush has slowly improved throughout the season, and one of the Cardinals' biggest weakness is QB Kurt Warner's propensity to turn the ball over when pressure (11 turnovers the past eight games). But in the end Arizona will live or die with its passing game.
The Cardinals will put a lot of pressure on Falcons CBs Chris Houston and Domonique Foxworth, and the game could hinge on Arizona's efficiency inside the red zone.
Falcons: DE Jamaal Anderson (ankle) is uncertain; S Lawyer Milloy (back) said he will play.
Cardinals: WR Anquan Boldin (shoulder) insisted he will play; TE Leonard Pope (knee) is uncertain.
FAST FACTS: The Cardinals will host their first playoff game since 1947 when the franchise was in Chicago. ...
Atlanta is 6-0 when Ryan has a 100-plus passer rating.
--DE John Abraham didn't practice for the second consecutive day Thursday, but is expected to start. He has a thigh and shoulder injury that he has been nursing over the last month of the regular season.
--RB Jason Snelling led the team with 17 special teams tackles. He also had 15 carries for 62 yards.
--DEs Chauncey Davis and Kroy Biermann, who have played in reserve roles in the defensive line rotation, have combined for six sacks. DE Jamaal Anderson had just two sacks over 31 games.
--C Todd McClure, T Todd Weiner, WRs Brian Finneran and Michael Jenkins and LB Keith Brookings are the only players left from the 2004 team that played in the NFC Championship Game.
--WR Harry Douglas had 12 rushes for 69 yards and caught 23 passes for 320 yards. He also returned 19 punts for 226 yards.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Falcons have been plotting on how to combat Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner's quick release.
Getting pressure on Warner, who was sacked only 26 times this season, is key for the Falcons defense in their NFC wild-card playoff game on Saturday.
"We know that he's going to be pocket," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "He makes quick decisions and he gets the ball out into his playmakers' hands."
Defensive end John Abraham led the Falcons with 16.5 sacks this season.
"He gets hit more than any quarterback in the league," Abraham said. "Our biggest thing is to keep the pressure on him and keep hitting him. We might not get the sacks, but we have to do the best we can to get him frustrated."
Defensive ends Chauncey Davis and Kroy Biermann will get defensive end Jamaal Anderson's snaps. Anderson has not practiced since suffering a high ankle sprain against Minnesota on Dec. 21. He'll likely be inactive on Saturday.
Davis and Biermann added sacks last week to help the rest of the defense move ahead of Abraham with 17.5 sacks. Davis and Biermann have combined for six sacks, while Anderson has just two.
"My guys are stepping up and playing like they can play," Abraham said. "We've done a good job of hitting quarterbacks all year."
With Warner throwing an average of 37 times a game, Abraham knows the entire unit has to stay after the quarterback.
"I know I can't hit him (37) times," Abraham said. "We've got to split it up and get to him as much as possible. We have to try to keep him moving around the pocket and make him throw a couple of errant passes."
Turnovers have played a huge role in the Cardinals' troubles over the last two months, and it's not just the offense that is failing.
In the last seven games, the Cardinals have committed 16 turnovers, and 10 of those have come in their territory. The defense hasn't done much stop opponents from scoring. Opponents have scored 10 touchdowns and two field goals after those 16 scores.
So it's not a surprise the Cardinals lost four of their last six games, going from 7-3 to 9-7.
The first quarter will be vital in Saturday's game. In recent weeks, the Cardinals have played poorly in the first halves. Turnovers, again, have been a big problem.
Of those 16 turnovers, six have come in the first quarter. In the last four games, the team has committed four turnovers in the first quarter.
It's really the continuation of a season-long problem: the offense commits a turnover and the defense has done a poor job of stopping opponents from capitalizing.
The Cardinals have committed 30 turnovers, and opponents have scored off of them 21 times, including 15 touchdowns. Subtract the three turnovers that ended halves, and opponents have scored 21 out of 27 times.