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It’s not all sheet cakes and sparkling wine in Cardinals camp. Granted, Arizona sports a 9-2 record, has a three game division lead and has won five straight, but coach Bruce Arians has never acquired a taste for complacency. Last week the Cardinals were largely outplayed by the struggling 49ers, recent games have been uncomfortably close, and it hasn’t escaped institutional memory that last year’s team also started 9-2 before dropping four of its last six.
There will be plenty of time for celebration later if it’s warranted. There is a lot of work to do.
The Cardinals have flown to St. Louis to butt heads with the Rams today, the team that took Arizona down 24-22 at University of Phoenix Stadium Oct. 4, leaving a “nasty taste” in QB Carson Palmer’s mouth and no doubt the mouths of others. Arians said he would have dinner with the Rams, “…but I ain’t liking them. I ain’t drinking with them.” Division foes don’t tend to receive holiday cards from the Arians.
Palmer claims he doesn’t hold a grudge against St. Louis for the play that tore his ACL in 2014, ending his season. Palmer doesn’t, but the fans well might. There was a whiff of revenge in the desert air this week. Safety Tyrann Mathieu simply says, “I just think every time we play them it’s a 60-minute fist fight.”
The once-promising Rams have suffered through a four-game losing streak to fall to 4-7, and Arizona will need to stay alert for blows from a team that may well thrash about in its season-ending death throes. St. Louis doesn’t look or smell like a playoff contender, and a loss today will effectively bury the Rams.
St. Louis RB Todd Gurley ran roughshod over Arizona in the Rams Oct. 4 win, sprinting for 146 yards on 19 carries, the only 100+ yard effort this year against the Cards’ fourth-ranked rushing defense. That game started a four-game 100+ yard streak for Gurley, but he’s tucked away his cape recently while averaging a pedestrian 54.8 yards since the outburst. It didn’t take deep film study for teams to begin to realize that if you stop Gurley, you stop the Rams.
Gurley’s counterpart RB Chris Johnson suffered a tibial plateau fracture last week that will put him out for the season–or perhaps, as Cardinals doctors optimistically put it, until the Super Bowl. That was a sharp blow to the spirit as well as the leg of Johnson, and there is little solace in the notion that perhaps now he can complete a definitive guide to the blooming patterns of saguaro cacti in Lost Dutchman State Park. He’ll be missed.
Time for last year’s starting running back Andre Ellington to step in, right? No. He’s week-to-week with turf toe, and has been ruled out. Rookie David Johnson will be the lead dog this week. Johnson has four touchdowns in limited touches and has impressed in flashes. He has fumbled three times but Arians says he’s getting better with ball security, as most rookies must learn to do.
Healthy runners are in short supply, but the 2015 Cardinals feature one of the league’s finest passing attacks. Carson Palmer’s 27 TD passes are second only to Tom Brady’s 28. Palmer is third in NFL passing yards and QB rating. His favorite target is Larry Fitzgerald, who has risen from several sub-par (by his standards) seasons to grab 83 balls, good for third best in the league.
There is a beautiful symmetry in play today for Fitzgerald: He needs eight yards to reach 1,000 for the season and eight catches to notch 1,000 for his career. Fitzgerald is sure to see plenty of balls spinning his way off the right hand of QB Carson Palmer.
St. Louis will counter at QB with fleeting golden boy Nick Foles. After coming over from Philadelphia in the off-season, Foles uncorked a 297-yard passing effort in his first game with the club, leading the Rams to a 34-31 overtime win over Seattle. Results have been mixed since, and he has thrown for one touchdown and four interceptions in his last five starts. Now Foles has been supplanted on the depth chart by the uninspiring Case Keenum; but since Keenum is concussed today, Foles gets the start. I imagine there is a shipping container in Hong Kong stuffed with Foles bobble-heads that will never see the light of day.
A win today would give the Cardinals 10 wins after 12 games for only the second time in franchise history. The only team to do better? The 1948 Chicago Cardinals out of Comiskey Park, who raced to an 11-1 record under coach Jimmy Conzelman and led the league with 32.9 points per game. Despite a fine season, the Cardinals fell to Philadelphia 7-0 in the league championship game and did not return to the playoffs for 26 years.
Memo from Bruce Arians: keep the bubbly on ice until February 7.
– Eric Forgaard
This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.