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NFL Preview - Arizona (8-5) at Detroit (2-11)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Focus has been an issue at times for the Arizona Cardinals, but even with the hapless Detroit Lions next on the schedule, the team should have reason to be motivated when it visits Ford Field this Sunday.
Arizona will be entering this Week 15 matchup with a chance to clinch a second consecutive NFC West championship and trip to the postseason, needing to defeat the 2-11 Lions and second-place San Francisco to lose its game at Philadelphia this weekend. And if the puzzling Cardinals require any additional inspiration, a viewing of the game film from their most recent outing should do the trick.
The Cardinals could have wrapped up the division crown this past Monday in San Francisco, but didn't seem to feel the urgency in a lethargic and mistake- laden performance that resulted in a 24-9 loss. An out-of-sync Arizona offense managed a season-low 245 total yards and committed a whopping seven turnovers, while the defense surrendered 189 rushing yards and was routinely bullied at the line of scrimmage by the determined 49ers.
Monday's showing came only eight days after the Cardinals delivered one of their most impressive games of the season, when the reigning conference champions dealt the Minnesota Vikings only their second loss of the year with a decisive 30-17 verdict on December 6.
Struggling to maintain consistency hasn't been a problem for the lowly Lions, losers of 34 of their past 37 contests. The most lopsided of those defeats took place last Sunday, a 48-3 shellacking by Baltimore that served as Detroit's worst setback since 1991.
The Lions were scorched for 548 total yards in the embarrassing loss, while an offense that was without starting quarterback Matthew Stafford and finished the game minus running back Kevin Smith generated little with veteran stand-in Daunte Culpepper at the controls.
Culpepper, who completed only 16-of-34 throws for 135 yards and was intercepted twice, will likely be under center again this week with Stafford still on the mend from a dislocated shoulder. Smith, Detroit's top rusher and second-leading receiver, was placed on injured reserve Tuesday after tearing ligaments in his left knee against the Ravens.
Arizona also has some health concerns over one of its key offensive players at the moment, as star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald came up gimpy in Monday's loss to the 49ers to add injury to insult. The All-Pro pass catcher has been diagnosed with a bone bruise and mild sprain of his right knee, although early indications suggest he'll be OK to suit up on Sunday.
Fitzgerald will likely be doing all he can to get well in the days leading up to this showdown, considering the Lions have permitted an average of 272.1 passing yards per game and 29 touchdowns through the air this season, both of which rank dead last in the NFL.
Detroit holds a 31-23-5 lead in an all-time series that dates back to the 1930 season, when the then-Portsmouth Spartans faced off with the then-Chicago Cardinals. Arizona has won the last two in the series, prevailing over Detroit at home in 2007 (31-21) and 2006 (17-10). The Lions' last win in the series came in 2005, a 29-21 home affair. The Cardinals are 0-3 in Detroit since last winning there in 1998, and the home team in the series has won eight consecutive times since that result.
Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is 1-0 against the Lions as a head coach, while Detroit's Jim Schwartz will be meeting both Whisenhunt and Arizona for the first time as a head man. Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers team that won Super Bowl XL at Ford Field.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Arizona sports one of the league's most dangerous aerial attacks, with battle- tested quarterback Kurt Warner (3181 passing yards, 23 TD, 13 INT) working in tandem with a stellar wide receiver corps headlined by Fitzgerald (85 receptions, 991 yards, 10 TD) and three-time Pro Bowl participant Anquan Boldin (68 receptions, 803 yards, 4 TD). Running back Tim Hightower (538 rushing yards, 6 TD, 53 receptions) provides an additional weapon to the Cardinals' seventh-ranked passing offense (258.6 ypg), but the second-year pro has relinquished his role as the primary ball carrier to more-explosive rookie Beanie Wells (596 rushing yards, 5 TD, 10 receptions) over the season's second half. Both have had problems with ball security, however, and Arizona has lost more fumbles (15) than any team this year, one reason why the game plan has often been geared towards the pass. An unheralded front line has generally provided solid protection for Warner, but the 38-year-old was sacked four times by the 49ers and finished with a season-low 178 yards while tossing two interceptions. A hobbled Fitzgerald was also a non-factor, coming up with just two catches for 22 yards. Arizona played a good part of Monday's loss without left tackle and blindside protector Mike Gandy due to a groin injury that could keep him out of this game as well.
Don't expect Warner to be under pressure as much this week. The Lions have produced only 21 sacks for the season, the fourth-lowest mark in the league, and didn't take down Baltimore's Joe Flacco once in last Sunday's debacle. That lack of pass rush has further exposed an already-suspect secondary that's allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 70 percent of their throws and has come up with a mere eight interceptions in 13 games. Making matters worse, rookie free safety Louis Delmas (74 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), one of the few bright spots on the NFL's worst defense, sprained an ankle in the Baltimore game and is doubtful to play this week. Detroit doesn't contain the run well either, as evidenced by the astounding 308 rushing yards, five touchdowns and 7.7 yards per attempt the Ravens racked up in their Week 14 blowout. Middle linebacker Larry Foote (92 tackles, 2 sacks) leads the Lions in tackles, while fellow offseason addition Julian Peterson (61 tackles, 4.5 sacks) has been the team's most effective edge rusher from his outside linebacker spot. For the season, Detroit has given up unhealthy averages of 400.5 yards and 31.2 points per game.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Detroit had planned on using the season's final few weeks to enable a promising offensive core of Stafford (2267 passing yards, 13 TD, 20 INT), Smith (747 rushing yards, 41 receptions, 5 total TD) and rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew (30 receptions, 2 TD) to further jell, but the latter two are now done for the season and Stafford looks to be at least another week away from returning. The Lions will have a healthy Calvin Johnson (51 receptions, 4 TD) available for Sunday's test, but the gifted young wide receiver's talents may go to waste if the declining Culpepper (568 passing yards, 1 TD, 4 INT) is again forced to direct the offense. In the well-traveled quarterback's last two starts, Detroit has mustered three points and a paltry total of 197 passing yards. Fellow retread Maurice Morris (156 rushing yards, 12 receptions, 1 TD) will get first shot at replacing Smith as the main running back, with rookie Aaron Brown (100 rushing yards, 6 receptions, 1 TD) now in line for an extended look. The two will be trying to add a spark to a ground attack that's churned out only 96.5 yards per game (26th overall) for the year. Taking care of the football has been a problem as well, as Detroit has had two or more turnovers nine times this season and its 30 giveaways are the second-most in the league.
The Lions' depleted offense will be facing an Arizona stop unit that's given up its share of yards this season, but also is adept at making big plays. Ends Darnell Dockett (46 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) and Calais Campbell (44 tackles, 6 sacks) head up a potent pass rush that's amassed 36 sacks, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL, while the quality safety duo of Adrian Wilson (65 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 4 INT) and Antrel Rolle (65 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 INT) have combined for eight interceptions. The Cardinals also have a cornerback capable of being a shutdown defender in sophomore Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (44 tackles, 3 INT, 19 PD), who'll spend most of the day shadowing Johnson. Although Detroit doesn't pose much of a threat in the running game, a front seven led by inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (98 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Gerald Hayes (56 tackles) will need to do a better job in containment than last week, when the 49ers' Frank Gore gashed his way to 167 yards and a touchdown. Arizona has allowed nearly 150 rushing yards per game over its last seven games.
Those who were able to survive Warner's rough night last week and advance in their league's playoffs won't be subjected to such a scare this time around, as the Detroit defense is made-to-order for the accurate Arizona triggerman. Fitzgerald owners need to monitor that situation up until Sunday, as it wouldn't be shocking if the Cardinals decide to hold him out in a very winnable game. If that's the case, third receiver Steve Breaston's (45 receptions, 3 TD) value skyrockets and Boldin's already-excellent potential also gets a further boost. Start Wells, who's got a good shot of obtaining his first career 100-yard game, and the Arizona defense, but sit kicker Neil Rackers, who's battling a groin injury that prompted the Cards to sign Jets and Buccaneers castoff Mike Nugent this week. Unless Stafford somehow plays, there's isn't much to like on the Detroit side. Morris may be passable as a flex player for desperate owners, while Johnson becomes a very risky start if Culpepper winds up getting the nod.
It would be no surprise to see the Cardinals sleepwalk again this weekend, but they may be able to get away with it this time around. With Smith out, the Lions have just one offensive player capable of making a serious impact, and Detroit's atrocious defense is no match for Warner and his compatriots even if Fitzgerald is held out. The Lions are embarrassed by last week's display, but the Cardinals are as well in regard to their own shoddy performance, and that could spell trouble for the home team.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 27, Lions 7
12/17 17:22:30 ET