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Three's A Crowd

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The Cardinals don't know if they will play the Falcons, Panthers or Cowboys yet in the first round of the playoffs.

Hosting a playoff game the weekend of Jan. 3 or 4 has been locked in for the Cardinals since Dec. 7, and they have basically known they would be the NFC's No. 4 seed since Dec. 14.

The team that will visit University of Phoenix Stadium for that initial playoff game remains somewhat of a mystery.

Three candidates can still capture the No. 5 NFC seed: Atlanta, Carolina and Dallas. The Falcons, who face the Rams, remain the most likely opponent, although the outcomes of those teams' games (Carolina plays the Giants, the Cowboys get the Eagles) will be the deciding factors.

With three possibilities remaining however, here's a brief look at how each will

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look to the Cards if they become Arizona's first playoff opponent since the Cards lost to the Vikings in January, 1999:

ATLANTA FALCONS – Atlanta is, along with Miami, an unbelievable story. The Falcons visited Glendale late last season, right after coach Bobby Petrino shocked his team by walking out, and the reeling team still took the Cards to overtime before the home team won.

With a new coach in Mike Smith, a rookie quarterback and a free-agent running back, the Falcons suddenly are among the best in the NFC. If they win Sunday and the Panthers lose, the Falcons will actually earn a bye in the first round as the No. 2 seed.

Still, they may serve as the Cards' best possible matchup – if for no other reason than they are a young team with the aforementioned Matt Ryan at QB. They don't figure to have many fans travel, which will help in a home game. And the Falcons, as good as they are running the ball with Michael Turner, tilt toward a high-scoring team – and the Cards would probably not mind a shootout at home.

DALLAS COWBOYS – Beating the Cowboys Oct. 12 at University of Phoenix Stadium was the Cards' signature win this season. Having them come back would provide instant intrigue. It is the Cowboys after all.

That would also give the Cowboys serious motivation. Many thought, when Dallas came in the first time six weeks into the season, that the Cowboys were the probable NFC representative in the Super Bowl. The Cards left them not only beaten, 30-24 in overtime after Sean Morey's blocked punt, but battered as well. That was the game that sent quarterback Tony Romo to the sideline for a month, hamstringing Dallas' playoff hopes.

The Cowboys' pass rush has gotten better as the season has gone on, which would be a concern for the Cards, who are finding it more difficult to protect quarterback Kurt Warner. Then again, there would be irony should the Cards open the postseason against the Cowboys after doing the same the last time they were in the playoffs in 1998 – an Arizona win. The Cowboys still don't have a playoff victory any more recently.

CAROLINA PANTHERS – If Carolina were to visit it would be a monumental shift from just a week ago, when the Panthers had a chance to win the NFC's No. 1 seed. Should they end up in Glendale, it would mean a tough two-game losing streak at the worst time of year – something that should help the Cards.

The Panthers did beat the Cardinals in Charlotte, 27-23, earlier this year after the Cards blew a 17-3 lead. While Carolina would take confidence from that, the Cardinals would also feel like the Panthers are beatable – especially at UoP.

Running the ball very well with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers can control the clock. And wide receiver Steve Smith always has big games against the Cards, averaging 7.4 receptions, 110 yards and a touchdown the past five meetings. Then again, the Cards shredded the Panthers through the air in the first meeting.

Of course, if the Cardinals don't begin to play better, their opponent may not matter.

SOME NUMBERS

The Cardinals need to score at least 31 points against the Seahawks Sunday to break the franchise record for points in a season, right now at 423 by the 1984 team.

The Cards have had 12 100-yard individual receiving games this season, the highest total in the NFL.

Wide receiver Steve Breaston needs 85 yards receiving to reach 1,000 for the season.


Contact Darren Urban at askdarren@cardinals.nfl.net. Posted 12/23/08.

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