NFL Preview - St. Louis (1-13) at Arizona (9-5)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The year 2009 is one the Arizona Cardinals will remember forever, and another the St. Louis Rams would just as soon forget.
The two NFC West foes will renew acquaintances once again this Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, where the division champion Cardinals will be out to extend their recent dominance in this series.
Arizona started out this calendar year with a bang, winning three straight playoff games in January to earn the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. This season has brought more success to the Cardinals, who will be making back-to-back postseason trips for the first time since 1974-75 after wrapping up a second straight NFC West crown with last week's 31-24 decision over downtrodden Detroit.
The Cardinals didn't exactly look playoff-worthy against the two-win Lions, however, as a seemingly-disinterested defense allowed 24 second-half points to blow a 17-0 lead at intermission before quarterback Kurt Warner orchestrated a go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minutes. It was the second straight lackluster performance for Arizona, which failed to match San Francisco's intensity in a 24-9 defeat to the 49ers back in Week 14.
With only a remote chance of gaining one of two first-round byes for the upcoming NFC Playoffs, it remains to be seen whether the Cardinals will be pumped up to play a depleted St. Louis squad that fell to a league-worst 1-13 following this past Sunday's 16-13 setback to Houston. The loss was the 23rd in the last 24 games for the lowly Rams, whose six victories over the last three seasons are the fewest of any team.
While the organization has visions of Nebraska defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen dancing in its heads this holiday season, the Rams have begun the painful process of evaluating their young talent as they play out the string. Eight first or second-year players were in the starting lineup for last week's matchup with the Texans, and rookie signal-caller Keith Null is the favorite to begin his third consecutive game under center on Sunday.
Null showed marked improvement in his second career start, as the relatively- unknown sixth-round draft pick completed 18-of-27 passing for 173 yards and a touchdown with one interception while nearly leading the Rams to an upset win. The 24-year-old had a rocky debut in the team's 47-7 shellacking at the hands of Tennessee one week earlier, throwing five interceptions and mustering only 165 yards on 44 attempts.
Warner, on the other hand, is set to make the 126th start (including playoffs) of a storybook 12-year career that included two NFL MVP Awards during a successful six-year run with the Rams from 1998-2003. The 38-year-old needs just one more touchdown pass to join Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton as the only players in league annals to have 100 scoring strikes for two different clubs.
The Rams hold a 30-29-2 lead in the all-time series with the Cardinals, but have lost six straight in the series since scoring a 16-14 win at Arizona during the 2006 season. The Cardinals were 21-13 winners when they visited their former home of St. Louis in Week 11, and on Sunday will be going for their third consecutive home-and-home sweep of the Rams. St. Louis was a 34-10 loser when it visited University of Phoenix Stadium last season.
The Rams won the only postseason meeting between the two, with the then-Los Angeles-based franchise pulling out a 35-23 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in a 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff.
Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is 5-0 against the Rams as a head coach, while St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo is 0-1 versus both Whisenhunt and Arizona as a head man.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
The St. Louis offense continues to go through workhorse Steven Jackson (1353 rushing yards, 4 TD, 51 receptions) despite a nagging back problem that has prevented the standout running back from practicing for more than a month. He's still managed to stay productive on the field, as last week's 123 combined yards (82 rushing, 41 receiving) against the Texans suggests, and put up 116 rushing yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in November's loss to Arizona. The Rams might need a similar showing from their offensive star to have a chance on Sunday, considering Null (338 passing yards, 2 TD, 6 INT) is undergoing a baptism by fire and the team will be without three of its season- opening starters up front, including 2009 No. 2 overall draft selection Jason Smith (concussion). St. Louis is also experiencing growing pains at the wide receiver position, where sophomore Donnie Avery (43 receptions, 5 TD) and rookie Brandon Gibson (26 receptions) have both shown flashes but lacked consistency. Undrafted Wes Welker-clone Danny Amendola (34 receptions, 1 TD) has done some good things out of the slot and as a return man, though, and recorded a career-best 61 yards on four grabs in the earlier meeting between these teams.
Provided his patchwork offensive line can open up holes, Jackson could be in line for another good day against an Arizona run defense that's been rather leaky as of late. The Cardinals allowed perennial backup Maurice Morris to rush for 126 yards and a score on just 17 attempts last Sunday, one week after San Francisco's Frank Gore put up 167 yards on the group. Over its last eight outings, Arizona has permitted an unhealthy average of 150.3 yards per game on the ground, a surprising number for a team that possesses quality run stoppers in inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (102 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Gerald Hayes (58 tackles) and two-time Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson (70 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT). Arizona did receive two interceptions from gifted young cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (47 tackles, 5 INT, 23 PD) versus Detroit and has picked off a solid 17 passes for the year. If the still- learning Null picks up another start, expect both the secondary and outside linebackers Clark Haggans (66 tackles, 5 sacks) and Bertrand Berry (9 tackles, 5 sacks) to be very aggressive against the rookie. The Cards have compiled 38 sacks as a team, tied for the fifth-most in the league.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
While balance hasn't been the trademark of a pass-heavy Arizona offense that comes in ranked 11th in yards through the air (256.1 ypg) and just 27th in rushing (95.1 ypg), the team was able to carve out a season-best 183 rushing yards on the ground in last month's win over the Rams. Second-year pro Tim Hightower (542 rushing yards, 7 TD, 59 receptions) racked up 110 yards on only 14 attempts in that game, but he's since given way to emerging rookie Beanie Wells (706 rushing yards, 6 TD, 11 receptions) as the main man in the backfield. The first-round draft pick posted his first-ever 100-yard game with last Sunday's 17-carry, 106-yard effort against Detroit, providing a nice complement to Warner (3414 passing yards, 25 TD, 14 INT) and a potent passing game that features arguably the league's premier pass-catching duo in wideouts Larry Fitzgerald (89 receptions, 1027 yards, 11 TD) and Anquan Boldin (74 receptions, 875 yards, 5 TD). The pair was too much for St. Louis' suspect defense to handle earlier this season, combining for 190 yards and two scores on 16 catches. Warner played only the first half of that game after sustaining a mild concussion, but still managed to throw for 203 yards and a pair of touchdowns on a razor-sharp 15-of-19 passing.
Warner and Arizona's stellar receiving corps get to bomb away at an abysmal St. Louis stop unit that was shredded for 367 yards by Houston's Matt Schaub a week ago and is next-to-last in the league in pass efficiency defense. It won't help matters that playmaking free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (74 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and cornerback Quincy Butler (28 tackles) will be unavailable this week due to injuries, or that top pass rusher Leonard Little (23 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT) will likely sit out a second straight game because of a knee infection. High draft choice Chris Long (37 tackles, 4 sacks) will be asked to lead a pass rush that's mustered a paltry 20 sacks thus far this season from his end spot, while cornerback and fellow youngster Justin King (25 tackles) gets an opportunity to test his skills against the formidable tandem of Fitzgerald and Boldin. The Rams have been porous versus the run for most of 2009, but limited the Texans to a meager 52 rushing yards on 24 attempts in last Sunday's loss. Rookie middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (109 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) has been the team's best defender among the front seven and was credited with a whopping 16 solo tackles against the Cardinals back in November.
Arizona is in the position to potentially rest some of its key players, but that scenario still shouldn't dissuade Fitzgerald or Boldin holders from using either elite receiver in a week where most leagues are playing for the championship. The Cardinals have done a very good job keeping Wells fresh for the stretch run, and the rookie has responded with a string of productive days that have made him both a reliable source of points and a strong play against a poor St. Louis defense this week. Don't expect a huge game out of Warner, a prime candidate to be pulled if Arizona builds a big lead, but the steady veteran should do enough to warrant a lineup spot. Jackson is the only Ram deserving of a starting nod, although it wouldn't be surprising if the team gives Null more of a chance to showcase himself, which would make Avery, Gibson and Amendola all worthy of consideration by desperate owners. Any defense that gets to face the Rams is usually a prudent choice, but steer clear of Cards kicker Neil Rackers, who will probably sit out another week to rest a groin injury.
As last week's result indicates, the Cardinals rarely give their best shot when going up against a bottom-feeder, but that may not matter anyway. The Rams just don't have the firepower on offense or talent on defense to pose a serious threat here, especially with the team being so banged up. Look for Arizona to once again jump out to a comfortable lead and cruise the rest of the way, with the only real mystery of this game being which team comes out on the favorable side of the sizeable point spread.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 31, Rams 17
12/23 17:02:12 ET