Sunday brought good and bad tidings for the Arizona Cardinals. The team with the NFL's best record stretched that mark to 8-1 -- the franchise's best record since 1948, when it was located in Chicago -- with a 31-14 thrashing of the St. Louis Rams. It was a celebration of everything that makes this particular iteration of the Cardinals so great -- outstanding defense under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, tremendous play design by head coach Bruce Arians and players coming through when it counted.
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One of those players was backup quarterback Drew Stanton, who had to come through in the fourth quarter, after Carson Palmer went down to the ground with a non-contact left knee injury with 11:40 left in the fourth quarter. Palmer was able to leave the field on his own steam, but was unable to put weight on the knee on the sideline and was eventually carted off, with the fear being that he tore his ACL. Rookie kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed a 53-yard field goal on the next play, and the Cardinals found themselves down 14-10 without the quarterback they'd just signed to a new three-year, $50 million contract extension.
And that, improbably, is when all hell broke loose.
On Arizona's next drive, Stanton hit first-year receiver John Brown for a 48-yard touchdown in which Brown made an amazing diving catch. (Note: The touchdown celebration dance may be even more impressive.)
Then, with about 5:30 left in the game, St. Louis quarterback Austin Davis threw this 30-yard pick-six to Patrick Peterson, who had not been enjoying the best season, but certainly came through here. It was his second pick in as many Rams drives. Not bad for a guy who hadn't had an interception all season, and had allowed six touchdowns and a gaudy 125.5 quarterback rating.
But the Cards weren't done yet. On St. Louis' next possession, Davis was sacked by defensive end Kareem Martin and fumbled, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie (who has been playing out of his mind this season) ran the fumble back 14 yards for another score. That was indeed the ballgame.
(All GIFs courtesy Bleacher Report)
Three possessions, three turnovers for the Rams. Two defensive touchdowns and one amazing offensive catch for the Cardinals. Arizona now has 12 fourth-quarter takeaways, the most in the NFL.
Arians clearly has this team believing it can win no matter what. And Bowles, who should be a shoo-in for a head coaching gig in 2015, has his defense playing at a level than can elevate when needed.
But what does this mean for the Cardinals in the long-term? If Palmer does indeed have a torn ACL -- he had surgery on the ACL and MCL in the same knee in 2006 -- that would certainly end his season beyond any playoff considerations. Arians said after the game that he's unaware of Palmer's injury status, and that the team won't know for sure until he has an MRI. The Cardinals went 2-1 with Stanton as the starter earlier this season when Palmer was dealing with a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder. During that time, they beat the Giants and 49ers, and lost to the Broncos after their bye. In those games, Stanton threw for 167, 244 and 118 yards, and completed less than 50 percent of his passes.
Still, there seems to be something special about this Cardinals team. The 25-14 win over the Giants on Sept. 14, when Stanton completed 14-of-29 passes in his first NFL start since 2010, came at the expense of a New York team that couldn't get out of its own way. It was the second win Arizona enjoyed after trailing in the fourth quarter; Sunday's win over the Rams was the fourth this season.
"It goes to show the leadership we have in this locker room," Peterson said after the Giants game. "We faced a lot of adversity. We let these games slip away last year, getting into the fourth quarter down. We didn't know how to dig out of the hole. Now we understand how to win ballgames. How to finish out the fourth quarter. That's what it's all about."
Half a season later, nothing seems to have changed for these Cardinals. We'll see, however, how things spin forward if they have to reinvent themselves without plus-level quarterback play.