Although it didn’t end the way anybody in the Valley wanted, the 2015 season was quite a memorable one for the Arizona Cardinals.
Bruce Arians’ team ripped off a franchise-record 13 wins in the regular season good enough to wrap up their third NFC West championship in the last eight seasons. They followed that up with a thrilling 26-20 overtime win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
The journey ended the next week with a loss to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game — just the second time the Cardinals have ever advanced that far.
There were plenty of memorable plays in all three phases of the game, but here is a look at the top five defensive plays the Birdgang turned in during the 2015 campaign.
5. Justin Bethel’s interception vs. Green Bay (Week 16 – Dec. 27)
Sure, this game was an unmitigated blowout, but it was close at one time. Late in the second quarter, with the Cardinals leading 10-0, Green Bay faced a 3rd-and-5 from the Arizona 10-yard line. Aaron Rodgers dropped to pass, got pressure from Dwight Freeney on the back side. The Green Bay quarterback avoided it, looked right and tried to find James Jones in the right corner of the end zone. But Bethel stepped in front of it, picking it off for his second interception of the year. Not only did Bethel’s handiwork prevent a Packers’ touchdown, it gave Carson Palmer and the offense the ball back with nearly a minute on the clock. Palmer engineered an 80-yard touchdown drive that ended in a 7-yard touchdown pass to John Brown with just :06 left in the half and essentially put the game out of reach for Green Bay.
The Quote: “Justin made a great play and then we go down and get the touchdown. That was a very well-orchestrated drive by Carson. I thought then it was over.” — Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians
4. Tyrann Mathieu’s 33-yard interception return for a touchdown vs. San Francisco (Week 3 – Sept. 27)
Justin Bethel got the fireworks started early in this contest, picking off Colin Kaepernick and returning it 21 yards for a score on San Francisco’s third play of the game. Just 2:03 later, the “Honey Badger” also picked off Kaepernick and he returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0 just six minutes into the game. The Cardinals would go on to win 47-7 to push their record to 3-0 on the season. It was just the sixth time the Cardinals had two pick-sixes in the same game since they moved to the Valley in 1988, and the first time since Rashad Johnson and Greg Toler each scored in a 38-10 win over the Detroit Lions in Week 15 of the 2012 season.
The Quote: “I saw him the whole time. He has one of those funky wind-ups, so once he winds up to throw the ball, it kind of takes a minute to leave his hand and at that point, it was just about doing what you do in practice.” — Mathieu as a guest of Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM on Sept. 28
3. Cory Redding’s touchdown rumble vs. Green Bay (Week 16 – Dec. 27)
The story of this game was the Arizona defense, which made life miserable for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (and everyone else in green and yellow, for that matter.) With Arizona leading 24-0 in the third quarter, linebacker Kareem Martin got around the left end and sacked Rodgers, knocking the ball free. Defensive tackle Cory Redding scooped it up at the 37-yard line. On his way to the end zone, he absolutely flattened Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy, who attempted to bring him down at the 20-yard line. As he crossed the goal line, Redding jumped with the ball extended over his head — a move that drew a chuckle from head coach Bruce Arians. “Cory Redding, his feeble jump into the end zone was outstanding,” Arians said.
The Quote: “He felt us coming from the left, he felt us coming from the right up the middle, he had no place to go. That’s just the effort we had all day long. Guys were just hungry, we just wanted to get there. We just charged ourselves — who could get the most sacks and just have fun. That was the emphasis — party at the football. And that’s what we did today, we had so much fun at the football.” — Cory Redding
2. Tony Jefferson’s game-saving pick vs. Baltimore (Week 7 – Oct. 26)
In terms of importance, this was undoubtedly the biggest play of the first half of the season for the Cardinals. The Cardinals led by eight with seconds left and Baltimore facing a 2nd-and-9 at the Cardinals’ 9-yard line. A touchdown and a two-point conversion would have sent the game into overtime. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco dropped back to pass, and under pressure from rookie Markus Golden, lofted the ball toward tight end Crockett Gillmore in the end zone. The ball sailed, and safety Tony Jefferson made a great, over-the-shoulder catch and slid down with the interception to preserve a 26-18 win.
The Quote: “I knew the ball was coming to us — (Gillmore) and me. I knew one of us was going to make a big play and I had already given up the big pass, so there was no way I was going to let him catch the ball on that one.” — Tony Jefferson
1. Dwight Freeney’s strip sack vs. Minnesota (Week 14 – Dec. 10)
Chandler Catanzaro booted a 47-yard field goal with 1:23 left in the ball game to give the Cardinals a 23-20 lead over the Vikings. Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater drove the Vikes down to the Arizona 31-yard line. On 3rd-and-10, Bridgewater dropped to pass, but he was sacked by outside linebacker Dwight Freeney, who put a textbook spin move on left tackle Matt Kalil. Freeney jarred the ball loose, and it was recovered by Calais Campbell at the Cardinals’ 36-yard line to seal the victory.
The Quote: “I was a little surprised that they kept throwing the ball, but then again, they had to go for the win. They figured ‘one more try’ so I was like ‘alright, one more try’ and we happened to make the play.” — Dwight Freeney
Honorable mention: Cory Redding’s interception vs. Detroit, Justin Bethel’s pick-6 vs. San Francisco, Tony Jefferson’s pick-6 vs. Chicago, Jerraud Powers’ fumble return vs. Green Bay
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