Arizona sure didn’t gain any style points in last week’s 19-13 victory over San Francisco, but the Cardinals did make it five in a row and were able to keep a three-game cushion over Seattle in the NFC West, while still holding onto a first-round bye in the playoff derby. It doesn’t get much better than that, even if fans had to deal with more uncertainty than they should have against the fetid 49ers. The reward is a trip to St. Louis for a matchup against the Rams, one of only two teams to subdue ‘Zona this year.
As for the Rams, it’s hard to say what’s going on. They have lost four in a row and have some serious quarterback problems, since starter Case Keenum remains a question mark, thanks to a concussion suffered late last month. St. Louis was supposed to be a playoff contender, but the losing streak — which peaked with a 31-7 disaster in Cincinnati last week – has ended those hopes. Although nobody in the mediocre NFC is really eliminated from postseason contention, the Rams sure don’t look to be in very good shape.
Arizona at St. Louis
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Arizona -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Got Your Back
The only way Arizona fans are going to see Chris Johnson, the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher, back on the field this year is if the Cardinals reach the Super Bowl. Even then there is no guarantee his tibia fracture will be completely healed. But ‘Zona doesn’t seem too worried that it will be rookie David Johnson as the featured back. Johnson leads the team with eight total touchdowns and is averaging 4.0 yards per carry. In an offense that relies so heavily on QB Carson Palmer and the passing game, the ground attack shouldn’t be a problem in the first-year player’s hands. “It’s not like I haven’t been here throughout practice, in the game and preparing each week,” Johnson said. “It’s nothing different. The only thing is that I’m playing a little bit more.”
2. Maximum Effort
St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher had quite a colorful response to reporter who questioned his team’s effort after last week’s blowout loss to the Bengals, telling them they could kiss a certain fleshy part of his hindquarters. The Rams’ losing streak started out with some tough losses and some bad luck (Case Keenum’s injury), but things went terribly wrong last week. Fisher has rarely had to worry about whether his players want to work hard for him, and it’s unlikely that’s the case right now. He has said he doesn’t feel as if his job is on the line and that he’s focused on trying to remain perfect in the division (St. Louis is 3-0 in the NFC West). He has always been a popular coach, and if his players want to show management that they believe he should remain with the team, they need to have a strong showing Sunday.
3. Tough Stretch
If the Cardinals hold onto their bye in the NFC playoff race, they will certainly earn it. Sunday’s game begins a challenging five-game, season-ending section of the schedule that includes dates with Minnesota, Green Bay and Seattle, all of whom would be playoff teams right now. Although the Rams are a bit mixed up right now, playing them on the road is never easy. This stretch will determine if the Cards have a real shot at the Super Bowl, or if they will end up scrapping with the rest of the conference for a chance to unseat Carolina.
The Cardinals head into this game on a great roll and are well positioned for the home stretch, when they can secure a first-round playoff bye and second-round home game. They have won five straight and own one of the league’s most dynamic players in Carson Palmer. They shouldn’t have much trouble with the Rams.
That’s exactly why things could be dangerous for Arizona. Even though Nick Foles may be under center again, and he hasn’t played well this year, St. Louis is dangerous at home, confident against division foes and no doubt eager to show that it isn’t loafing. This one has upset written all over it.
Prediction: Rams 23, Cardinals 21
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.