Tag Archives: David Johnson

Arizona Cardinals 2017: The Journey Begins in Detroit

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: For the Cardinals to succeed this season, they’ll need to keep QB Carson Palmer upright and healthy. Indeed, that’s been the charge of the offensive line for the last few years. Some player pedigrees are good, especially that of four-time Pro-Bowler Mike Iupati, but injuries have led to position-shifting and uncertainty up and down the line. 37-year-old Palmer was sacked 40 times last year, and coach Bruce Arians winced every time.

Palmer’s a throwback to the pure pocket-passer tradition your father enjoyed. You know—Unitas, Lamonica, Starr. His style is losing favor in today’s NFL, where nimble-legged QB’s can spoil the third-down blitz to move the chains or buy more time for receivers to come open. One of those targets will be the venerable Larry Fitzgerald, who like Palmer, has hinted this may be his last season.

Fitz has a shot at joining an exclusive club in Detroit today against the Lions—with 82 receiving yards, he’ll become the fifth player with 1,000 receiving yards and eight touchdowns over a career in season openers. Other members of the club? Don Maynard (ask your father), Andre Reed, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice—three Hall of Famers, and Moss is knocking on the door.

The Cardinals’ faithful pray for Palmer’s health, and surely also for the health and fortune of the NFL’s quiet superstar: David Johnson. The average man on the street has never heard of Johnson; unless that man is on Camelback Road in Phoenix, in which case he may be wearing Johnson’s jersey and have his poster on the wall at home.

Johnson became the first player in league history to gain at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first 15 games. He rushed for 1,239 yards and added 879 receiving yards, falling 121 yards short of becoming only the third player in league history to gain 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. “I feel like I definitely had the chance. I should have had it. I messed up a couple plays,” Johnson said.

Johnson may have been more than a couple plays away, but he’s unsatisfied and hungry. He wants more.

Same goes for Arians, Palmer, Fitzgerald, GM Steve Keim and that guy walking down Camelback Road. Last year’s 7-8-1 record left an ugly smudge on the end of a gleaming four-season run.

Can the Cardinals shake off a disappointing 2016 season and become a force again, starting in Detroit today? Bruce Arians was impressed with the summer and preseason work. He perhaps too-optimistically said, “Let’s get ready to put a ring on our finger.”

Echoes of Beyoncé there, and she’s done alright for herself.

-Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Arizona Cardinals Finale: Men, Beasts and Glory

palmer-colloseum

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer turned 37 this week and his body turned 49. Over his 13-year career, Palmer has suffered injuries to his shoulder, ribs, nose, ankle, head, knee, and elbow. He has suffered a concussion and blown out his ACL twice.

But in the final game of a discouraging season Palmer may well feel rejuvenated today when he leads his Cardinals teammates onto the sun-soaked lawn of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, an arena that still rings faintly with cheers from his halcyon days with the USC Trojans. The fair-haired Palmer detonated the school and conference record books, collected a Heisman Trophy, married his college sweetheart and was drafted into the NFL by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003.

Palmer’s exploits in the Coliseum were perhaps more palatable to the modern fan than the goings-on in Rome’s first-century Colosseum, after which the stadium was named. There, before the emperor and the blood-thirsty wails of 80,000 spectators, criminals sentenced to death were released to fend for themselves against an assortment of beasts such as hippos, elephants, lions and leopards. A man might be mauled by a bear, trampled by a rhinoceros, and then have his rib meat picked over by an ostrich. Acrobats and magicians performed in the intervals, perhaps to lighten the mood (“Behold Emperor, the olive branch has vanished!!!”).

Palmer will face a stout Rams defense today, but there is little chance he’ll have a limb gnawed off by a Caspian tiger. Arizona is fresh off a road win against rival Seattle, a small consolation for a Cardinals team that will watch the playoffs from the comfort and safety of Barcaloungers. Another small prize is at stake today, as Arizona hopes to avenge a week-four 17-13 home loss to the Rams, who have lost 10 of their last 11 since.

Some will tune in today to see if Cardinals running back David Johnson can set a record: at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game of an NFL season. Johnson, the 86th pick of the 2015 draft out of unheralded Northern Iowa, has been a revelation. He’s rushed for over 1,200 yards and added 841 receiving yards at a sterling 10.9 yards-per-catch clip. It’s not likely, but Johnson could hit another high mark today: with 159 yards receiving, he’d join NFL legends Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig as the only players to reach 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in a single season.

With little else to play for, Arizona may well feed Johnson the ball today in hopes he might earn some personal glory. But the unassuming Johnson would gladly trade that for the game’s ultimate prize.

Tiffany’s silversmiths will not be etching Arizona’s name on the Super Bowl trophy this season. And one wonders if they might do so next season, considering that Palmer and star receiver Larry Fitzgerald are mulling retirement.

Cardinals Nation is hoping those inner fires will flicker to life next spring. And through the long off-season one question will enrich dinner conversations and barroom debates: Can coach Bruce Arians, movitator, philosopher and tinkerer, pry open the championship window that slammed shut this year?

Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Arizona Cardinals: Miami Invasion

palmer-and-beatles

After the Beatles’ first performance on American soil, February 9th, 1964, before a swarm of shrieking, swooning teenagers on the Ed Sullivan show, the band jetted south from snowy New York to take up a week’s residence in Miami’s Deauville Beach Resort, a sunny, swanky, palm-lined paradise then favored by Sinatra, Sammy and Joey, where fawning fans wrote love letters in the sand and offered free rides on their powerboats and yachts, prompting Ringo Starr to refer to Miami Beach as “The most magnificent place I’ve ever seen.”

The Arizona Cardinals flew into Miami International Airport with less fanfare Friday. They were whisked off to an undisclosed location, a flicker of desperation behind the eyes of a team fighting for its playoff life. Sunday’s clash with the Dolphins is a must win game for the 5-6-1 Cardinals against a Miami team that needs a victory to hold on to its own playoff position. This is a stern test for an Arizona team that has only one road win this season–against the hapless San Francisco 49ers. This is a business trip.

It’s serious business indeed, but this is the land of dangling chads, and the Cardinals need only look at actual headlines such as these to ease any stress:

  • Man sprinkled fiancée’s ashes at LensCrafters, causing Florida mall’s evacuation
  • Man who “exposed himself” tells police: “I was just airing out my penis”
  • Florida goat skateboards into Guinness Book of World Records
  • Babysitter accused of sleeping on toilet as 2-year-old wanders to canal with alligators
  • Florida man calls 911 80 times to demand Kool-Aid, hamburgers, and weed
  • Lawmaker files bill to repeal state ban on dwarf-tossing in bars
  • Kangaroo leads Florida deputies on 10-hour chase
  • Accused Florida man says his cat downloaded child porn, not him.
  • Florida woman renews marriage vows with Ferris wheel named Bruce

Strange things happen in Florida, but would an Arizona victory be so odd? Best to stick to the game plan: slow down Miami running back Jay Ajayi, who has sprung from obscurity to rush for a 5.2 yard average and seven TDs; devise a way for undrafted free agents John Wetzel and Ulrick John to slow down the onrushing bull that is Ndamukong Suh; and trust the defense to rise up in critical moments like it did last week in the Cards’ 31-23 victory over Washington.

Arizona’s leading lights shone in that Redskins game. 36-year-old Carson Palmer looked spry and solid for long stretches, and his 300 passing yards and three TD’s rekindled memories of last year’s glories. Quiet superstar David Johnson added two touchdowns of his own. With 175 yards from scrimmage, Johnson became only the second player in NFL history to gain 100+ yards in a season’s first 12 games. Larry Fitzgerald caught 10 balls for 78 yards, and moved into third on the all-time receiving list. Coach Bruce Arians rolled the dice and went for it on 4th down and 1 from Arizona’s own 34 yard line late in the game with the Cardinals holding a 24-20 lead. Johnson ripped off a 14 yard run, then Palmer chucked a 42 yard TD pass to struggling J. J. Nelson to add to the lead. And finally, Patrick Peterson intercepted Redskins QB Kirk Cousins with 41 seconds left to preserve the win.

Succeeding on key plays has gone from last year’s routine to this year’s rarity. The Washington triumph restored a dash of confidence though, and distracted from subtle retirement hints dropped by Palmer and Fitzgerald, if not after this season then perhaps the next.

But years from now, when those two recall this season on the porch to a huddle of grandkids, they’re more likely to hold the youngsters spellbound with tales of long bombs, one-handed catches, toe taps in the corner of the end zone and a raucous championship celebration than with the current slog of injuries, under-performance, offensive line position-shuffling, kicking game misadventures and a mediocre record.

Today’s game isn’t just about holding on to the bottom rung of the playoff ladder. It’s about the kids.

Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Arizona Cardinals in Atlanta: Palmer’s March?

carson-and-sherman

On November 15, 1864, after capturing the city of Atlanta, the Union Army’s General William Tecumseh Sherman set off with his troops to capture the port of Savannah. Seething with malice, his men laid waste to military targets, civilian property, infrastructure and industry, cutting a swath of destruction that crippled transportation networks, the Confederacy’s economy, and the morale of the civilian population.

Today, Coach Bruce Charles Arians’ Arizona Cardinals hope to take Atlanta in a more gentlemanly fashion, well-padded and without such dire consequences. To a team that started the year feeling poised to take the next step on a path laid out by Arians on the day of his hire in 2013, defeating the Falcons today in the Georgia Dome has a do-or-die air to it. The Cardinals sit at 4-5-1 after losing only three regular season games last year. The division title and a shot at the playoffs are sliding away, the offensive line and the receiving corps are banged up, and field general Carson Palmer isn’t commanding quite the degree of respect he earned last year.

On top of this, Arians felt chest pains after the Cardinals returned from Sunday’s road loss to the Minnesota Vikings, and his wife drove him to the hospital for evaluation. He survived the scare and rejoined the team Wednesday.

The debilitating effects of stress have been well documented, and one can imagine how the cruel memory of the Vikings’ high-flying win might have lodged in Arians’ chest. With the first half winding down and Arizona marching toward a touchdown and the lead, Minnesota cornerback Xavier Rhodes intercepted Palmer at the goal line and scampered 100 yards for a score and a 20-10 Vikings advantage. It was one of two picks on the day for Rhodes. Palmer helped answer that blow by marching the offense downfield for a touchdown, capped by a 29 yard pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham. This helped buoy the Cardinals’ spirits, and they jogged to the locker room down 20-17.

Arizona took the field in the second half properly fueled by anger and inspiration, but the air was swiftly sucked from their lungs by Cordarelle Patterson, who returned the second half kickoff 104 yards for a score to put Minnesota up 27-17, a margin the Cardinals couldn’t surmount. Ultimately the Cardinals fell 30-24, failing to overcome the Vikings’ two big plays. How big were they? The Vikings are the first team to score touchdowns on a 100-yard interception return and 100-plus yard kickoff return in the same game since the 1962 Dallas Cowboys.

On to Atlanta, where Georgia Dome crowds have been treated to a career year from QB Matt Ryan and the continued ascension of wide receiver Julio Jones. If it’s lonely at the top, Jones is a downright solitary figure, leading the world with 1,105 yards. Arizona All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson looks to slow down the talented Jones and erase the memory of their 2014 meeting, when Jones hit for 10 catches, 184 yards and a touchdown.

It’s a battle of #1s–Atlanta’s top-ranked offense v. Arizona’s top-ranked defense. The game may hinge on the performance of Cardinals running back David Johnson, who has quietly taken his place among the NFL’s elite. He has topped 100 yards from scrimmage in every game this season. Sounds reasonably impressive, but consider the full extent of it: Johnson is only the fourth player to accomplish this since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Arizona victories this season have proven more elusive than fans expected. With playoff chances waning, a win might be found in Johnson’s legs or Palmer’s arm, in the collective will of a sturdy defense or the team’s DNA under this coaching regime. Whatever the result today, Arians’ heart and the Cardinals’ resolve will be tested once more.

Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Arizona Cardinals Pause, Reflect, and Return to War

christmas-truce

Christmas Truce – The Illustrated London News

As dawn broke on Christmas morning, 1914, entrenched British troops on the Western Front of World War I heard singing from the German side, across no man’s land, accompanied by a brass band. Soon after, German soldiers rose and walked toward the British side, calling out “Merry Christmas.” Eyeing them with suspicion but noticing the troops were unarmed, British soldiers lowered their rifles and took to the field themselves, their linguists calling out “Fröhliche Weihnachten.” Plum puddings and cigarettes were exchanged, carols were sung, and a soccer game broke out. The “Christmas Truce” was a welcome respite from the brutality of the Great War.

The Arizona Cardinals are coming off their much-needed bye week, a ceasefire in the hostilities of a long NFL season. The Cards sit at a disappointing 3-4-1, but some wounds are healing, such as speedy WR John Brown’s achy legs after treatment following diagnosis of the sickle cell trait. All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu was expected to be out several more weeks with a shoulder injury, but the Honey Badger was observed prowling the practice field this week. He’ll miss today’s home game against the 49ers, but his progress is encouraging.

Another beneficiary of the week off may have been Chandler “The Cat” Catanzaro, the Cardinals’ beleaguered placekicker. Cats are not known for their kicking, except perhaps for certain European breeds, but Catanzaro performed well last year, converting every kick from 46 yards and in. This season he missed game-winners in weeks one and seven, the latter a chip shot against rival Seattle that now surely visits his dreams. Arizona GM Steve Keim could be forgiven if over the break he had auditioned former NFL kickers, a couple of Rockettes and a mule.

To clear his head, Catanzaro retreated home to South Carolina during the break to visit family and friends and to “self-medicate.” No word on the nature of the medication but Cardinals Nation is praying for its potency.

Coach Bruce Arians and his staff settled in over the bye week to review game video, noshing and gnashing and trying to solve the puzzle of an underperforming offense. The films are unlikely to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but they may reveal clues to a team that has fallen from number one in offense last season to 16th this year.

Even to the naked eye, the receiving corps has vastly underachieved after being one of the league’s most feared units last season. Michael Floyd has declared himself a top receiver in the NFL, but his numbers (19 catches, three TD’s, multiple drops) have yet to reflect that in the last year of his rookie contract. Larry Fitzgerald has gone 15 games without a 100-yard effort, his longest such streak since 2004.

Field General Carson Palmer simply hasn’t looked like himself all year. He’s been slowed by ailments and he hasn’t connected on the big plays that lit up scoreboards last year. The Cardinals aim for at least five “explosive” plays per game—22 yards or more—but that feature of their attack has been muffled so far. It doesn’t help that 6’8”, 321 pound offensive tackle Jared Veldheer is on injured reserve with a torn tricep, giving Palmer a tick less time to throw.

Arizona continues to lean heavily on running back David Johnson, the only player in the NFL with at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game this season. And despite its share of injuries, the defense has sparkled, allowing the fewest yards in the league.

Arizona hosts the 1-7 San Francisco 49ers today at University of Phoenix Stadium, which may be just the tonic to settle the nerves. It’s a must-win game for a team still stocked with talent and with playoff aspirations. After today, the Cardinals set off on a lengthy road peppered with land mines—three early games in the Eastern Time Zone, a looming skirmish in Seattle, and five of their last seven contests away from the comforts of home.

After a welcome break, it’s back to business for Arizona today at 1:25 p.m. PST for the season’s second half. Cardinals Nation is hoping it only faintly resembles the first.

– Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Arizona Cardinals: No Evidence that David Johnson is a Cyborg

Dec 27, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) carries the ball after a catch in the first half against the Green Bay Packers at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

One can be forgiven for thinking that Arizona Cardinals third-year running back David Johnson was created in a covert Midwestern lab by some mad genius. Johnson is a chiseled, 6’1”, 225 pound cyborg who rose from the corn fields of Northern Iowa to take his place among the NFL elite.

I have no evidence that Johnson’s a cyborg. It’s just a hunch, and even Cardinals GM Steve Keim told Arizona Sports 98.7 this week, “You wonder if he’s real.” Johnson has the power to run over you, the speed to run around you, and an instinct to burst through just the right crack in the line and then jump-cut to the outside, buckling the knees of would be tacklers and leaving them strewn all over the field. In 2015, Johnson became just the fourth player in NFL history to post 500+ rushing yards, 400+ receiving yards, 500+ kickoff return yards and 13+ TDs in a season, joining greats like Maurice Jones-Drew and Gale Sayers.

Oh, and he only started five games all season.

Johnson is averaging five yards per carry this year and a hefty 13.3 as a receiver. He has rushed for an NFL-high eight TDs in the first six games. He is one of the most elusive backs in the league and even if you can get your hands on him, he’s averaging three yards per carry after first contact.

Scouts didn’t see this coming. Johnson was selected 86th in the 2015 draft out of the University of Northern Iowa. The school enjoys a strong liberal arts tradition, and publishes The North American Review, a celebrated literary magazine whose past contributors include Mark Twain, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Walt Whitman. The university is not, however, known for producing pro athletes; one could pen the complete list before Usain Bolt breaks the tape in the 100-meter dash.

The well-spoken Johnson made the dean’s list twice, and since being drafted he’s acquired a wife, a house and a dog, and the couple is expecting their first child in late January. He’s doing it all, on and off the field.

The franchise has piled heavy expectations on Johnson this season, and he’s shouldered them with an easy grace. He’s lifted the spirits of Cardinals fans who are still drifting on memories of last year’s aerial circus, with ringleader Carson Palmer spinning floaters and bombs to a skilled and speedy receiving corps that lit up scoreboards all over the league. This season Palmer’s numbers have dipped across the board, and with the exception of Larry Fitzgerald the pass catchers have been hobbled by injuries and under-performance. As a result, Arizona is leaning more heavily on the ground game. Johnson’s out front, carrying the ball and the banner.

UNUSUAL SIGHTING
Patrick Peterson is one of the toughest shutdown corners in the NFL, and seems to be part man, part beast. Now there’s proof: https://twitter.com/AZCardinals/status/788139269256654848/video/1

MONDAY NIGHT MASTERY
The defense swarmed over the NY Jets last Monday night with barbaric urgency. The Cards held the Jets to only 33 yards rushing and a single field goal. That performance and Johnson’s three TDs were more than enough for a solid 28-3 victory. Arizona has won two straight to pull even at 3-3 on the season, righting a foundering ship after a 1-3 start. Arizona is now 10-3 in prime time games under coach Bruce Arians.

BRING ON THE SEAHAWKS
Buoyed by their Monday night performance, the Cardinals will play under the lights again tonight when they host rival Seattle in a pivotal division matchup. A Cardinals victory would pull them within a half game of the division lead and extend their winning streak to three. A Seahawks win would give them a 2.5 game margin in the division. The Seahawks boast the league’s #1 defense, and QB Russell Wilson has found his footing after suffering ankle and knee injuries early in the year. He’s hitting on 66% of his passes and Seattle has averaged 30 points in its last three games. Arizona has to find a way to shut down the Seahawks and gut out a win in what may be a low scoring game.

The Cardinals have been a cordial host to Seattle in recent years, allowing the Seahawks to win their last three games in University of Phoenix Stadium. Frustrated cornerback Patrick Peterson was at a loss for words when asked why this week. “Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that question,” he said. Coach Arians offered an explanation: “They beat the s— out of us.”

The players are hell-bent on halting the recent home slide against Seattle, and they’ve drawn a line in the desert sand. The biggest challenge will be to get the running game going, which has been thoroughly squelched in the recent home losses to Seattle.

Maybe David Johnson will somehow run wild against the Seahawks’ punishing defense. If he does and Arizona wins, as far as Johnson’s devotees are concerned he may as well just keep on running to Canton, OH and install himself as the first living exhibit in the NFL Hall of Fame.

He has the talent to get there someday. Why wait?

–  Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Cardinals Entertain Brady-free Patriots in Season Opener

carson-palmer

Bud Light is the most popular beer in Arizona, and Cardinals fans reached for more than their share as they fidgeted their way through the first three games of a wobbly preseason. Arizona was outscored 83-37 by Oakland, San Diego and Houston.

The Cardinals’ 38-17 drubbing of Denver in game four came as a relief, even though both sides flung out players who were clinging to the bottom of the depth charts by their fingernails. Intellectually, fans know the preseason means almost nothing. But the Red Wave has grown accustomed to victory during Coach Bruce Arians’ tenure, no matter the date or circumstance.

And no wonder.

Arians came aboard in 2013 and coaxed 10 wins out of a Cardinals team that finished 5-11 the previous year. Arizona went on to win 11 games in 2014 and 13 games last year. The trajectory is not hard to plot. A franchise that for decades seemed devoted to mediocrity has experienced a tectonic shift in expectations and quality of play. The team is built to win, but can it get into and then roll through the playoffs?

Critical components from all over the field return, such as Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell, and a healthier Tyrann Mathieu. This bodes well.

KEY ADDITIONS
Frustrated by the lack of pressure the defense put on Cam Newton in Carolina’s 49-15 beat down of the Cards in last season’s NFC Championship game, Arizona GM Steve Keim worked the phones and brought in outside linebacker Chandler Jones from the Patriots. The 2015 Pro Bowler’s 30 sacks the last three years ties him with Denver’s Von Miller, one of the game’s finest at his craft. Keim also imported Tyvon Branch from Kansas City, who was among the league’s top cover safeties in 2015.

FIRST UP: ARIZONA V. NEW ENGLAND
A grateful nation will tune into NBC’s Sunday Night Football as Arizona locks horns with the visiting Patriots, who are among Vegas’ preseason Super Bowl favorites. The Cardinals catch a break in this one—Tom Brady is in the penalty box for air pressure transgressions and All-Pro tight end and party beast Rob Gronkowski is expected to sit out with a balky hamstring. Arizona has been masterful at University of Phoenix Stadium the last few years, and is 20-4 in QB Carson Palmer’s last 24 starts, whether home or away.

PLAYER TO WATCH: DAVID JOHNSON
30-year-old running back Chris Johnson enjoyed a resurgence last season, stabilizing what had been a spotty Arizona running game. But when he fractured his tibia in game 11 he opened the door for young David Johnson. Johnson registers 6’1”, 224 lbs., and he’s proven to be the rare back with the ability to run over or around would-be tacklers. He has good hands out of the backfield and a nose for daylight and the big play. In short, he’s been a revelation and he’s earned the starting job.

FUN FACTS ABOUT DAVID JOHNSON
– Last season, Johnson forced 41% more missed tackles than any other RB in the NFL.
This really happened: Bobby Flay selected David Johnson first overall in ESPN’s celebrity NFL fantasy league draft. Of course Bobby Flay knows as much about football as David Johnson knows about pan-seared brook trout with Malabar pepper-infused aioli. So take it with a grain of sea salt.

If David ever falters, a healthier Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington have shown they are fully capable of making big contributions.

HUNTING POKÉMON
The following players will not play Sunday, and may be otherwise occupied:
Arizona: Kareem Martin, LB—knee.
New England: Tom Brady, QB—deflated. Rob Gronkowski, TE—hammy. Nate Solder, OT—hammy.

Arizona has won five of its last six openers. New England has won 11 of its last 12. Which team will take the first step toward the Super Bowl in Houston Feb. 5? Tune in at 5:30 PST.

– Eric Forgaard

This blog is not sponsored by a generous grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Larry Fitzgerald v. Rams

Arizona Cardinals: Sheet Cakes and Sparkling Wine

Follow me on Twitter: @ericforgaard

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.