Chris Johnson continues comeback year as Cardinals hold off Ravens
Just when it seemed that the Ravens were totally out of steam on Monday night, they came storming back to push the host Cardinals to the wire. Arizona did manage to hold on for a 26-18 win, but it took a late interception following a wild series of events that included a missed extra point, a blocked punt and a head-scratching intentional grounding.
Both teams needed a win, albeit for different reasons. The Cardinals entered Monday night suddenly clinging to first place in the NFC West, with the Rams knocking on the door and the Seahawks lurking. The Ravens came in at 1-5, just hoping to find any sort of footing.
Arizona walked off happy, if perhaps slightly unsatisfied with its performance.
More on the Monday nighter:
1. Chris Johnson, 2015 Comeback Player of the Year?
The competition could be fierce for that particular award, what with Eric Berry's feel-good story in Kansas City and Carson Palmer shaking off last season's knee injury to lead the Cardinals. There is no doubt, though, that Johnson will be in the conversation should he continue to play like he has so far this season.
His 122 yards rushing Monday give Johnson 557 for the season, good for second on the NFL leaderboard behind only Devonta Freeman. With 107 yards next week in Cleveland, he will top his 2014 Jets total (663).
Johnson looks reborn in the Arizona attack, as evidenced by his two long runs vs. Baltimore: a 24-yard TD on which he broke two tackles and then outran everyone to the pylon and a 62-yarder that easily could have been stopped for a very short gain (Baltimore argued, unsuccessfully, that Johnson's forward progress had been stopped—one of several debatable calls).
Adding Johnson to the mix, then complementing him with Andre Ellington and rookie David Johnson, has turned the Cardinals into one of the league's most dangerous offenses. That's the case even on nights like Monday, when the passing game never really gets going the way that it can. Palmer did throw for 275 yards and a pair of TDs, but the Cardinals did not find the success through the air that Baltimore's previous two opponents had.
Having all those options is invaluable. Case in point: On a huge third-and-three late in the fourth quarter, Arizona split David Johnson and Ellington on either side of Palmer, then looped Ellington out on a swing pass to move the sticks.
It all starts with Johnson. For as explosive as the Palmer-led passing game can be, the Cardinals should be thrilled to have the balance they've found.
2. Give credit to the Ravens ... and the Cardinals' defense
Baltimore has been circling the drain for weeks now. It trailed by 16 late in the fourth quarter and had injuries mounting on offense. And yet, John Harbaugh's team had a shot to tie the game in the closing seconds, from inside Arizona's red zone.
A franchise that has enjoyed as much recent success as Baltimore won't care much for a moral victory, especially since every loss this season has been tough. The eight-point margin of defeat Monday actually was the largest for the now 1-6 Ravens. There's still something to be said for Joe Flacco throwing passes to Chris Givens, a receiver who just recently joined the team via trade, while standing behind a line missing its starting left tackle and left guard.
It almost feels like if Baltimore could just get one more close win, it could get rolling a bit. More likely, the Ravens will have to wait for 2016 before they can jump back into any playoff conversation.
3. The Arizona defense was on full display
This was not a totally dominant effort as we've seen at times from the Cardinals' D. But it was enough to help the NFC West leaders hold on for a win. Tony Jefferson sealed the victory late by picking off Flacco in the end zone.
Prior to that play, the Cardinals did manage to show off to a national TV audience why they are such a nightmare for the opposition.
There was Calais Campbell notching several tackles for loss while shifting all over the line. Behind him, Deone Bucannon led all defenders in the game with nine tackles. His presence in the box led ESPN's Jon Gruden to question multiple times why Bucannon sports No. 20, a DB digit, when he clearly plays a linebacker role. And if those two were not enough, Arizona again unleashed the remarkable Tyrann Mathieu (seven tackles, one sack) and saw consistent signs of life from veteran pass-rusher Dwight Freeney (one sack, numerous pressures).
The Cardinals will not be happy they allowed the Ravens to march about 70 of the 74 yards they needed late, but this is as much an opportunistic defense as it is a shut-down unit. In a win over Detroit, Arizona forced six turnovers; against San Francisco, it got four.
Baltimore coughed it up twice Monday: Flacco's INT and a Jeremy Ross fumbled punt return that led to an Arizona TD. That play was borderline, too, as it appeared Ross may have been down before Justin Bethel ripped the ball from his hands.
With or without producing those field-flipping plays, the Arizona defense can wreak havoc. Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator James Bettcher send players at the quarterback from all angles, just as former D.C.-turned-Jets coach Todd Bowles did. The resulting disruptions often lead to positive results for the Cardinals.