Vikings vs. Cardinals: Postgame Grades and Notes for Arizona
The Arizona Cardinals made just enough plays to come away with a 23-20 victory in their critical matchup with the Minnesota Vikings Thursday night.
In a game marked by big plays, Dwight Freeney made the play of the night with a strip sack of Teddy Bridgewater in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. Calais Campbell recovered the fumble, preventing the Vikings from attempting a potential game-tying field goal.
Arizona took the lead less than 90 seconds earlier on a Chandler Catanzaro 47-yard field goal. That came after a steady Minnesota rally erased what was a 10-point Cardinals lead in the fourth quarter.
Arizona clinched a playoff berth with the victory and significantly strengthened its chances of securing a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Click ahead for the full game recap.
Position Grades for Arizona
This was everything we've come to expect from Carson Palmer. He put up big numbers and had some great throws and a couple of "what are you doing?" moments.
Palmer finished his night with 310 yards and two touchdowns on 25-of-35 passing. He didn't get picked off, but that's only because Xavier Rhodes gave him an early Christmas present.
Running Backs: A-/D-
The first grade is for David Johnson; the second grade is for Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor.
Johnson was fantastic on the night, producing 92 yards on 19 carries while also chipping in with five receptions. He looked like a star at running back who was capable of both breaking tackles and making defenders miss.
Williams, his primary backup, was a disaster. He managed only two yards on six carries and almost took the team out of field-goal range in the fourth quarter by trying to make something out of nothing.
Wide Receivers: A
Now that everyone is reasonably healthy, it's clear Arizona's wide receivers are becoming the team's best position group. They made big plays and put up big numbers against Minnesota.
Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd combined for 14 catches, 221 yards and two touchdowns on the night, while Fitzgerald and J.J. Nelson provided big blocks on the two touchdowns. This group is scary.
Tight Ends: B
It might have only been an accident, but the Cardinals got Darren Fells involved in the passing game Thursday night. He hauled in three of four targets for 43 yards.
Neither Fells nor Troy Niklas killed the team in the blocking game, which was a nice bonus.
Offensive Line: B
This was a much better performance than what we saw in Week 13 from the offensive line. The unit gave David Johnson enough room to operate in the running game, and Palmer only absorbed eight hits, two of which were sacks.
The right side of the line remains shaky, but the Cardinals can live with this kind of performance. Extra credit goes to Mike Iupati for the heads-up play on his 10-yard gain on a reception off a batted pass in the Cardinals' go-ahead scoring drive.
Defensive Line: B
The D-line was a little hit-and-miss going up against a limited Vikings offensive line, but the unit delivered a few times when the chips were down.
Dwight Freeney came up with the game-winning play. Josh Mauro made a superb stop in the backfield that forced an Adrian Peterson fumble, and Calais Campbell put together his most productive performance of the season.
With the exception of Deone Bucannon, none of Arizona's linebackers really seemed capable of making noise Thursday night. Alex Okafor and Markus Golden were particularly disappointing, and this was a game where they should've been able to get to the quarterback.
The numbers weren't particularly kind to Arizona's secondary, but the defensive backs more than did their jobs Thursday night, despite giving up 335 yards through the air.
James Bettcher's blitz-heavy game plan left the secondary exposed, but the cornerbacks and safeties still managed to keep the plays in front of them. Tackling was an issue at times, but Tyrann Mathieu balanced that out with a tremendous performance. He really needs a nickname. Perhaps something from the animal kingdom might do.
Special Teams: B-
Thumbs up: Chandler Catanzaro came up with his second late-fourth quarter game-winning field goal in the past four games.
Thumbs down: The coverage units looked vulnerable throughout the game, although they escaped without giving up any game-changing returns.
Up until kickoff, Bruce Arians and his staff did everything right. It's hard to argue with the game plan they put together.
Everything that happened after the game started was a different story. Minnesota was happy to counterpunch Bettcher's blitz-heavy scheme, the Cardinals offense still lacked a red-zone plan, and Arizona's defense somehow managed a 12-men-on-the-field penalty when the Vikings were trying to stop the clock.
Arizona Clinches a Playoff Berth
The win earned Arizona its second straight trip to the playoffs. Here's how the picture looks for even greater spoils.
Arizona's magic number to clinch the division title is now one. The only scenario in which it doesn't win the division now is if it loses its remaining three games and the Seahawks win out.
Seattle is in Baltimore on Sunday, which now becomes Arizona's first chance to clinch the division. The Cardinals host the Seahawks in Week 17.
Arizona can now clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 16. If the Cardinals lose to Green Bay, they can still guarantee a first-round bye with wins over Philadelphia and Seattle in Weeks 15 and 17, respectively.
The Cardinals hold a two-and-a-half-game lead over the Packers heading into Green Bay's matchup with Dallas Sunday.
Arizona still has an outside chance of catching Carolina for the top seed in the NFC, which comes with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. For that to happen, the Cardinals would need to win out and the hitherto undefeated Panthers would have to drop two of their four remaining games.
Carson Palmer Sets Cardinals Record
Carson Palmer's 42-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd was his 31st touchdown pass of the season, which broke Kurt Warner's single-season franchise record of 30. And Palmer may not be done erasing Warner's name from the record books.
Via Pro Football Reference, Palmer needs 581 yards in his final three games to pass Warner's Arizona record for passing yards in a season. Palmer would need 612 yards to catch Neil Lomax, who holds the Cardinals franchise record for yards in a season, set while the team was playing in St. Louis.
Palmer is averaging better than 300 yards passing per game, so he has a good shot at setting both records.
The Cardinals' MVP candidate is also on track to set some personal records, perhaps as early as next week in Philadelphia. Palmer needs only one touchdown pass and 271 yards passing to tie his career highs in both categories.
Not bad for a 35-year-old who is coming off a torn ACL.
Calais Campbell Finally Makes Some Noise
On December 4, on this very website, I wrote that Campbell had been relatively quiet this season and was on pace for his worst statistical season since he was a rookie. He followed up by posting just one quarterback hit against the St. Louis Rams.
That changed in a big way against the Vikings.
While statistics don't tell the full story for a defensive lineman like Campbell, they spoke volumes Thursday night. Campbell tallied four solo tackles, one sack, two other tackles for loss and three quarterback hits and recovered the game-sealing fumble forced by Dwight Freeney.
To put those numbers in perspective, the sack was Campbell's first since Week 6 against Pittsburgh, and he had only one tackle for loss in his previous six games.
Campbell's ability to produce in the face of double-teams doesn't just make him a special football player but makes Arizona's defensive line dangerous. With Frostee Rucker possibly returning from injury next week, the Cardinals defensive line could be hitting its groove again at the right point in the season.