GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Cardinals did everything they needed to do in Sunday’s 30-10 win over the Rams at University of Phoenix Stadium.
They turned in complete efforts on offense and defense, they won a division game for the first time since Sept. 9, 2012, and they even got a little help from the Saints in the playoff race.
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But the road to the postseason is still long, and it got a little longer when play-making rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu went down on a third-quarter kick return with season-ending ACL and LCL tears, as confirmed Monday by an MRI.
Mathieu took to Twitter during and after the game to express his feelings.
Playing without Mathieu will be another in a long line of tests for the Cardinals this season.
Now for the particulars from Sunday’s crucial win.
Take your pick. It was either that phenomenal 10-play, 80-yard drive Carson Palmer led right before halftime to give the Cardinals a 14-3 lead — one series after Jim Dray fumbled at the half-yard line to keep Arizona from taking early command — or it was Karlos Dansby’s pick-six on the second play of the second half that all but put the game on ice.
The offensive line: OK, we could have picked receiver Larry Fitzgerald (12 catches on 12 targets with 96 yards and a TD) or Palmer (27 of 32 for 269 yards, a TD and the second-highest completion percentage in Cardinals history at 84.4), who didn’t need a lick of practice time last week, but we gave them some love on Sunday, and none of that happens without the line turning in probably its best game of the season. The Cards gave left tackle Bradley Sowell plenty of help, and they built a game plan of shorter passes and even trick plays that took into account Palmer’s injured elbow, Michael Floyd’s bum ankle and the Rams’ fierce pass rush. The result was an efficient 369-yard performance and the team’s first division win in its last nine tries.
ILB Karlos Dansby: Dansby led the team in tackles with eight, had a pick-six, a sack, a QB hurry and a pass defended, and leads the NFL in solo tackles with 100. What more does he need to do to earn his first Pro Bowl trip?
THREE THINGS WE LEARNED
The Cards have figured out how to help Sowell: On the first play Sunday, Sowell got shoved back into QB Carson Palmer as he threw, but Palmer still completed a pass to Larry Fitzgerald. From that point on, Sowell held up OK, but there was a reason. Whether it’s a tight end assigned to his side or a running back left in to chip, Sowell is getting a lot of help. He still allowed some pressure, but the Cards may be able to manage with him the rest of the season before finding a replacement in the offseason.
Jay Feely isn’t perfect: Entering Sunday’s game, kicker Jay Feely had only missed two field goals all season — one from 50 yards and one that was blocked. On Sunday, he missed from 50 and 25 yards, dropping him to 22 of 26 for the season.
The Cardinals made progress on third downs: Executing better on that key down was a focal point last week. The Cards entered the game converting just 33.3 percent of their third downs, a rate that was tied for 30th in the NFL. They converted 8 of 14 on Sunday (57 percent). Mission accomplished.
S Tyrann Mathieu sustained season-ending ACL and LCL tears in the third quarter while returning a free kick after a safety.
ODDS AND ENDS
— Floyd was limping noticeably at times during the game on a bum ankle that limited his practice time last week. That made Fitzgerald’s performance all the more impressive and important. The Cards will need Floyd down the stretch in their playoff push.
— Carolina’s big loss at New Orleans helped Arizona’s playoff hopes. If Dallas losses to Chicago on Monday night, the Cardinals will be all alone in seventh place in the NFC, one game behind the Panthers and 49ers for a wild-card spot. They would win a two-team tiebreaker with the Panthers based on an earlier win over them this season.
— The last time these teams met, Rams TE Jared Cook had seven catches for 141 yards and two TDs. On Sunday, he had three catches (six targets) for 49 yards.
— Patrick Peterson quietly had a terrific day in coverage that was so tight the Rams rarely even looked his way. It’s a huge benefit when your top corner can take a receiver out of the game.
— “Next man up” is a familiar mantra for NFL teams besieged by injuries. But how about Rashad Johnson coming into the game after Mathieu’s injury and getting a fourth-quarter pick that set up the Cards’ final TD?
— John Abraham has 11 sacks in his last seven games. It’s hard to believe he wasn’t a starter when the season began, only gaining this opportunity when Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander were injured and lost for the season. he is the first Cardinals player since Bertrand Berry in 2004 to record double-digit sacks in a season. He is tied for sixth in NFL sacks this season.
— Arizona is one of seven NFL teams that have scored at least 20 points in every home game this season.
— With eight wins, Arians has more wins in his first year than any Cardinals coach but Norm Barry (11, 1925) — with three games remaining. Only four current NFL head coaches have more wins than Arians in their last 25 games on the sidelines: John Fox (21), Pete Carroll (20), Sean Payton (20) and Bill Belichick (20).
— Arizona’s 17 interceptions this season are tied for third-most in the NFL.
— After defeating the Rams on Sunday, the Cardinals are 14-3 in their red-on-red uniform combination dating back to 2005, when Arizona unveiled its new logo and uniform designs. Arizona has won eight straight in its all-red uniforms dating back to 2010.
At Tennessee, Sunday at 2:25 p.m.: The Titans (5-8) blew a big early lead in Denver on Sunday and lost big, 51-28. That loss all but ended the Titans’ playoff hopes in the weak AFC wild-card race. Will that letdown help the Cardinals? Tennessee is playing without starting QB Jake Locker (foot), who is out for the season, but Ryan Fitzpatrick is no stranger to the starter’s role, having held it in Buffalo for a long time.