Cardinals in NFC catbird seat after win over Lions
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Let's just stop for a minute to acknowledge what everyone is thinking: This is crazy.
Ten games into the 2014 season, the shorthanded Arizona Cardinals, led by their backup quarterback, have a three-game lead in the NFC West and own the same lead in the NFC with six games to play.
Barring a major late-season meltdown, the road to the Super Bowl will both run through Glendale and end in Glendale.
"Nothing's really changed," coach Bruce Arians insisted after his team's 14-6 victory over the Detroit Lions. "Nothing's won, nothing's lost. We're 9-1 and we could lose it all in the next four or five weeks."
It's hard to imagine that happening with this uber-focused and uber-deep group that keeps replacing starters and keeps winning.
The script was flipped in Sunday's victory at University of Phoenix Stadium. No fourth-quarter heroics were needed from the offense because QB Drew Stanton tossed two touchdown passes to where-have-you-been-lately receiver Michael Floyd on the team's first two possessions, staking Arizona to a 14-0 lead.
It was Stanton's first start since taking over for starter Carson Palmer, who was lost for the season with an ACL tear last week against the Rams.
"He hung in there," Arians said. "He was over 60 percent on third downs (57 percent). He moved the chains for us.
"He tried to force a couple of balls real quick and got fooled by coverage, but he'll get better from that."
With the Cardinals staked to a rare early lead, the heroics were left to a defense that, as you may have heard, is playing without five starters it thought it would have when the 2013 season ended.
Arizona's defense held Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to 183 passing yards, almost 100 yards below his season average. It held Calvin Johnson to five largely meaningless catches. It recorded its league-leading 15th interception -- this one from safety Rashad Johnson.
And for the second straight week, it got after the quarterback, sacking Stafford four times to negate what was an OK Detroit run game (98 yards).
Most importantly, it kept the Lions out of the end zone.
"All week long we heard about how Detroit had the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL," Cardinals defensive end Frostee Rucker said. "We kind of took it personal in here."
The Cardinals had a chance to put the game away early when Stanton led the offense to the Detroit 14-yard line. But Stanton didn't see Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead on a toss over the middle and suffered his first interception of the season.
"I was looking at the safety and the backer did a great job of busting backside," Stanton said. "I let it go and it was one of those ones where (right away) I wanted to have it back."
Stanton threw another pick later in the second quarter that the Lions converted into their second field goal of the game. But the defense didn't budge from there on out, holding Detroit to 140 yards of offense in the second half.
The Lions had rallied in the fourth-quarter for wins in three of their last four games, but they never crossed the Arizona 40-yard line in the second half.
"Any time you play against a good quarterback, you have to get him uncomfortable in the pocket," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "Any time you can hit him a little bit, get him on his back and make him uncomfortable, they start throwing the ball a little quicker sometimes."
Here's how it stack up for Arizona now. The Cardinals (9-1) lead the Seahawks (6-4) and 49ers (6-4) by three games in the NFC West with six to play. They play Seattle twice, including next week in Seattle, and they play the season finale against the 49ers at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
The Cards own three-game leads over Philadelphia (7-3), Dallas (7-3) and Detroit (7-3) because they have defeated all three teams. They own a three-game lead on Green Bay because the Cardinals are 7-0 in conference play while the Packers are 5-3, so Arizona owns the tiebreaker.
What's left on the to-do list?
"I think it's just a matter of us making sure that we win at home," Stanton said. "That's what we always harp on."
If that happens, they won't have to go on the road again after that Dec. 28 game against the 49ers.