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Friday before the Falcons, and the finish for draft and division

So as the Cardinals embark on the final three games of the year and with the end of the season coming with a hard deadline, it makes sense to look not at the playoff picture but at the draft – which is what will basically be up next. There has been a lot of conversation about how high the Cardinals will pick, and the possibility of having the No. 1 overall selection.

One of the things that is most interesting to me, and shows how different the league looks at draft order compared to playoff spots, is this tidbit: The Cardinals could finish third in the NFC West, ahead of the 49ers, yet still have the No. 1 overall draft pick.

If the Cards and 49ers finish tied in the standings, the Cardinals will finish third in the division, having beat the Niners both times in 2018. That matters because of schedule, because two games each season are determined by where you finish in the division and the like-finisher in the two NFC divisions the NFC West does not play as a whole next season. (In 2019, the Cardinals have a road trip to the like-finisher in the NFC East, and a home game against the like-finisher in the NFC North.)

But the draft order has nothing to do with head-to-head play in case of a tie. It has to do with strength of schedule – and in terms of the higher draft pick, the weaker strength of schedule. If the Cardinals’ opponents have a .500 winning percentage when it is all said and done and the Niners are at .491, San Francisco would get the higher pick. Right now, both the Cards and Niners have the same strength of schedule, so then it would go to the worse division record. Without getting too far into the weeds, given that the Niners and Cards play essentially the same schedule, fans wanting the Cards to pick higher need the Falcons and Redskins (Cards’ opponents) to lose, and the Bucs and the Giants (Niners’ opponents) to win. Since the Falcons game comes Sunday, that’s a conundrum.

(I’d also say, as a quick aside, since the Cards don’t need a QB, I don’t think it matters much to be picking first, second or third or even a couple picks further up the line. They will get a good player they need.)

-- Running back David Johnson turns 27 Sunday. The Falcons are a middling run defense (21st in the league) and obviously, the Cardinals have had their issues in running the ball. But Johnson does have a shot at getting to 1,000 yards – and this is a game he needs to make headway. Trying to get a lot of production against the Rams and Seahawks defenses (especially when both could be battling for playoff position) will be much tougher.

Not that Johnson is thinking about it.

“No. Not at all,” he said. “This has been such a tough year for me. I’ve been really trying to figure out what I can do to help out the offense and do my part. … Going into this season I had high hopes and everyone expected more out of me. I didn’t live up to it.”

-- Assuming the Cardinals stick with the offensive line of (from left tackle to right tackle) Korey Cunningham, Colby Gossett, Mason Cole, Oday Aboushi and Joe Barksdale, it’ll be the first time the Cardinals will have started the same offensive line two games in a row since the 49ers home game/at Minnesota Oct. 7 and 14.

-- Patrick Peterson will remain the punt return man, and Wilks acknowledged that had been the plan once Christian Kirk went down – he said it would be J.J. Nelson or T.J. Logan just in case the Lions were paying attention. Peterson looked pretty decent last week, although one good return came back because of a penalty and Wilks said he wanted to see better blocking from the unit.

-- Speaking of special teams, Andy Lee continues to lead the NFL in punting (48.6 yards a kick) and if it stands, it will break his own 2017 franchise record of 47.3.

-- Not sure if Lee will get any run (and he deserves it), but the Pro Bowl players – at least, the initial roster, before we start getting all the alternates put in – will be announced Tuesday evening.

-- In the final Pro Bowl voting, Peterson was fifth among all cornerbacks, Chandler Jones was sixth among all defensive ends and Budda Baker was 10th among all strong safeties.

-- If you didn’t get a chance to see my piece on Derrick Coleman’s work to inspire deaf children with his own story, please check it out.

-- There are fans who have been less than pleased with Peterson this season, between the trade talk and his decisions to be, let’s say, a little more choosy on making a tackle in a game out of hand. That’s fair. But he has played very well in his most important aspect – coverage. Julio Jones is banged up, but Peterson did a nice job on him in 2016. To me, this game may come down more to how the Cards handle the other Falcons’ receivers other than Jones.

-- The same goes for the Cardinals, who are going to find tough sledding in trying to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald since the Falcons can put most of their secondary priority on him.

-- Speaking of Fitz, this will be the 42nd different stadium in which he will have caught a pass

-- The pass rush has been good for the Cardinals all season. They have 11 players with more than one sack, which is the most in the NFL. They’ll need more pressure on Matt Ryan, who is having a very good season despite the Falcons’ poor record.

For now, though, it’s a Friday flight to Atlanta. See you Sunday.

DE Chandler Jones looks up at the scoreboard from the bench during a loss to the Lions

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