By Andrew Kahn-
(CBS Local) Sunday’s second-half comeback against Kansas City was critical for an Arizona team that had lost two straight. The victory pushed the Cardinals to 10-3, keeping them a game ahead of Seattle in the NFC West. A win Thursday could put Arizona in the playoffs for the first time in five seasons; the simplest combination involves Dallas and Philadelphia not tying. Standings in Arizona’s way are the Rams, winners of two straight by a combined score of 76-0. St. Louis is 5-6 and all but mathematically eliminated from the postseason, but with Thursday’s game and a visit to Seattle to close the season, they’ll have a say in the divisional race.
When Arizona has the ball:
The Rams’ defense has pitched consecutive shutouts. The 1976 Steelers were the last team to accomplish that feat in three straight games. St. Louis ranks near the middle of the pack in many defensive categories but has obviously turned it on late. Defensive end Robert Quinn gets plenty of attention, but defensive tackle Aaron Donald is in the conversation for Rookie of the Year. The duo combined for 6.5 of the Rams’ 13 sacks the past two games, as neither of St. Louis’ opponents has cracked 250 yards. The caveat is the fact that Washington and Oakland are among the NFL’s worst offensively.
Arizona is no offensive juggernaut either. It was against the Rams, on Nov. 9, that quarterback Carson Palmer was lost for the season with a knee injury. In the four games since, the Cards have scored just four touchdowns. Drew Stanton, who looked very capable in his early-season replacement duty, hasn’t been as steady in his second stint, throwing five interceptions against four touchdowns. Running back Andre Ellington was also ruled out for the season, but Kerwynn Williams rushed for 100 yards on 19 carries in his NFL debut on Sunday. Williams had been a journeyman practice squad player after being drafted in the seventh round in 2013, but he outgained Jamaal Charles in his debut.
When St. Louis has the ball:
Both quarterbacks will be different from the ones who faced off earlier this season. Austin Davis struggled in that game against Arizona, leading to the reinsertion of Shaun Hill. The veteran has sparked the St. Louis offense in his four recent starts, completing 62 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Arizona’s entire roster has been affected by injuries, and the defense is no exception. Antonio Cromartie was the latest to go down, though he has not been ruled out for Thursday’s game. Even if he doesn’t play, at this point you have to assume Arizona will find a way to patch the hole. Only two teams have allowed fewer points this season. While the personnel on both sides was different, St. Louis managed just 244 yards in the first meeting, turning it over three times and going 1 for 10 on third down. St. Louis actually led that game before Arizona dominated the fourth quarter, and this one might also come down to the final minutes.
Prediction: Arizona 24, St. Louis 23
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal.