Venturing outside the comfort zone of the subpar NFC West has brought the Arizona Cardinals back down to earth.
Some extra time off and facing a division rival may be just what the Cardinals need to get back on track and clinch their first division title since 1975 on Sunday when the St. Louis Rams visit University of Phoenix Stadium.
“To play a game like this at home, if there is any mini-crisis of confidence, I think it will evaporate pretty quickly,” coach Ken Whisenhunt told the team’s official Web site.
The Cardinals (7-5) are all but assured of winning the terrible NFC West, needing only one win or one San Francisco 49ers loss over the final four weeks. But Arizona has looked vulnerable lately with back-to-back defeats to NFC East teams, following a home loss to the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants with a 48-20 pounding at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving night.
Before those two losses, Arizona had won five of six, including three straight against division opponents. The Cardinals are seeking their first division title since they were located in St. Louis and won the NFC East 33 years ago.
“We were playing well,” safety Adrian Wilson said. “We are in a situation now where you want to be playing well. It’s December. … Obviously we need a lot of confidence right now.”
The running game has been nearly non-existent for the Cardinals recently, rushing for 25 yards on 10 carries against Philadelphia after being held to 23 yards in 15 attempts versus New York. In four of their five defeats, they have been held to 50 or fewer rushing yards, putting more pressure on quarterback Kurt Warner, who canceled out his three touchdown passes last week with a season high-tying three interceptions.
“It’s not the game we wanted to play,” said Warner, who is 259 yards shy of becoming the eighth quarterback in NFL history have three 4,000-yard seasons.
Warner has played well against the Rams, with whom he entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 1998 and won a Super Bowl in 2000. He threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-13 victory Nov. 2, and has thrown for 1,701 yards and 10 TDs in six lifetime games against St. Louis, winning four.
However, Whisenhunt may try to involve running back Tim Hightower more since the rookie rushed for a season-high 109 yards - the most by a Cardinals running back this year - in his first NFL start in the Nov. 2 victory. He was limited to seven yards in seven attempts against the Eagles, and has totaled 85 yards on 42 carries in his last four games.
Nine players have more than Arizona’s 917 rushing yards, which is last in the NFL.
The Rams (2-10) are assured of missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year and already clinched their third 10-loss season in that span following last Sunday’s 16-12 defeat at Miami. Marc Bulger was intercepted three times as St. Louis was held without a touchdown for the third time in four games and lost its sixth straight overall.
In addition to Bulger’s struggles, tension remained between interim coach Jim Haslett and running back Steven Jackson. Jackson rushed for 94 yards after missing three games with a strained thigh, but got only one carry in the fourth quarter after Haslett thought he was “gassed.”
Jackson insisted he was fine before adding, “I wish he’d stop saying that,” in reference to Haslett’s critique.
On Monday, Haslett said Jackson’s conditioning was fine and that he was dragging because of soreness.
“He got sore about the 30th play and started dragging a little bit. His conditioning was actually fine,” Haslett said. “He did a great job with that. You could tell he hasn’t played in a month. He’s a little sore and I commend him for fighting through it and trying to get in there and play.”
Jackson was limited to 17 yards on nine carries in the first matchup against Arizona, but sat out most of the second half because of the effects of the thigh injury originally suffered against Dallas on Oct. 19. Jackson has never had a 100-yard game in seven lifetime contests against the Cardinals.
The Rams have scored just four touchdowns during their six-game losing streak, their longest since starting last season 0-8.
Arizona has won the last four games between the teams by a combined 150-83 score.