The Arizona Cardinals suffered their first loss in more than a month last week in Philadelphia, but they have a chance to right the ship Sunday in a rematch with the St. Louis Rams at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Arizona blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead in their season opener in St. Louis — a loss that seems to hurt the Cardinals more each passing week.
The Cardinals are still alive in the NFC wild card race, although one analyst said they may have to reach 11 wins to secure a wild card berth. But Arizona’s playoff fate is largely out of its control. The Cardinals hold the tiebreaker with Carolina, but the Panthers have a two-game lead on Arizona. The next two teams in the wild card race — the Eagles and San Francisco 49ers — each hold the tiebreaker over the Cardinals.
But breaking down playoff scenarios will be a practice in futility if Arizona loses Sunday, and here’s a look at what the Cardinals need to do to win their first NFC West game in almost two years and keep their playoff hopes alive:
Keys for the Cardinals offense:
1. Protect the ball
When the Cardinals haven’t turned the ball over, they’ve been nearly unstoppable (see their 40-11 win over the Colts two weeks ago). But when Arizona — and namely quarterback Carson Palmer — have turned it over, they’ve stalled offensively (see last week’s 24-21 loss to the Eagles).
2. Keep Floyd going
Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd has emerged as the solidified No. 2 option behind Larry Fitzgerald, and he’s caught 54 passes for a team-high 860 yards.
Floyd has racked up at least 99 yards in each of Arizona’s last three games, and it’s important that he remains a large part of the Cardinals’ offense to draw attention from Fitzgerald and the rest of Arizona’s options offensively.
3. Slow down STL’s pass rush
The Rams had a field day against the Cardinals in the season opener, getting to Palmer for five sacks and forcing the quarterback to throw an interception and lose a fumble.
St. Louis pass rusher Robert Quinn abused departed left tackle Levi Brown to the tune of three sacks, two forced fumbles and four quarterback hits. It’ll be up to Bradley Sowell and a host of tight ends and backs to at least slow Quinn down.
Keys for the Rams offense:
1. Protect Kellen Clemens
Arizona’s pass rush has been relentless of late, and much of that is thanks to the re-emergence of John Abraham as a pass-rushing outside linebacker.
The Cardinals’ defense — already one of the best in the NFL — is even more effective when it’s able to get to the passer, and the Rams need to protect Clemens if they’re going to move the ball in a noisy environment Sunday.
2. Take care of the ball
Clemens has been turnover prone in his five starts this season, throwing three interceptions and fumbling five times. The Rams can’t afford to turn the ball over and give a suddenly potent Cardinals offense a short field.
3. Keep Zac Stacy going
The Rams lost a bona fide star running back when Steven Jackson signed with the Atlanta Falcons during the offseason, but rookie Zac Stacy has given the Rams’ struggling run game a boost.
Stacy has rushed for 692 yards over the last eight games, which is fifth among all NFL running backs during that time. The 5-foot-8, 215-pounder is averaging more than four yards per carry, and he’ll continue to be heavily relied on with quarterback Sam Bradford out with a torn ACL.
Keys for the Cardinals defense:
1. Get to Clemens
Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens has been prone to turnovers in his five starts this season, and the Cardinals can force the issue by getting consistent pressure on the eighth-year pro out of Oregon.
2. Force turnovers
The Cardinals’ defense is typically very good, but it’s at its best when it forces turnovers. Whether it’s by getting to an unsuspecting quarterback, making plays on the ball or stripping a ball carrier, Arizona’s defense has shown that it can be one of the biggest game-changing units in the league.
3. Shut down the run
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that the Cardinals are going to make Clemens beat them, rather than let him manage the game while handing off to Stacy. But to require Clemens to do something extraordinary to win the game, the Cardinals have to take away the run.
Keys for the Rams defense:
1. Pick your poison
The Cardinals have become much more diversified in their offensive attack than they were in their first matchup with St. Louis, and it’s to the point that the Rams’ defense isn’t going to be able to take away all of the Cards’ go-to players.
Between the trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Rob Housler and Floyd, Arizona has a number of tall, rangy athletes on the outside. And with Andre Ellington’s return from injury, the Cardinals also have a big-time playmaker out of the backfield. The Rams have to pick which aspect they want to shut down or risk giving up big plays anywhere on the field.
2. Slow down the run
The Cardinals will never be a run-first team under head coach Bruce Arians, but they’ve at least presented a threat of running in their past two games.
When Arizona can run the ball, it just magnifies the effectiveness of its passing attack. But if St. Louis is able to slow down the run, it’s less likely to get burned by big plays through the air.
3. Keep the pressure on
St. Louis abused the Cardinals offensive line in the teams’ first meeting this season, and doing the same will be key to any defensive success the Rams have.
Arizona has implemented a number of protection packages to give Palmer more time, but this will be one of their biggest tests of the season after trading Brown earlier in the year.