Defense Seals Deal: Arizona Cardinals Clinch NFC West in Blowout
The defense was stellar in the Arizona Cadinals' division-clinching 34-10 win over the St. Louis Rams, forcing two fumbles and intercepting a pass in the end zone and returning it 100 yards for a score.
But before we get too giddy and start ordering Super Bowl tickets, let's remember that the Rams aren't the worst team in the NFL (the winless Detroit Lions have that honor), but they do have a record of 2-10. Let's also remember that the Cardinals have beaten this lowly team twice, the 5-8 San Francisco 49ers twice, and the 2-11 Seattle Seahawks once.
That is, they play in NFC West, in which they are the only winning team at 8-5 and thereby its champion. The above teams are the Cardinals' competition in the NFC Worst.
But enough buzz-kill. They've also beaten some some good teams: the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins, both 8-5. And they ended the Buffalo Bills' four-game winning streak early in the season, putting that now 6-7 team on the skids.
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In Sunday's clincher, we'd have to give the game ball to rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (pictured), who put the nail in St. Louis' coffin with his interception and return of a Marc Bulger pass for the length of the field and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Middle linebacker Gerald Hayes comes in second for most memorable plays of the game, punching the ball out of marquee Rams running back Steven Jackson's hands twice; one of these fumbles was picked up on a bounce by defenseive tackle Darnell Dockett and run in for a touchdown. Here's an interesting statistic: The Cardinals lead the league in forced fumble recoveries with 15.
Just after Docket's TD, a fan at University of Phoenix Stadium held up a sign that reminded us of the bad old days of former Coach Dennis Green, and just how far this team has come under Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "We Are Who They Thought We Were."
True enough, since the Cardinals' best statistical day in every category was their 34-13 win over the Rams on November 2. In that game, quarterback Kurt Warner had 334 yards passing and rookie running back Tim Hightower had 109 rushing.
Despite one interception that set up St. Louis' only touchdown, Warner looked more and more like the league MVP Sunday, with 23 for 34 passing for 279 yards and one TD. His three interceptions in the Philadelphia game are the only black mark on what has been a phenominal season for the 37-year-old, who everybody thought was washed up years ago..
Speaking of black marks, Warner has had the success he's had as a passer this season because of the Cardinals' biggest weakness: its running game. Speaking of those Super Bowl tickets, this is why you shouldn't order them. It may prove impossibloe for a team that relies 80 percent on passing to win a championship.
Sunday's Rams game is a case in point: The Cardinals logged only 63 yards rushing, with Hightower getting 32 and running back J.J. Arrington with 22. Future Hall of Famer Edgerrin James, who didn't play much, had only 11 yards on three carries.
The principal reason is the Cards' offensive line. While it has become adept at keeping Warner from getting knocked on his ass, it hasn't mastered the art of blocking for running backs. Hightower will be a good one in coming years if Arizona can find some help for him, particularly at the guard position.
Meanwhile, at least the Cardinals aren't a joke anymore. This season will be the first time since 1947 that they've hosted a playoff game.
Next up: the Vikings in Glendale and the Patriots in frozen Foxboro, Massachusetts (both are 8-5). These games, especially the one back east where Arizona's played poorly this year, will prove what the Cards are made of -- whether they can advance in the playoffs they've finally made. -- Rick Barrs.
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