By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - With five victories in their last six games, the Arizona
Cardinals remain in contention for a playoff spot.
They are also one win shy of their first winning season since 2009, a mark the
Cardinals will try to reach this Sunday against the fading Tennessee Titans.
Only the Carolina Panthers (6-1) have a better record than the Cardinals' 5-1
mark since Week 8 and they just happen to be one of the teams Arizona is
chasing for a wild card spot. Carolina and San Francisco occupy the two extra
playoff spots with identical 9-4 records, one game better than Arizona.
Losing four of their first seven games to the season did the Cardinals no
favors and three of those setbacks came against fellow NFC West residents.
That stretched Arizona's losing streak against division opponents to eight
straight games, a skid that was snapped with Sunday's 30-10 win over the
visiting St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cards have outscored opponents by an average of 12.7 points per game since
Carson Palmer shook off an elbow injury that kept him out of practice all week
to complete 27-of-32 passes for 269 yards. He hit wide receiver Larry
Fitzgerald for a seven-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and his 77.1
completion percentage was the second-highest by a Cardinals quarterback in
team history. It trailed only Kurt Warner's NFL-record 92.3 percent game set
Fitzgerald caught a season-high 12 passes for 96 yards, while Andre Ellington
and Rashard Mendenhall added one rushing score apiece.
John Abraham had three sacks to move into ninth on the NFL's all-time list and
linebacker Karlos Dansby added a sack and interception, but the red-hot
defense did lose rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu to a season-ending knee injury.
After snapping their divisional losing streak, the Cardinals will look to
sweep an interconference series for the first time since realignment in 2002.
They have already bested AFC South residents Houston, Jacksonville and
Indianapolis this season.
Arizona is looking to secure its first winning record since going 10-6 in
2009. That also marks the club's last playoff appearance and the road to the
postseason is not an easy one for the Cardinals.
Following this contest, the Cards visit the 11-2 Seattle Seahawks before
playing host to the 49ers to close the regular season.
Winning these next two road games could make that Week 17 meeting with San
Francisco a huge contest, but Arizona is just 2-4 as the visiting club on the
"The biggest thing for us is winning on the road," said Cards coach Bruce
Arians. "We've played very, very close on the road and lost three that we had
a chance to win. For us to get to the playoffs, two of our last three are on
the road in tough places to play for us. It starts right there in Nashville.
We're in the playoffs as far as we're concerned, but if we lose we're out."
While Tennessee remains mathematically alive for a wild card spot, the Titans
have lost four of their past five to fall two games out of a playoff position
with three games left to play. The 5-8 club wraps the season at Jacksonville
and at home versus Houston.
Tennessee was looking to pull off a big upset of powerful Denver last weekend
and actually led 21-10 in the second quarter thanks to a pair of rushing
touchdowns by Shonn Greene and another from Chris Johnson. However, Denver
pulled away with 24 straight points and eventually won going away, 51-28.
"We hung in there I thought," said Tennessee head coach Mike Munchak. "We knew
we'd have to play our best to win and unfortunately, in spots we played very
well and obviously we couldn't make the plays to keep the game going there in
the fourth quarter."
Ryan Fitzpatrick was held to 172 yards on 13-of-24 passing with a touchdown
and interception for the Titans, while Justin Hunter made four catches for 114
yards, including a 41-yard TD reception in the third quarter.
"We knew coming in to this game we were going to have to put the pedal to the
medal all game long," said Fitzpatrick. "Even though we had a lead in the
first half, we knew (the Broncos) were going to put a lot of points up in the
second half. We've seen them do that a lot this year."
Indeed, as Denver's Peyton Manning threw four touchdown passes and the Broncos
also scored a pair of rushing TDs.
The Titans failed to come up with a sack and turnover as well, and yielded an
NFL-record 64-yard field goal to Matt Prater as time expired in the second
The Titans franchise has won four of its past six versus the Cardinals, who
are making just their second trip to Tennessee since the franchise relocated.
The first came in the most recent meeting on Nov. 29, 2009, a 20-17 Titans
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Cardinals defense has been the driving force for the club during its
current surge. After holding St. Louis to just 257 yards of net offense,
Arizona now ranks fifth in total defense (311.7 yards per game) and third
against the run (84.5 YPG).
"I think you have to know how to attack a team like them. They are similar to
some teams we've played, but they have a nice mixture," Munchak said of
Arizona's defense. "On defense especially they have a lot of sacks, a lot of
pressures; they're playing very confident right now. They have a nice mix of
veterans that have been around for quite a while and have played well in this
Arizona is giving up just 267.3 YPG since Week 8, the best in football over
that span, and has been keyed by a pair of free agent signings in Abraham and
Dansby, who is on his second tour of duty with the club.
Abraham's three sacks gave him 133 for his career, putting him ninth on the
all-time list. He now trails Richard Dent and John Randle by 4 1/2 for seventh
place and has 11 sacks in his last seven games.
Signed to be a situational pass-rusher, Abraham has seen increased work due to
injuries and is the first Cardinals player since Bertrand Berry in 2004 to
reach double-digit sacks in a season.
Dansby has also helped soften the losses of Sam Acho, Lorenzo Alexander and
Alex Okafor with great all-around play. He leads the Cardinals with 105
tackles, all but five of those solo, and has added six sacks and three
interceptions, two he has taken back for touchdowns.
"It's really hard to put in words," said Arians of the two additions. "We
signed John late thinking (he would be) a third-down pass rush specialist, and
we go down to New Orleans (in Week 3) and lose all three outside linebackers
in the same game. He went to our starting outside linebacker position and has
just played fantastic against the run and against the pass all season.
"Karlos was adding a great leader who had been here. The veterans here, there
weren't many left, and he walked in with a great deal of respect. He has just
played fantastic. He's in probably the best shape of his career and having a
Pro Bowl year."
Some could argue that Mathieu was also playing at a Pro Bowl level with 68
tackles, a sack and two interceptions. However, a torn ACL and LCL in his left
knee that will require surgery later this month could sideline him even
through next summer's training camp.
Mathieu had started the last 10 games and Rashad Johnson will return to his
starting role in Mathieu's absence.
Tennessee owns the 15th-ranked ground game, but has an emerging star at wide
receiver in Hunter, 6-foot-4 rookie out of the University of Tennessee. Hunter
has gone over 100 yards receiving in two of the past three weeks and has
logged four touchdowns on just 18 receptions while averaging 19.7 yards per
"He's getting better every week. I think he'll finish strong this season, and
he'll be a guy that is going to be special for years to come," Munchak said of
Former teammates go head-to-head as Palmer squares off against Fitzpatrick,
his backup in Cincinnati in 2007 and 2008.
Palmer didn't give his buddy much playing time that firsts season as he was
the only quarterback in the league to take every snap for his team, with
Fitzpatrick coming in one game as a holder on a PAT attempt.
Fitzpatrick, though, was called on for 12 games the following season when
Palmer went down with an elbow injury. He has made four straight starts for
the Titans since Jake Locker went down with a season-ending foot injury and
has thrown for 1,705 yards and nine touchdowns to eight interceptions in eight
games this season.
"I have a ton of respect for Ryan," noted Palmer. "He's played in a number of
different places, he has been in a lot of crazy situations, a lot of sticky
situations. He's the type of guy you want on your side. I love playing with
him, love watching him play. Hopefully I don't have to watch him play too well
this week because we need a big performance by our defense, and we need to
play better than we did last week on offense."
Palmer is 42 passing yards shy of becoming the eighth player in NFL history
with 3,500 yards and 20-plus touchdown passes in at least six seasons. He has
been helped by Fitzgerald, who has a touchdown in four straight games with
five total in that span.
With a tough finish to the season, the Cardinals have no wiggle room in
Tennessee. A loss before a trip to Seattle, which one has to figure will
result in a setback for Arizona, pretty much dooms the season.
That means the focus for the Cardinals has to be squarely on the Titans, a
difficult task with such a big game looming next weekend.
"We're thinking solely on this upcoming game," declared Palmer. "There are so
many different scenarios and so many things that could happen that none of it
matters unless we win the next game on our schedule. We have three left. For
us, the biggest game on the schedule is Tennessee."
Arizona's defense makes the club a contender and Tennessee just doesn't have
the weapons right now to scare one of the hottest units in football.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 23, Titans 16
12/12 15:31:13 ET
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