The Arizona Cardinals wrapped up their second consecutive division title last week, but coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn’t want the team to be content with just making the playoffs.
The Cardinals still have an outside shot at a first-round bye, but they need to win their final two games, beginning with Sunday’s visit from the woeful St. Louis Rams.
Arizona (9-5) clinched the NFC West title with a 31-24 victory in Detroit and San Francisco’s loss in Philadelphia last Sunday, winning the franchise’s first back-to-back division crowns since 1974-75.
The Cardinals fell into a rut after securing last season’s title, losing 35-14 at home to Minnesota and 47-7 in New England before winning their season finale. They bounced back to reach the Super Bowl, but Whisenhunt would like to make this season’s playoff push a little easier.
Arizona, however, trails Minnesota by two games in the race for the final NFC playoff bye and is a game back of Philadelphia. Even if they fall short of that goal, the Cardinals can still clinch their first 10-win season since 1976 with a victory this week.
“We’re playing this week like it’s a must-win for us because we’re still in contention for a potential second seed,” Whisenhunt said. “Even though it may not be a great chance, it is a chance, and I’d hate to have to be sitting here next week and say ‘Wow, what could have been.’”
In his first 11 games this season, Warner completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 273 yards per game, 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. In the past two, though, he’s averaged 203 yards while connecting at a 58.5 percent clip and totaling one TD and three interceptions.
“I just think we have to continue to clean things up,” Warner said. “We have to just be able to react and know what we’re looking for, to see it and reacting quickly. That was one of the things we didn’t do well enough on Sunday (against Detroit).”
Warner, who needs 225 yards to pass Sonny Jurgensen for 25th on the NFL’s passing list, has experienced considerable success against his former team since coming to the Cardinals in 2005, after one season with the New York Giants.
He’s passed for nearly 273 yards per game and 13 touchdowns while helping the Cardinals post a 6-2 mark over their divisional rivals. He’s appeared in five of the team’s six straight wins over the Rams (1-13) and passed for at least 279 yards in back-to-back home victories against them.
Warner was efficient in a 21-13 victory in St. Louis on Nov. 22, completing 15 of 19 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns.
That win also featured a stellar showing from the Cardinals’ improved rushing attack. Tim Hightower(notes) had a career-best 110 yards and Beanie Wells(notes) added 74 to lead the team to its best performance on the ground (183 rushing yards) in more than five years.
The Cardinals have averaged 126 yards on the ground over the past seven games, and Wells had his first 100-yard performance as a pro in last week’s win, running for 110 and a touchdown.
“That Beanie Wells is terrific. I think Tim is a heck of a back, too,” St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “That’s quite a complement when you have the two of them.”
Spagnuolo’s team will likely need a big game from the league’s No. 2 rusher, Steven Jackson, as the club’s quarterback situation is unsettled. Starter Marc Bulger(notes) has not played since the loss to Arizona because of a fractured left shin bone and was placed on season-ending injured reserve Saturday. Kyle Boller(notes) has been out with a bruised thigh and flulike symptoms, and rookie Keith Null(notes) has been largely ineffective while starting the last two games.
After a five-interception game in his NFL debut on Dec. 13, Null completed 18 of 27 passes for 173 yards, one touchdown and one interception in last week’s 16-13 loss to visiting Houston.
However, even Jackson - who has 1,353 yards on the season - hasn’t been able to help the Rams avoid a six-game skid. He ran for 116 yards in the November loss to the Cardinals, the first time in nine career meetings with Arizona that he’s surpassed 100.
That game capped a season-high string of four straight 100-yard performances, but Jackson has topped the century mark once in his last four games.