Upset-minded Rams ride rejuvenated defense into Arizona
With the NFL’s best record and some added incentive to reach the Super Bowl, the Arizona Cardinals have reason to look ahead.
Instead, they’ll focus on winning a fifth straight game and preventing the visiting St. Louis Rams from recording another upset of an NFC West opponent Sunday.
Well aware the Super Bowl will be played at Arizona’s home stadium, coach Bruce Arians tweaked a preseason message to his team.
"Put a ring on your finger and don’t let anybody dress in your locker in February," he said.
That’s quietly been a means of motivation for the Cardinals (7-1), but amid their best start in 40 years and after last Sunday’s 28-17 win at Dallas, talk outside the locker room of Arizona becoming the first team to play in a Super Bowl at home has increased.
That doesn’t mean Arians or his players are ready to go there.
"I’m not giving the Super Bowl too much thought to be honest with you," said linebacker Larry Foote, who faced the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII with Pittsburgh.
"In December if we’re 12-and-whatever or something like that I might start thinking about it, but we’re just trying to win the West. That’s all we can control right now."
Owners of a two-game division lead over Seattle, the Cardinals franchise hasn’t gone 8-1 since 1948 while based in Chicago, and it hasn’t started 5-0 at home since 1976 in St. Louis.
Arizona also knows the good times don’t always last.
The 1974 team won its first seven games, then went 3-4 and lost in the playoffs. In 2012, the Cardinals started 4-0, but won once the rest of the way. In their first year under Arians last season, a 10-6 record wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs.
"Coaches remind you it can go down real fast," defensive tackle Dan Williams told the Cardinals’ official website.
Arizona has remained grounded yet confident amid its success this season.
"I don’t see any cockiness in our football team," Arians said. "I see a true belief we’re going to win every week."
With injured Dallas quarterback Tony Romo out, Arizona snapped a 14-game regular-season road skid to the Cowboys by holding them to a season-low 266 yards. The Cardinals held DeMarco Murray to 79 rushing yards, his first time under 100 in 2014. Patrick Peterson held Dez Bryant without a catch until the final two minutes and also nearly scored on a blocked field goal at the end of the first half.
"I thought Patrick had his best game in a long, long time," Arians said.
Arizona has the league’s fifth-ranked scoring defense (19.5 points per game), and has forced nine turnovers during its winning streak. Only New England has a better turnover differential than the Cardinals’ plus-10.
Carson Palmer overcame an early interception returned for a touchdown to throw for 249 yards and three TDs at Dallas. Despite missing three games with a shoulder injury, Palmer has thrown 11 TDs and two INTs.
He’s only been sacked six times in five games after going down 41 times a season ago, but Arizona will have to contend with a rejuvenated pass rush against the upset-minded Rams (3-5).
A defense that allowed an average of 375.6 yards and recorded six sacks through seven games sacked Colin Kaepernick eight times and held the 49ers to a season-low 263 yards Sunday in a 13-10 victory. The Rams capped their stellar performance by recovering a Kaepernick fumble as he tried to score from the 1-yard line with 9 seconds remaining.
St. Louis lost 34-7 at Kansas City a week earlier after beating Seattle 28-26 at home on Oct. 19, making it 2-1 in the highly competitive West but just 1-4 outside the division.
"It doesn’t matter how you do it, or what it looks like," quarterback Austin Davis said. "It just matters what the score is at the end. I think guys did a great job of staying focused on what we had to do."
Davis and the NFL’s 28th-ranked offense must improve after totaling 393 total yards the last two weeks, including just 87 after halftime against San Francisco in their first game since putting tackle Jake Long and Brian Quick on IR. Davis hasn’t thrown for more than 160 yards in three games and has two TDs with three INTs in the last two.
Fellow rookie Tre Mason ran a team-high 19 times for 65 yards in his first start at San Francisco. Coach Jeff Fisher wouldn’t commit to Mason starting ahead of Benny Cunningham or Zac Stacy this week.
The Rams hope to have cornerback Janoris Jenkins back after he missed two games with a knee injury.
Arizona snapped a three-game series skid with a 30-10 home win Dec. 8. Larry Fitzgerald had a season-high 12 catches for 96 yards and one of his three TDs versus St. Louis in 2013.