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NFL Preview - Arizona (8-5) at Tennessee (5-8)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - With five victories in their last six games, the Arizona Cardinals remain in contention for a playoff spot.
They are also one win shy of their first winning season since 2009, a mark the Cardinals will try to reach this Sunday against the fading Tennessee Titans.
Only the Carolina Panthers (6-1) have a better record than the Cardinals' 5-1 mark since Week 8 and they just happen to be one of the teams Arizona is chasing for a wild card spot. Carolina and San Francisco occupy the two extra playoff spots with identical 9-4 records, one game better than Arizona.
Losing four of their first seven games to the season did the Cardinals no favors and three of those setbacks came against fellow NFC West residents. That stretched Arizona's losing streak against division opponents to eight straight games, a skid that was snapped with Sunday's 30-10 win over the visiting St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cards have outscored opponents by an average of 12.7 points per game since Week 8.
Carson Palmer shook off an elbow injury that kept him out of practice all week to complete 27-of-32 passes for 269 yards. He hit wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald for a seven-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and his 77.1 completion percentage was the second-highest by a Cardinals quarterback in team history. It trailed only Kurt Warner's NFL-record 92.3 percent game set in 2009.
Fitzgerald caught a season-high 12 passes for 96 yards, while Andre Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall added one rushing score apiece.
John Abraham had three sacks to move into ninth on the NFL's all-time list and linebacker Karlos Dansby added a sack and interception, but the red-hot defense did lose rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu to a season-ending knee injury.
After snapping their divisional losing streak, the Cardinals will look to sweep an interconference series for the first time since realignment in 2002. They have already bested AFC South residents Houston, Jacksonville and Indianapolis this season.
Arizona is looking to secure its first winning record since going 10-6 in 2009. That also marks the club's last playoff appearance and the road to the postseason is not an easy one for the Cardinals.
Following this contest, the Cards visit the 11-2 Seattle Seahawks before playing host to the 49ers to close the regular season.
Winning these next two road games could make that Week 17 meeting with San Francisco a huge contest, but Arizona is just 2-4 as the visiting club on the year.
"The biggest thing for us is winning on the road," said Cards coach Bruce Arians. "We've played very, very close on the road and lost three that we had a chance to win. For us to get to the playoffs, two of our last three are on the road in tough places to play for us. It starts right there in Nashville. We're in the playoffs as far as we're concerned, but if we lose we're out."
While Tennessee remains mathematically alive for a wild card spot, the Titans have lost four of their past five to fall two games out of a playoff position with three games left to play. The 5-8 club wraps the season at Jacksonville and at home versus Houston.
Tennessee was looking to pull off a big upset of powerful Denver last weekend and actually led 21-10 in the second quarter thanks to a pair of rushing touchdowns by Shonn Greene and another from Chris Johnson. However, Denver pulled away with 24 straight points and eventually won going away, 51-28.
"We hung in there I thought," said Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak. "We knew we'd have to play our best to win and unfortunately, in spots we played very well and obviously we couldn't make the plays to keep the game going there in the fourth quarter."
Ryan Fitzpatrick was held to 172 yards on 13-of-24 passing with a touchdown and interception for the Titans, while Justin Hunter made four catches for 114 yards, including a 41-yard TD reception in the third quarter.
"We knew coming in to this game we were going to have to put the pedal to the medal all game long," said Fitzpatrick. "Even though we had a lead in the first half, we knew (the Broncos) were going to put a lot of points up in the second half. We've seen them do that a lot this year."
Indeed, as Denver's Peyton Manning threw four touchdown passes and the Broncos also scored a pair of rushing TDs.
The Titans failed to come up with a sack and turnover as well, and yielded an NFL-record 64-yard field goal to Matt Prater as time expired in the second quarter.
The Titans franchise has won four of its past six versus the Cardinals, who are making just their second trip to Tennessee since the franchise relocated. The first came in the most recent meeting on Nov. 29, 2009, a 20-17 Titans win.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Cardinals defense has been the driving force for the club during its current surge. After holding St. Louis to just 257 yards of net offense, Arizona now ranks fifth in total defense (311.7 yards per game) and third against the run (84.5 YPG).
"I think you have to know how to attack a team like them. They are similar to some teams we've played, but they have a nice mixture," Munchak said of Arizona's defense. "On defense especially they have a lot of sacks, a lot of pressures; they're playing very confident right now. They have a nice mix of veterans that have been around for quite a while and have played well in this league."
Arizona is giving up just 267.3 YPG since Week 8, the best in football over that span, and has been keyed by a pair of free agent signings in Abraham and Dansby, who is on his second tour of duty with the club.
Abraham's three sacks gave him 133 for his career, putting him ninth on the all-time list. He now trails Richard Dent and John Randle by 4 1/2 for seventh place and has 11 sacks in his last seven games.
Signed to be a situational pass-rusher, Abraham has seen increased work due to injuries and is the first Cardinals player since Bertrand Berry in 2004 to reach double-digit sacks in a season.
Dansby has also helped soften the losses of Sam Acho, Lorenzo Alexander and Alex Okafor with great all-around play. He leads the Cardinals with 105 tackles, all but five of those solo, and has added six sacks and three interceptions, two he has taken back for touchdowns.
"It's really hard to put in words," said Arians of the two additions. "We signed John late thinking (he would be) a third-down pass rush specialist, and we go down to New Orleans (in Week 3) and lose all three outside linebackers in the same game. He went to our starting outside linebacker position and has just played fantastic against the run and against the pass all season.
"Karlos was adding a great leader who had been here. The veterans here, there weren't many left, and he walked in with a great deal of respect. He has just played fantastic. He's in probably the best shape of his career and having a Pro Bowl year."
Some could argue that Mathieu was also playing at a Pro Bowl level with 68 tackles, a sack and two interceptions. However, a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee that will require surgery later this month could sideline him even through next summer's training camp.
Mathieu had started the last 10 games and Rashad Johnson will return to his starting role in Mathieu's absence.
Tennessee owns the 15th-ranked ground game, but has an emerging star at wide receiver in Hunter, 6-foot-4 rookie out of the University of Tennessee. Hunter has gone over 100 yards receiving in two of the past three weeks and has logged four touchdowns on just 18 receptions while averaging 19.7 yards per catch.
"He's getting better every week. I think he'll finish strong this season, and he'll be a guy that is going to be special for years to come," Munchak said of Hunter.
Former teammates go head-to-head as Palmer squares off against Fitzpatrick, his backup in Cincinnati in 2007 and 2008.
Palmer didn't give his buddy much playing time that firsts season as he was the only quarterback in the league to take every snap for his team, with Fitzpatrick coming in one game as a holder on a PAT attempt.
Fitzpatrick, though, was called on for 12 games the following season when Palmer went down with an elbow injury. He has made four straight starts for the Titans since Jake Locker went down with a season-ending foot injury and has thrown for 1,705 yards and nine touchdowns to eight interceptions in eight games this season.
"I have a ton of respect for Ryan," noted Palmer. "He's played in a number of different places, he has been in a lot of crazy situations, a lot of sticky situations. He's the type of guy you want on your side. I love playing with him, love watching him play. Hopefully I don't have to watch him play too well this week because we need a big performance by our defense, and we need to play better than we did last week on offense."
Palmer is 42 passing yards shy of becoming the eighth player in NFL history with 3,500 yards and 20-plus touchdown passes in at least six seasons. He has been helped by Fitzgerald, who has a touchdown in four straight games with five total in that span.
With a tough finish to the season, the Cardinals have no wiggle room in Tennessee. A loss before a trip to Seattle, which one has to figure will result in a setback for Arizona, pretty much dooms the season.
That means the focus for the Cardinals has to be squarely on the Titans, a difficult task with such a big game looming next weekend.
"We're thinking solely on this upcoming game," declared Palmer. "There are so many different scenarios and so many things that could happen that none of it matters unless we win the next game on our schedule. We have three left. For us, the biggest game on the schedule is Tennessee."
Arizona's defense makes the club a contender and Tennessee just doesn't have the weapons right now to scare one of the hottest units in football.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 23, Titans 16
12/12 15:31:13 ET