(Sports Network) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris recently proclaimed his team to be the best the NFC has to offer. If it’s able to come away with a victory over the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, he’ll be able to back up those bold words.
Morris’ headline-grabbing statement came after the up-and-coming Buccaneers made a stirring second-half rally to deliver an 18-17 home triumph over the St. Louis Rams last Sunday, a result that further cemented his young charges as a club to watch in what’s been a topsy-turvy group of NFC members. Coming off a dismal 3-13 campaign in Morris’ managerial debut, Tampa Bay has already exceeded both its 2009 win total and expectations for this season by prevailing in four of its first six games out of the chute.
If the Buccaneers are to overtake the transitioning Cardinals on Sunday, they will indeed be at the top of the conference mountain at this stage. Both Atlanta and the New York Giants presently reside at 5-2 and have Week 8 byes, with NFC West leader Seattle owning a 4-2 mark heading into its game this weekend.
The 34-year-old Morris is a confident young man, and that belief system has clearly carried over to his developing team. The Bucs never panicked after falling behind 17-3 to the Rams late in the first half, scoring 15 unanswered points and putting together a 16-play, 81-yard drive in the closing moments capped by quarterback Josh Freeman’s short touchdown toss to running back Carnell Williams with only 10 seconds left.
Freeman has also been instrumental towards Tampa Bay’s surprising turnaround. The 2009 first-round draft choice has now engineered five comebacks in the fourth quarter during his brief professional tenure, three of which have come this season. He brought the Buccaneers back from an 11-point deficit in a 17-14 verdict over Cleveland in Week 1 and led the offense to 10 points in the final two minutes to pull out an improbable 24-21 win at Cincinnati on Oct. 10.
While Tampa Bay is certainly on the upswing, the Cardinals are trying to maintain their recent standards of success while going through a significant personnel overhaul. Gone are many of the key contributors to Arizona’s back- to-back NFC West titles and 2008 Super Bowl appearance, with two-time MVP quarterback Kurt Warner headlining that extensive and talented list.
The now-retired Warner has also been the toughest player to replace. The Cardinals have used both Cleveland castoff Derek Anderson and undrafted rookie Max Hall under center, neither of which have been able to provide much of a spark to an offense that enters this week’s play last in the NFL in total yards and passing yards and has produced a meager six touchdowns through Arizona’s first six contests.
Hall has started the Cardinals’ last two tilts and helped the team to a 30-20 decision over defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans in Week 5. However, the former BYU standout was an ineffective 4-of-16 for 36 yards with an interception in last Sunday’s 22-10 loss at Arizona before exiting in the third quarter with a concussion.
It seems neither the injury nor that poor performance will prevent Hall from getting another chance this week, however. Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt has stated that the 25-year-old will start against Tampa Bay provided he’s healthy enough to go, and Hall did practice without any restrictions on Wednesday.
He’ll be attempting to direct 3-3 Arizona to its third consecutive home win to begin the season on Sunday. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, will be shooting for their first 3-0 start on the road since 2003.
Neither of these teams are equipped to blow out the other, so expect a tightly-contested affair that should come down to a handful of plays. That scenario could work in the favor of the Buccaneers, who have come out on top in all three of their games that have been decided by three points or less and have generally been a more consistent outfit than the skittish Cardinals. Arizona’s not going to do much offensively and needs to rely on forcing turnovers, like it did in victories over St. Louis and New Orleans earlier this season, and that could be a tall order against a Tampa squad that does a good job of taking care of the ball. The Bucs aren’t the best bunch in the conference as their coach claims, but they should be good enough to get past a Cardinals team with some serious concerns on the offensive end.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Buccaneers 16, Cardinals 10