NFL Preview - Arizona (10-3) at St. Louis (6-7)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Injuries have most observers scurrying to jump off the Arizona Cardinals' bandwagon.
The Cards, however, enter Week 15 of the NFL season on the precipice of the postseason, tied for the league's best record at 10-3 and one-game ahead of the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in the ultra-tough NFC West.
Arizona will try to keep its critics at bay and inch closer to a playoff berth when the visit the stingy St. Louis Rams on "Thursday Night Football."
A win by the Cardinals will send Bruce Arians' club to the playoffs as long as the Dallas-Philadelphia game set for Sunday night doesn't end in a tie. Arizona can also lock down a postseason berth with a win in St. Louis, coupled by a Detroit loss against Minnesota on Sunday and a Green Bay win or draw in Buffalo.
Drew Stanton tossed a go-ahead 26-yard touchdown pass to Jaron Brown late in the third quarter last weekend and Arizona's defense held off Kansas City from there as the Cardinals edged the Chiefs 17-14.
"This was another typical Cardinal football game," said Arians. "We played hard and made a mistake or two, but when it comes to second-half football, this team has shown its resiliency."
Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce fumbled the ball at the Arizona 16 with 5:23 remaining and the Cardinals drained the remaining time off the clock by picking up a pair of first downs.
Kerwynn Williams, elevated from the practice squad to fill in for Andre Ellington, who was placed on season-ending IR earlier this week with a hip injury, carried the ball 19 times for 100 yards.
"I didn't know what my role was going to be," said Williams, who had never touched the ball before. "I just wanted to be prepared whatever it was."
Stanton had lost two of his three prior starts since replacing starting QB Carson Palmer, who was lost for the season with a knee injury during a Week 10 victory over the Rams. Stanton finished 15-of-30 for 239 yards.
The injury bug continued to be ever present, though, as cornerback Antonio Cromartie hurt his left ankle during the middle stages of the fourth and had to be carted off the field. The injury was initially believed to be an Achilles so the Cardinals were breathing a sigh of relief.
"Things can change, but it wasn't on the surface as severe as I thought it looked," general manger Steve Keim said.
Cromartie was listed as a limited participant on the injury report Tuesday and is listed as day-to-day but the short week obviously won't help.
The Rams, meanwhile, are coming off their second straight shutout, a 24-0 whitewashing of Washington made far worse for the Redskins because St. Louis is the team they gave a king's ransom to in order to get Robert Griffin III in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Alec Ogletree and Greg Robinson, who were among the slew of players the Rams received from the blockbuster RG3 trade with Washington, were in St. Louis' starting lineup but Griffin was on Washington's bench due to ineffectiveness, at least for the first 58 minutes.
Rams signal caller Shaun Hill tossed a pair of touchdown passes to Jared Cook and after Tavon Austin's 78-yard punt return staked the Rams to a 24-0 advantage late in the third quarter, chants of "RG3, RG3, RG3," reverberated throughout FedEx Field. Griffin, though, never got the call until two minutes remained after Colt McCoy departed with a neck strain.
Hill finished 16-of-22 for 213 yards, while Cook hauled in four passes for 61 yards for St. Louis, which posted back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 1945. The Rams blanked Oakland 52-0 last Sunday.
"Pretty impressive," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said of the shutouts. "I look at this as we can play better."
Fisher's defense, led by a strong front four featuring star pass rusher Robert Quinn and impact rookie Aaron Donald, recorded seven sacks, two interceptions and eight tackles for loss while holding Washington to 206 total yards in the triumph.
The Cardinals, of course, used to call St. Louis home from 1960 until moving to the desert for the 1988 season.
The franchise has won two straight over the Rams and holds a slim 35-34-2 advantage in the all-time series between the two teams, including a 31-14 triumph in Arizona on Nov. 9 when Cards' cornerback Patrick Peterson picked off two Austin Davis passes and returned one for a 30-yard score. His running mate, Cromartie, added a 14-yard TD off a fumble recovery.
The Cards traditionally do very poorly on short weeks, compiling a 7-20-2 all- time mark on Thursdays. The Rams are better but still underwater at 6-7.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Cardinals are 7-0 at home this season, the most wins for the franchise as the host in a single season since 1925 when Chicago was its home. Simple math makes them a far more pedestrian 3-3 on the road where they have lost two straight so maybe they will try to pretend that the Gateway to the West is still where their heart is.
The problem here is that Arizona's offense has been struggling mightily since Palmer went down in the first matchup with the Rams and St. Louis possesses the hottest defense in the game.
"We are really focused in well right now and I thought it was huge to get two wins in a row," said Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis. "We have to challenge ourselves really hard the next three days in preparation for Arizona on Thursday night. We have to lock it in, and keep this thing going. There's definitely momentum right now, and we just have to keep fighting and keep stacking wins."
The Cardinals have managed just four offensive touchdowns in four games since Palmer tore his ACL trying to avoid a sack by Rams safety Mark Barron in the fourth quarter of November's contest. St. Louis' stop unit, meanwhile, has allowed only 34 points while going 3-1 since falling to Arizona and will be attempting to become the first team to put up three straight goose eggs since the legendary Steel Curtain with Pittsburgh did so in 1976.
Granted the Rams' two shutouts didn't come against offensive juggernauts -- the Raiders and Redskins -- but any time you can pile up the zeros in an era where just about everything is skewed toward offense, it's impressive.
"I want to see it again," a selfish Fisher said. "We need to keep playing, keep preparing the way we are."
In the past two weeks the St. Louis stop unit is allowing just 225 yards per game and it has been doing everything pretty well. For instance the Rams gave up a Cards' season-low 28 rushing yards on 22 carries last month and have been giving up under 60 yards a game on the ground over the past six games.
The pass rush, fueled by Quinn, has found the QB 13 times over the prior two games.
"Guys are playing lights-out right now," said Quinn, who now has 10 1/2 sacks on the season. "Hopefully, we just keep it going."
The biggest test for the Rams D could be Larry Fitzgerald, who generally turns it up a notch in division games. The future Hall of Fame receiver enters this week's matchup with 358 receptions for 4,697 receiving yards with 38 touchdowns against the NFC West since entering the league in 2004, the most of any player against his own division during that span.
Against St. Louis, Fitzgerald has 131 receptions and 16 touchdowns, the most against any opponent in his career. In his past three meetings against the Rams, Fitzgerald has 29 catches for 288 yards and three touchdowns.
"You have to love the NFL schedule," said Fitzgerald. "You want a tough game against a great football team. St. Louis again played a really good game and those guys are rolling right now. It's always tough to play there, but we're going to be ready for the occasion."
Hill, meanwhile, has at least steadied things on offense for the Rams over the last month since replacing the wet-behind-the-ears Davis. The veteran Hill has completed 62.0 percent of his passes with six TDs and two INTs since Davis was benched for his performance against the Cards.
Rookie running back Tre Mason leads all NFC rookies with 628 rushing yards and has 363 scrimmage yards (315 rushing, 48 receiving) and four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving) in his past three games at home.
Hill is sure to be wary of Peterson, who has five career interceptions against the Rams and headlines a powerful unit that is allowing under 17 points a game over the last six weeks.
It's hard to imagine either offense putting up big numbers against the opposing defenses here. The X-factor could be Mason, who has been tearing it up recently on the fast track at Edward Jones Dome. That's enough to give the slight edge to the Rams in what shapes up as a 50-50 game.
"(The Rams) are playing as good a football as anybody now," Arizona defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. "It's a division game. They know us, guys you've played against multiple times. It's going to be a good football game."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Rams 14, Cardinals 10
12/10 11:46:17 ET