NFL

Offense finds footing for streaking Cardinals

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)

Arizona's defense has been strong all season. Now the offense has joined the party.

The result is a four-game winning streak that has the Cardinals in the thick of the NFC wild card race.

After its surprisingly one-sided 40-11 thrashing of Indianapolis on Sunday, Arizona (7-4) at least temporarily held the second wild card spot behind Carolina (8-3). San Francisco (6-4) played at Washington on Monday night. Arizona has lost to San Francisco but is the last team to beat Carolina. The Cardinals and 49ers meet in Arizona in their final game of the regular season.

Arizona coach Bruce Arians doesn't say ''if'' the Cardinals will make the playoffs. He says ''when'' they do. That's how confident he is in an ever-improving team that still has a rough road ahead.

''I think there's no reason we don't (make the playoffs),'' Arians said on Monday. ''We have a big game this week again against a team that's a game behind us on the road, was in first place and fighting for the division title, so it will be another good barometer.''

The Cardinals play at Philadelphia (6-5) next Sunday. After that, they are at home against St. Louis, at Tennessee, at Seattle, then home against San Francisco.

It's a difficult route to the post-season but, as always, Arians is confident.

''I don't know if we've peaked yet,'' he said. ''I know we're getting better each week. I think our best football is still out there. ... December football is what it's all about. You want games to matter in December, and that's what people remember, so we have to get there.''

Although it was Arizona's most complete performance of the season, Arians wasn't satisfied.

''We left too many points on the board,'' referring to two deep drives that ended in chip-shot field goals rather than touchdowns.

But Carson Palmer had a masterful performance. Helped by an effective running game and improved protection, the 11-year veteran completed 26 of 37 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns, both to Larry Fitzgerald. For the second week in a row, he wasn't intercepted. In fact, Arizona has not had a turnover in its last two games.

In the four-game winning streak, Palmer has eight touchdown passes and two interceptions. In the seven games before that, he threw for eight touchdowns with 13 interceptions.

Coming off a 419-yard passing game at Jacksonville, Palmer became the first quarterback in Cardinals history to complete 70 percent of his passes, throw for at least 300 yards and have a passer rating of at least 110 in consecutive games. Peyton Manning is the only other player to accomplish that in consecutive games this year.

Clearly, after a long and difficult process, Palmer finally has a grasp of Arians' offense.

''It took a little longer than you'd like,'' Palmer said. ''But, when you look at it, when you come and install a brand new offense with brand new coaches, with new players in the offseason ... it's a work in progress. Obviously, you'd like to have it by midway through training camp, or really be comfortable midway through training camp.

''That's not realistic. It took longer than we wanted but we're really getting that trust and confidence in each other.''

Palmer's success has coincided with the big-play emergence of Michael Floyd, last season's first-round draft choice out of Notre Dame. Floyd surpassed 100 yards receiving for the second game in a row. Palmer threw to him seven times, and he caught all seven for 104 yards. Every catch went for a first down.

''He's the big-time player that I hoped he'd become,'' Arians said. ''He's a big target - a big, strong guy. He's playing extremely confident right now.''

Fitzgerald had five catches for 52 yards, becoming the youngest player - at 30 years, 85 days - to reach 11,000 yards in career receiving.

Sunday's game was by far the best of the season for Rashard Mendenhall, who had become the target for fans and radio talk show hosts. The former Pittsburgh back had been plagued by a turf toe injury and finally is feeling healthy. He rushed for 54 yards in 13 carries, including a 5-yard touchdown run. He also caught a 24-yard pass. Rookie Andre Ellington chipped in 50 yards in 10 carries.

But for all their success on offense, everything begins with the defense for Arizona.

Indianapolis finished with 239 yards and had only 96 through three quarters, when the Cardinals led 34-3. Andrew Luck needed a couple of late completions to avoid his career low in passing yards at 159. He threw for 163.

Arizona's defense also scored. Karlos Dansby intercepted Luck's pass and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown. The Cardinals moved up to seventh in total defense, second against the run.

''Identity-wise,'' Palmer said, ''we're a defensive football team.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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Follow Bob Baum at www.twitter.com/Thebaumerphx

Tagged: Cardinals, Carson Palmer

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