The Arizona Cardinals are going from one emotion-filled NFC West rivalry road game to another.
After surviving some way, somehow with a 19-13 victory at the San Francisco 49ers, the Cards (9-2) will look for a measure of payback when they travel to St. Louis to face the slumping Rams (4-7).
These teams are going in opposite directions, as the Cardinals have won five games in a row, while the Rams have suffered four straight losses. But the Rams handed the Cardinals their only home loss of the season with a 24-22 upset in Glendale two months ago.
Will the Cards return the favor and deal the Rams a defeat on their home turf? Here are three questions and a prediction for Sunday’s NFC West showdown.
1. Will David Johnson fill Chris Johnson’s shoes?
The one-two bad news punch of Chris Johnson (fractured tibia) out for the regular season and Andre Ellington (turf toe) out this weekend means it will be up to rookie David Johnson to carry the load in the Cardinals’ backfield Sunday.
David Johnson is a big, speedy back who has made a number of big plays on minimal touches, but his endurance has yet to be tested in the NFL. On Friday, coach Bruce Arians said Johnson can expect to see a Chris Johnson-like 25 carries against a St. Louis defense that has allowed just 3.9 yards per carry and six rushing touchdowns this season.
Even with Chris Johnson, the Cards’ running game had been struggling, so a change in the backfield might help right the ship. But is the inexperienced David Johnson ready for that responsibility?
2. Will Nick Foles foil the Cards again?
Two weeks ago, Rams QB and Arizona Wildcat alum Nick Foles was benched in favor of Case Keenum. Foles re-took the field after Keenum suffered a concussion, but the original decision to bench him was validated when Foles threw three interceptions and posted a 49.9 passer rating in last week’s loss at the Bengals.
Foles hasn’t had many stellar showings in St. Louis, but his best by a wide margin came in Week 4 at Arizona, when he threw three touchdowns and no interceptions en route to a 126.9 passer rating. Cards cornerback Jerraud Powers will miss Sunday’s game with a calf injury, boosting Foles’ chances for a repeat performance.
So, which Nick Foles will the Cardinals see on Sunday – the man who was benched for a perennial backup, or the man who turned in a brilliant game in Glendale two months ago?
3. Who will play smarter?
Cardinals-Rams isn’t just an intra-division matchup: It’s a full-fledged rivalry game complete with bad blood at the player and coaching level. In these kinds of contests, tempers tend to flare – and when they do, players often make bad decisions that cost their team.
The Cards are the second-least penalized team in the NFL, and despite their Week 4 loss, they limited their mental mistakes against the Rams, as they were penalized just three times for 20 yards. The Rams, meanwhile, are the NFL’s 11th-most penalized team and racked up 66 penalty yards on seven infractions in Week 4.
In what is likely to be a tight contest, a silly personal foul or unsportsmanlike penalty can make a huge difference toward determining the winner. Will the Cards continue to make good decisions and leave the bad ones to the Rams, or will the emotion of playing a rivalry game on the road get the best of them?
No, I haven’t forgotten about Todd Gurley, who had his coming out party when he ran all over the Cards in Week 4. But after an incredible start, Gurley has come down to Earth during the Rams’ current losing streak, and the Cards will be better prepared for him Sunday.
It’s fair to say the Rams have been playing terrible, horrible, no good, very bad football for the last month – but that’s just not likely to matter much on Sunday. Like the 49ers, a St. Louis team with noting to lose won’t need much motivation to get up for this game against a division rival.
And while the Cardinals look ripe for the picking due to the injury bug finally biting down hard on them, Carson Palmer and the Cards’ healthy defenders should make enough plays to earn a measure of payback against the Rams. Look for the Cards to find a way to survive a hard-fought game against a desperate division opponent for the second straight week.
Cardinals 24, Rams 20