Michael Floyd celebrates a game-winning TD catch.
If you’re a fan of hard-hitting, smashmouth defense, then this was the game for you. The Arizona Cardinals pulled off a major upset when they beat the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on Sunday, and they did it despite poor quarterback play.
Neither quarterback played well, in fact. Carson Palmer threw a career-high-tying four interceptions, while Russell Wilson’s 108 yards are the fewest he’s thrown for in a game, and his 40.7 percent completion rate is the second-lowest in a game he’s ever had.
It was ugly at times, but good teams find ways to win ugly games. Clearly, Arizona is a good team with the way it has won the past two weeks. Here are some takeaways from Sunday's win.
He wasn’t given many opportunities, but Palmer was terrible for the most part against that vaunted Seahawks defense. He completed 13 of 25 passes (52.0 percent) for 178 yards, a touchdown and four interceptions for a 48.8 passer rating.
But that touchdown was an absolutely perfect throw—right on the money to receiver Michael Floyd for 31 yards.
Ideally, Palmer would not have thrown four picks; but doing so, then coming back with a throw like the one he made to Floyd with the game on the line—against that defense, no less—is special, and it can’t be overlooked.
Many will point to his four interceptions and overreact by saying he should be benched. Don’t be that person. Without Palmer, the Cardinals are not likely a playoff contender, and they likely don’t win this game.
Right after Seattle went up by a field goal in the second quarter, it appeared as though head coach Bruce Arians would abandon the run game as he did the last time these two teams met. But he quickly changed his play-calling after going three-and-out immediately following Seattle’s score.
Arizona’s defense forced a three-and-out of its own, and once Palmer and the offense got the ball back, they went on a 15-play, 67-yard drive that consumed 8:21 off the second-quarter clock. Arians was brilliant, calling nine run plays and six passing plays.
Palmer went 4-of-6 passing for 38 yards on the drive, while running backs Rashard Mendenhall (six carries, 29 yards) and Andre Ellington (three carries, two yards) did the rest en route to a Jay Feely 39-yard field goal to knot the score at 3-3.
Arians did not stop calling run plays the rest of the game, as both Mendenhall and Ellington carried 15-plus times. The Cardinals rushed 43 times, which is the most in a game since they rushed 44 times against the 49ers in a 2003 win.
Not for nothing: The Cardinals are now 8-1 this season when Ellington has at least 10 touches in a game.
The last time these two teams met, Palmer was sacked a career-high seven times. He was pressured far too much en route to a Thursday night loss that ultimately sparked the current run the team is on now.
On Sunday in Seattle, Palmer went down just twice. And though he was under moderate-to-heavy pressure at times, he had a lot of time to deliver passes.
That’s good for the offensive line, but it’s bad for Palmer given the fact that he uncorked four picks. The second interception he threw to cornerback Richard Sherman should have never been thrown. Yes, he was trying to give Larry Fitzgerald a jump-ball situation for six, but he threw off his back foot while under pressure and lofted an easy can-of-corn ball for Sherman to snag.
Overall, the protection was much better this time around, but it wasn’t great.
In the first half, Arizona’s defensive line was gashed by running back Marshawn Lynch. He had runs of 19, 16, seven and seven yards on his way to 11 carries for 60 yards (5.5 yards per carry) in the first two frames.
But in the second half, he gained just 11 yards on seven carries, a paltry 1.6 YPC.
Eleven of Lynch’s 18 carries went for two or fewer yards.
On top of that, the Arizona defense sacked Wilson four times and had him on the run a handful of other times—what was four sacks could easily have been six or seven if not for Wilson’s elite athleticism.
Defensive end Calais Campbell did a bit of everything for the Cardinals, recording two sacks of Wilson and wreaking havoc on the run game all afternoon. If he wasn’t making the tackle—he had only four tackles in the game—he was redirecting Lynch to other Cardinals defenders who made the stops themselves.
In all, it was an elite performance from a group that struggled in Tennessee; it was the ultimate rebound game and should give them a lot of confidence heading into Week 17 against the 49ers.
Undrafted rookie free-agent safety Tony Jefferson was a long shot to make the roster with the mix of young talent and veterans at the position. But he performed admirably in camp and impressed enough to squeeze in at the back of the roster.
On Sunday, he made his first NFL start, replacing an injured Rashad Johnson (ankle) in the lineup at free safety. He played well and even had a big hit of Lynch near the goal line.
At first glance, the hit appeared to be applied by a linebacker—that’s how hard Lynch was hit.
How he went undrafted is anyone’s guess. Coming out of Oklahoma, he was a solid mid- to late-round prospect. But things happen the way they do for a reason, and in Jefferson, the Cardinals found an undrafted gem.
He shined like a diamond on Sunday.
Other than Patrick Peterson struggling once again on punt returns (blocking appears to be an issue), special teams was brilliant for the Cardinals.
Punter Dave Zastudil downed three punts inside the 20-yard line (one inside the 10) and kicker Jay Feely connected on all three of his field goals. The defense forced a missed field goal as well as a missed extra point—if not for an ill-fated penalty on the extra point, the game would have been tied at 9-9 for the final offensive drive of the game.
Justin Bethel even recovered a fumble from kick returner Robert Turbin. It set up Palmer and Co. deep inside Seahawks territory, but the quarterback threw an interception in the end zone that squandered the scoring chance.
On a day when field position could have doomed the Cardinals because of turnovers, special teams made sure it did its part to keep Seattle pinned back as far as possible.
With the Cardinals' biggest upset in recent memory in the books, it would have been really nice of the Saints to defeat the Panthers early Sunday afternoon. Had that happened, Arizona could lose next week and still get into the playoffs if Carolina lost at Atlanta.
Instead, there are a bevvy of different scenarios that will lead to a Cardinals playoff appearance—zero if they don't beat the 49ers.
RT @azcsportsCoop: Cards need to beat SF next week and have the N.O lose at home to TB or have SF lose to Atl coupled with Cards win vs SF— Dave Burns (@Burns620) December 23, 2013
Sounds simple, right?
You know it's not. We will assume San Francisco beats Atlanta at home on Monday Night Football.
For Week 17, the first thing Arizona needs is for Tampa Bay to beat the Saints in New Orleans. If the 49ers-Cards game starts and the Saints have beaten the Buccaneers, the game won't matter. New Orleans will have clinched playoff spots for both them and San Francisco. A tie is also acceptable for Arizona's game to be a playoff play-in.
However, should the Falcons, by some miracle, defeat the 49ers on the road during MNF, the road becomes far easier: Just win, baby.
That's right. The NFC's final playoff spot would come down to the 49ers and Cardinals.