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NFL Preview - St. Louis (5-7) at Arizona (7-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Arizona Cardinals are jut a game back of a wild card spot, but with three of their final four games of the regular season against fellow NFC West residents, that deficit looks like the Grand Canyon.
The Cards hope to put an eight-game losing streak against their division to rest this Sunday when they play host to the St. Louis Rams.
Arizona is 0-3 versus the NFC West this season, losing in St. Louis in Week 1 before back-to-back defeats against San Francisco (on the road) and Seattle (at home) on Oct. 13 and 17.
The Cardinals have not won a division game since beating the Seahawks at home on Sept. 9 of last season. That is a run they will need to end if they want to make the postseason as they are 7-5 and a game back of the 49ers for the conference's second wild card position.
"We haven't won a division game in two years and we play the division this week," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "If we're ever going to be anything we better start winning in our division. That's our only focus this week."
Arizona will visit Tennessee next Sunday before a very tough road game in Seattle the following weekend. The Cardinals then wrap the season at home versus the 49ers on Dec. 29.
The Cards had a four-game winning streak halted this past Sunday with a 24-21 setback to the Philadelphia Eagles, who moved to 7-5 on the season. Arizona turned the ball over three times, did not force a turnover and also took some big penalties at key spots.
That includes a defensive holding penalty on safety Tyrann Mathieu that negated a Patrick Peterson interception, while a holding call on linebacker Matt Shaughnessy on third down extended an Eagles drive that allowed them to run off the clock.
"We lost this football game with self-inflicted wounds," said Arians. "We didn't create any turnovers and we obviously turned it over and gave them the early start. We played good enough to play close but not good enough to win."
Palmer was 24-for-41 passing for 302 yards with three touchdown throws and two interceptions in the setback while also losing a fumble.
Michael Floyd had five catches for 99 yards and Larry Fitzgerald added 72 yards on five receptions. Both wide receives scored a touchdown as well.
The Rams failed to help the Cardinals out on Sunday, losing 23-13 in San Francisco.
Kellen Clemens threw for 218 yards -- much of which came after the outcome was already decided -- and was intercepted once. He completed a touchdown pass to wide receiver Brian Quick in the game's final minute.
Zac Stacy managed 72 yards on 19 carries as St. Louis had a two-game win streak halted. The Rams were held to 83 yards rushing on 30 attempts as a team after averaging 189.5 yards over their four games.
"We went into the game knowing it was going to be a slugout kind of physical game up front. We like to think that we could carry on with what we have been doing for the last couple of weeks, but for some reason we weren't able to match up well," noted Rams coach Jeff Fisher.
The Rams 27-24 home victory over the Cardinals earlier this season extended their winning streak in this series to three straight. Greg Zuerlein made four field goals and tight end Jared Cook had a monster game with seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns in his Rams debut.
Palmer, in his first game with the Cardinals, threw a pair of TD passes to Fitzgerald, but had an interception and crucial fumble to spoil Arians' first game as Arizona's head coach.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Neither the Cardinals or the Rams truly resemble the teams that took the field in that Week 1 matchup.
For Arizona, Palmer has built a relationship with Fitzgerald and Floyd, while running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington established their roles.
"We had some injuries and some changes in positions like everybody else has coming down the stretch," noted Arians. "I think we've gradually gotten better, running the ball a little bit better and stopping the run a little better."
One big change the Rams are aware of is the presence of linebacker Daryl Washington, who missed the Week 1 meeting as he was suspended for the first four contests of the season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He has 47 tackles, two sacks and a pair of interceptions this season.
"Schematically, they're more aggressive right now, I think, and then they're just executing better," said Clemens of Arizona. "I think a big part just comes from (Washington's) presence and his experience. (That) would be my best guess."
Clemens is part of St. Louis' new-look offense, taking over for Sam Bradford when the former No. 1 pick was lost for the season with a torn ACL after seven games. Clemens has thrown for 1,019 yards with five touchdown passes to three interceptions in six games, with all five TD throws and just one pick coming in the last four games.
Stacy will also see more action this Sunday after the rookie touched the ball just one time in Week 1. He has since become the starter since Week 5 and has run for 482 yards with four touchdowns in his last five games, adding a much- needed spark to St. Louis' run game.
His 696 yards on the season surpassed Steven Jackson for the most by a Rams rookie since the franchise moved to St. Louis in 1995.
Arians noted that Stacy has been a major change to the St. Louis' offense, but also had praise for Clemens.
"I think Kellen Clemens is a heck of a quarterback," Arizona's coach said. "He beat me when he was with the Jets, he beat us in Pittsburgh. I've got all the respect in the world for him. I think he's a top-flight guy."
The Rams can bring a ton of pressure on a quarterback, with ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long having combined for 19 1/2 sacks this season. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers has 5 1/2 sacks, notching two of his club's four QB takedowns last weekend.
The rush will try to get to Palmer quickly as he has two talented targets in Fitzgerald and Floyd, who have 55 and 54 receptions on the season, respectively. Fitzgerald leads the Cards with nine touchdown grabs, while Floyd is tops with 860 yards.
Fitzgerald's two TD grabs in Week 1 gave him 15 in his career versus the Rams, the most by any active player against any one team.
Getting Ellington back would also help the offense as he is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and has chipped in with 28 receptions. His lack of availability due to a knee injury suffered late last week had an impact on the game plan.
"I mean obviously not ideal to lose a guy on Friday when you have a game to play and you work all week," said Palmer. "He's just very unique and you have certain things built in for him. Especially against (the Eagles), we had some things we really liked."
The Rams are doing some shuffling along the offensive line after center Scott Wells was lost for 4-to-6 weeks with a fractured fibula and left tackle Jake Long suffered a concussion.
While Jake Long may play this weekend, center Tim Barnes will step in for Wells and make his first career start.
"He played pretty well," Fisher said. "Tim, he's a pro, he prepares. He gets a minimal amount of reps on the practice field, and he played well with Scott being down."
The Cardinals current skid against NFC West foes is a bit of a surprise given their recent success and a return home should help the club snap the drought.
Arizona is 5-1 as the hosting club this season, winning three straight by a 94-48 margin. A sixth victory on Sunday would tie for the most home wins in a single season by the franchise since the 16-game schedule was implemented in 1978.
"We've had good crowds and they've been very passionate," said Arians. "We had the one loss to Seattle, but we've been playing very well at home and we want to continue that. That's the one thing that when you play in a tough division, you've got to win your home games."
Expect the Cardinals and their solid defense do just that and keep the heat on in the playoff race.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 27, Rams 16
12/05 15:03:24 ET
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