NFC’s top spot at stake as Cardinals face Lions
TEMPE, Ariz. — One of the many things to appreciate about Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is his unfailing candor when the topic doesn’t compromise his team or game plan.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell this week gave the standard response when asked if it was late enough in the season to worry about the NFC standings’ significance on his team’s game in Arizona this Sunday.
"Nah, we don’t even talk about playoffs or anything of that nature," Caldwell said.
"Hell, yeah!" he said. "It’s for the No. 1 seed in the NFC this week. It’s big."
Yes. Yes it is. The winner of the game will sit in the conference’s top spot with six weeks to play. A lot still can happen, but these matchups matter come tiebreaker time and to date the Cardinals have taken care of business in every one of them.
Arizona is 6-0 against NFC foes; the Lions are 5-1. If the Cardinals can somehow win this game with former Lions draft pick Drew Stanton at quarterback, they will have a two-game cushion on every team in the conference because they already defeated Philadelphia and Dallas, the next two closest competitors.
The Cardinals (8-1) may need that cushion because they still have to face the Seattle Seahawks (6-3) twice, including Nov. 23 in Seattle. They also host Kansas City (6-3) and travel to San Francisco (5-4) for the final game of the season.
Per ESPN, the Cardinals’ remaining opponents have the third-highest winning percentage in the NFL at .571. Fortunately for the Cardinals, Seattle’s opponents have the highest at .667, magnifying the opportunity in this week’s game.
"We’re definitely aware of it, especially with NFC games," safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "We remember the Eagles game last year. If we would have won it, we would have been in the playoffs. Every game going forward is going to be played with that playoff mindset."
In the Lions, the Cardinals face a team that carries many similarities, including some tough matchups at receiver.
The marquee name still is Calvin Johnson, but a right ankle injury has limited him to six games. That has allowed free-agent acquisition Golden Tate to emerge. Tate is fourth in the NFL in receiving yards (909) and second in receptions (66), giving Cardinals cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie more to think about.
"(Johnson’s injury) opened the door for him to kind of get him going and now make it difficult for teams to double Calvin," Peterson said. "It helped not only their offense, but it helped Calvin."
Under former Cardinals DBs coach Teryl Austin, now Detroit’s defensive coordinator, the Lions defense ranks first overall, first in points allowed, second against the run and third against the pass. They are also eighth in the league with 26 sacks, led by defensive end Ezekiel Ansah’s 5.5 and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh’s 4.5.
"When you look at every statistical category at this point of the season, nine, 10 games in, your identity’s pretty evident," Stanton said. "They put people in tough situations and when you have the ability to put pressure on quarterbacks with just four guys, you’re going to be able to do that because you’ve got more guys in coverage.
"We’re trying to come up with a game plan. We have some ways to neutralize that and keep them at bay."
The Cardinals’ defensive rankings aren’t quite as high as Detroit’s — not surprising given their myriad personnel losses — but they do rank fourth in scoring defense and third against the run.
Given the fact that neither team runs the ball well, this could be a knock-down, drag-em-out affair with points at a premium, field position vital and field goals the deciding factor.
"It’s definitely going to be a physical game," Mathieu said. "I know their passing game is kind of high-powered, but at the end of the day we’re both elite defenses. It’s going to be a hard-hitting game and it may just come down to the final series again."
The respective run games: These are two of the top three run defenses in the NFL and two of the bottom four rushing offenses. Both defenses will try to make the opposing offenses one-dimensional. If one team can get its running game going, that would be a great advantage
Matthew Stafford’s ball security: The Lions QB isn’t one of the NFL’s worst offenders in this department, but the Lions throw a lot (Stafford has 339 attempts) and he has thrown eight interceptions. The Cardinals lead the league in interceptions with 14.
Drew Stanton: He’s played nearly the equivalent of three full games already this season, but now he’s the man with Carson Palmer (ACL) out for the season. The guess here is that, although he downplayed the significance, he will be extra juiced for this opportunity against the team that drafted him and eventually let him walk as a free agent.
— The Lions have not won their division since 1993 and have not been to a conference championship game since 1957. The Lions are 1-11 in the postseason since winning the NFL Championship in 1957.
— Cardinals assistant head coach Tom Moore was an assistant with the Lions from 1994-96.
— Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was the Cardinals DBs coach from 2007-09.
— The Lions are 31-26-5 against the Cardinals all-time, but the Cardinals have won the last five meetings and would match their longest win streak over Detroit (1946-48) with one more.