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Arizona Cardinals do just enough to beat the Detroit Lions

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Excellent special teams play and a good defensive effort helped the Arizona Cardinals win five games last season, as well as stay in many others.

But it was adding a competent offense to the mix that allowed the Cardinals to leave their home opener Sunday with a 25-21 win over the Detroit Lions.

The Cardinals were far from perfect Sunday. They converted just one of 11 third down opportunities and watched helplessly as the Lions’ Calvin Johnson torched them for 96 yards and two touchdowns in the game’s first 30 minutes. They had to settle for four Jay Feely field goals, and saw QB Carson Palmer throw a pick-six in the third quarter.

But the defense tossed a shutout in the second half, allowing just 90 yards of offense. They held Johnson to just 20 yards on two catches in the game’s final 30 minutes, recovered a fumble and blocked a field goal (their 15th since 2008). In all, the Cardinals were able to stay within striking distance the entire afternoon.

And unlike last year, when efforts like that were wasted on a weekly basis, on this day the Cardinals kept pushing, slowly chipping away until finally taking the lead on Rashard Mendenhall’s one-yard touchdown run with just 1:59 left in the game.

A defensive stop later, and the Cardinals were 1-1.

“Our guys fought their tails off,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said after the game.

Arians said he feels the Lions are one of the NFL’s better teams, and he’s not exactly going out on a limb. The Lions are a solid team capable of being better than that in any given game, and seemed to be in control for most of this one.

But while the offense was settling for field goals, they were scoring points. Get enough of them, and you may win a ballgame.

Arizona did exactly that, but Palmer never would have had the chance to produce the game-winning drive had it not been for that defense.

“For our defense to go out and stop that offense, that’s a tall task and they did great,” Palmer said. “Defense played great all day, and then when it came down to it at the end of the game they got the stops they needed to give us the win.”

Indeed, this game was about the Cardinals getting what they needed, and not much more. But hey, a win’s a win, and as receiver Larry Fitzgerald noted, you only get 16 chances to earn one in the regular season.

“We weren’t especially sharp in the red zone today, but Jay [Feely] came in and made all his field goals, defense did a great job of holding those guys to field goals when we needed it, and [Tyrann Mathieu] came and made that big play on fourth down for us,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “Across the board, everybody made plays.

“That’s the true definition of a team win.”