Cowboys close out December schedule at Washington
(Sports Network) - Two longtime NFC East rivals working towards decidedly different goals will square off this Sunday at FedEx Field, where the rejuvenated Dallas Cowboys aim to move a step closer towards making the playoffs in their primetime matchup with the Washington Redskins.
The Cowboys accomplished three notable feats with their 24-17 road victory over NFC South champion New Orleans in Week 15. Not only did the critical win ruin the powerful Saints' quest for a perfect season, it solidified Dallas' chances of ending a one-year absence from the playoffs while keeping the team's hopes of capturing the NFC East title within reach. The Cowboys trail 10-4 Philadelphia by one game for the top spot in the division with two to play, and the two foes will meet in Dallas in what could be a winner-take-all showdown in the regular-season finale.
And maybe even more importantly, the Cowboys were at least temporarily able to remove the unwanted tag of being a team that can't win a big game late in the season. Dallas entered its clash with the then-unbeaten Saints off back-to- back stinging losses to the New York Giants and San Diego, and had dropped six of its last seven December contests prior to last week's breakthrough.
With a win over the beaten and battered Redskins that coincided with a Giants' loss to Carolina this weekend, the Cowboys will have secured the playoff berth that slipped through their grasp at this time last year, when the club dropped three of its final four tests to finish out of the mix with a 9-7 record.
On the other hand, a loss to a Washington squad that's clearly looking towards the future would have Dallas back to being branded as crunch-time choke artists, not to mention dredging up the never-ending speculation about the long-term job security of head coach Wade Phillips.
The fate of Redskins' sideline boss Jim Zorn is widely believed to have already been sealed, with the focus now shifted to who will be wearing the second-year coach's headset in 2010 and beyond. The early clubhouse leader appears to be former Denver Broncos mastermind Mike Shanahan, a man with close ties to newly-appointed general manager Bruce Allen.
The non-stop rumors, combined with an unfortunate rash of key injuries, seemed to take their toll on the Burgundy and Gold in their most recent outing, when the team offered little resistance in an embarrassing 45-12 home loss to the Giants on Monday. The Redskins allowed New York to score on six of its first seven possessions while repeatedly hurting themselves with a litany of mistakes and breakdowns.
Washington had been playing hard and competitive in the weeks leading up to Monday's disaster, enduring narrow losses to three potential playoff participants before routing Oakland by a 34-13 score in Week 14. One of those close shaves came to Dallas on November 22, with the Cowboys escaping with a 7-6 decision on Tony Romo's 10-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Crayton with 2:41 left.
The Redskins could have gone ahead by two possessions in that game, but now- departed kicker Shaun Suisham misfired on a 39-yard field goal try late in the first half. Ironically, he'll have a chance to impact the outcome of Sunday's tilt as well, only this time as a member of the Cowboys. Suisham was signed by Dallas on Monday to take over for Nick Folk, released by the team the same day after missing seven of his last 11 attempts.
The Cowboys lead the all-time regular season series with Washington, 58-37-2, including the above-mentioned 7-6 win in a Week 11 nail-biter at Cowboys Stadium. The teams embarked on an unconventional split of last year's home- and-home, with the Redskins coming up 26-24 winners in their trip to Texas Stadium in Week 4, but dropping a 14-10 decision when the clubs met at FedEx Field in Week 11. The Redskins last won a home game over their longtime NFC East rival in 2007.
The Cowboys will be vying for their first home-and-home sweep of the Redskins since 2004.
Washington is 2-0 against Dallas in the postseason, winning in the 1972 and 1982 NFC Championship games.
Phillips is 4-2 all-time against Washington, with one of those wins coming for his Bills team in 1999 at FedEx Field. Zorn is 1-2 against both Phillips and the Cowboys as a head man.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas owns the NFL's third-ranked offense in terms of yards per game (394.5 ypg) and was able to flex its muscles against the Saints, combining the precision passing of Romo (3886 passing yards, 23 TD, 7 INT) with effective running from the inside-outside backfield duo of Marion Barber (778 rushing yards, 6 TD, 21 receptions) and Felix Jones (536 rushing yards, 2 TD, 12 receptions). The pair combined for 120 rushing yards and two touchdowns (both by Barber) last week, and totaled 148 yards on 30 attempts in the Cowboys' victory over the Redskins in November. Romo completed a sharp 22-of-34 throws for 312 yards, 49 of which came on a touchdown strike to big-play wide receiver Miles Austin (65 receptions, 1138 yards, 11 TD), in the New Orleans game and did not have an interception for a fourth straight week. The dangerous Austin finished the contest with 139 yards on seven catches and has emerged as one of the game's premier deep threats, with sure-handed tight end Jason Witten (82 receptions, 1 TD) serving as Romo's main underneath target and wideouts Roy Williams (37 receptions, 6 TD) and Crayton (32 receptions, 4 TD) offering two more capable, albeit inconsistent, options in the passing game. The Cowboys have been excellent at taking care of the football, having committed just one turnover over the past four games and only 19 for the season.
That trend of preventing costly miscues seems to have a good chance of continuing on Sunday, considering the Redskins are tied for last in the NFL with 15 takeaways and have induced a mere three turnovers during the previous three weeks. Washington still can play tough defense, even though it wasn't evident in Monday's debacle, and the Cowboys found that out first-hand by mustering a pedestrian 305 total yards and converting only 3-of-11 third-down situations in last month's meeting. The Redskins only sacked Romo one time in that game, however, as Dallas was able to keep the excellent pressure-causing combo of end Andre Carter (59 tackles, 11 sacks) and rookie linebacker Brian Orakpo (46 tackles, 11 sacks) in check by skillfully mixing the run and pass. Washington surrendered 153 rushing yards to their hated rivals, but didn't have difference-making tackle Albert Haynesworth (35 tackles, 4 sacks) in the lineup that day because of a sprained ankle. Middle linebacker London Fletcher (126 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) helped compensate with an extremely active and productive game, with the durable veteran amassing 13 tackles along with an interception and forced fumble. A solid secondary headed by two-time Pro Bowl corner DeAngelo Hall (45 tackles, 4 INT) was able to hold Austin to a modest 47 yards and four catches back in Week 11, but was torched for 273 net passing yards and three touchdowns by the Giants on Monday.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
An extensive series of injuries, particularly at the running back position and across the line, and a lack of viable playmakers have rendered the Redskins into one of the NFL's lowest-scoring and least threatening offenses. The team's primary ball-carriers for Sunday's encounter are expected to be Quinton Ganther (159 rushing yards, 3 TD, 7 receptions) and Marcus Mason (90 rushing yards, 5 receptions), two undrafted players who've bounced around practice squads for much of their careers, while a front wall that been forced to start 10 different players this year has allowed quarterback Jason Campbell (3138 passing yards, 18 TD, 14 INT) to be sacked 38 times for the season, five of which came in last week's loss. Campbell also hasn't gotten a whole lot of help from his receiving crew, save for second-year tight end Fred Davis (40 receptions, 6 TD), who's hauled in a touchdown pass in four straight games and softened the blow of the season-ending loss of two-time Pro Bowler Chris Cooley in October. At the wideout positions, veterans Santana Moss (56 receptions, 3 TD) and Antwaan Randle El (44 receptions) have shown signs of decline, while sophomore Devin Thomas (25 receptions, 3 TD) has yet to fully tap into his considerable potential.
Washington's patchwork offense will be trying to make some headway against a Dallas stop unit that came through with an inspired and highly-impressive performance a week ago. The Cowboys limited the high-powered Saints to season- lows in points (17) and total yards (336), and most of the damage came with the team in desperation mode in the fourth quarter. Game-changing outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (53 tackles, 11 sacks), just six days after being hospitalized by a frightening neck sprain, led the charge with two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles, with counterpart Anthony Spencer (57 tackles, 4 sacks) also taking down New Orleans triggerman Drew Brees on the night. Young cornerback Mike Jenkins (44 tackles, 16 PD) also made a big impact, as the 2008 first-round pick posted his team-best fifth interception of the season and provided blanket coverage throughout. The Redskins' stable of journeyman backs figure to encounter their share of trouble against Dallas' sixth-ranked run defense (97.7 ypg). The three-man front of ends Igor Olshansky (36 tackles, 1 sack) and Marcus Spears (21 tackles, 2 sacks) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff (36 tackles, 4 sacks) is stout at the point of attack, while 12th-year inside linebacker Keith Brooking (100 tackles, 3 sacks) has proven he hasn't lost much at age 34.
Those astute enough to grab Austin off the waiver wire and still alive in their fantasy playoffs know full well that the once-unknown wide receiver helped get them there, and they also don't need me to tell them to start the Dallas playmaker this week. Romo is almost always a solid choice at the quarterback position as well, but keep in mind that one of his lowest point totals of the season came against the Redskins last month. Barber's two- touchdown effort last week was an encouraging sign for someone who's had a so- so year from a fantasy perspective, and Witten invariably gets enough targets to be a useful tight end. Lean towards sitting Williams in a tough matchup, unless there aren't any other good options available. As usual, the pickings are slim on the Washington side. Davis is certainly worth a look at tight end, and Campbell will probably air it out quite a bit due to his team's dearth of talent at running back. That gives both he and Moss, a noted Cowboy killer in the past, some appeal. Give a thumbs up to the Dallas defense, which should have its way with the Redskins' depleted line, but anyone who's watched these teams this year knows to stay away from either kicker.
Are the Cowboys primed for a classic letdown after getting the December monkey off their backs with last week's monumental win? Have the Redskins finally reached the breaking point in a season filled with adversity and decided to pack it in? Those are the questions that need to be answered when breaking down this game. The feeling here is that Monday's humiliating loss and the animosity that exists between these two teams will bring out the fight in Washington, but that still won't be enough. If anything, the victory over New Orleans gave Dallas the confidence boost it so sorely needed, and last season's late collapse will be a constant motivator for the Cowboys to take care of business against an opponent they should be able to handle.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 20, Redskins 10
Bengals look to get back in business vs. Chiefs
(Sports Network) - It has been an emotional two weeks for the Cincinnati Bengals, to say the least, after two tough road games and the death of a teammate. The team tries to move on once again and finally clinch the AFC North in this Sunday's matchup with the lowly Kansas City Chiefs at Paul Brown Stadium, where Bengals running back Larry Johnson's will play his first game against his old team.
If not for the death of wide receiver Chris Henry, who passed away on December 17 from injuries sustained after falling out of the back of a pickup truck the day before, the biggest story around Cincinnati would be the team's inability to clinch its second division title in 19 years in each of the last two weeks.
Consecutive road losses to Minnesota (30-10) and San Diego (27-24) have denied Cincinnati its first division crown since 2005, but one has to figure the club was emotionally drained last weekend due to Henry's death. However, the Bengals will need to get back to work this weekend at home versus the 3-11 Chiefs.
Cincinnati, which traveled to New Orleans on Tuesday for Henry's funeral, will have to find a way to get its defense back on track. The 57 points the Bengals have allowed over the past two weeks are the most they have given up in consecutive games this season. The 30 points allowed to the Vikings was a season high, while the Chargers' 27 was the third most in a single game against the Bengals in 2009.
Still, at 9-5 with a perfect 6-0 division record, the Bengals need just one win -- either this weekend or in Week 17 at the New York Jets -- to claim the AFC North crown. They would also win the division with Baltimore's next loss, though the Ravens haven't helped Cincinnati by winning consecutive games during the Bengals' two-game slide.
The Bengals' pass defense struggled versus the Chargers' Philip Rivers, who threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns, but their offense did rally from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to tie the game on Shayne Graham's 34-yard field goal. However, San Diego's Nate Kaeding drilled a 52-yard field goal with three ticks left to hand the Bengals a loss.
One week after throwing for a season-low 94 yards in a loss to Minnesota, quarterback Carson Palmer posted a season-high 314 passing yards and two touchdowns, one of which that was caught by Chad Ochocinco. The usually- flamboyant wideout honored Henry after the 49-yard score by dropping to his knees and looking up towards the sky.
Johnson, who backs up starter Cedric Benson in Cincinnati, will also carry a bit of extra emotion this weekend as he faces the Chiefs for the first time since they cut him on November 9. Johnson's release followed a suspension for posting anti-gay slurs on his Twitter account while also insulting head coach Todd Haley on the Web site.
Taken 27th overall in the 2003 draft by the Chiefs, Johnson made two Pro Bowls while with Kansas City and rushed for over 6,000 yards, but was involved in numerous off-the-field incidents.
Johnson and the Bengals host a Chiefs club that has lost four straight since back-to-back wins over Oakland and Pittsburgh. That skid includes an 0-3 mark on the team's final homestand of the season, a residency in which Kansas City was outscored 101-57 to post a 1-7 record at Arrowhead Stadium this year.
The Chiefs were involved in a shootout on Sunday, losing 41-34 to the Cleveland Browns. Running back Jamaal Charles led Kansas City with a career- high 154 rushing yards and a touchdown, but Cleveland running back Jerome Harrison countered with a franchise-record 286 yards to go along with three touchdowns.
Matt Cassel threw for a season-high 331 yards and two touchdowns in the loss, in which the Chiefs' special teams unit allowed Browns return man Joshua Cribbs to take a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns.
Kansas City, which allowed 796 rushing yards on the homestand, also failed to sell out Arrowhead Stadium for the first time since 1990.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, meanwhile, still needs one more win to pass Paul Brown's 55 victories for second-most in team history.
Kansas City owns a 13-12 advantage in its all-time series against Cincinnati, but was a 16-6 road loser when the teams met in Week 17 of last season. That game marked the final contest in Herm Edwards' three-season tenure as head coach. The Chiefs won the previous meeting, taking a 27-20 home decision in 2007. Kansas City is 0-3 in Cincinnati since last winning there in 1984.
Lewis is 3-2 in his career against Kansas City, while Haley will be meeting both Lewis and Cincinnati for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
With an eye towards 2010, the Chiefs might at least come out of this season knowing who their starting running back will be. Charles (759 rushing yards, 6 total TD) has scored a touchdown in six straight games -- five rushing and one receiving -- and is averaging 91.9 yards per game in seven starts since taking over for Johnson. Cassel (2537 passing yards, 15 TD, 13 INT), meanwhile, has developed chemistry with wide receiver Chris Chambers, who had five catches for 114 yards with a score in Sunday's loss. Chambers (28 receptions, 4 TD with KC) began the season with the Chargers before being claimed off waivers by the Chiefs on November 3. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (37 receptions, 4 TD) returned from a four-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy last week and made four catches for 56 yards, while wide receiver Mark Bradley, who was released on Tuesday, added three catches for 52 yards with a fourth-quarter touchdown grab. Cassel was sacked just once on Sunday, even though starting left guard Brian Waters missed the game with a hamstring injury that has him questionable for this tilt.
The Chiefs' 34 points last weekend were a season-high, but this weekend they face a Bengals team that still ranks third in the league in scoring defense (17.4 points per game) despite the high totals allowed the last two weeks. They also hold the league's third-best run defense at 85.2 yards per game, which could spell trouble for Charles. Cincinnati limited San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson to 59 yards on 16 carries last Sunday, although he caught four passes for 58 yards. There will be even less room for Charles to run if 325-pound defensive tackle Domata Peko (23 tackles) can return from a knee injury that has held him out the last two weeks. Safety Chinedum Ndukwe (79 tackles, 2 sacks) led the Bengals with 12 tackles versus the Chargers, while linebacker Dhani Jones (98 tackles, 3.5 sacks) added eight. Linebacker Keith Rivers (53 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) added a sack and had one of the Bengals' two interceptions on the day, with cornerback Johnathan Joseph (60 tackles, 6 INT) grabbing the other.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Cincinnati was able to get its 21st-ranked passing offense (197.1 ypg) on track last weekend, but did so at the expense of the running game. Benson (1118 rushing yards, 6 TD) was held to just 53 yards on 15 carries, while Johnson (155 rushing yards with CIN) chipped in another 35 yards on four attempts. Palmer (2955 passing yards, 19 TD, 11 INT), meanwhile, threw touchdown passes to Ochocinco (68 receptions, 1016 receiving yards, 8 TD) and fellow wideout Laveranues Coles (37 receptions, 4 TD), while tight end J.P. Foschi (27 receptions, 2 TD) was his favorite target with seven catches for 82 yards. Ochocinco managed 79 yards on three receptions and Coles ended with 48 on four. Palmer was intercepted once and sacked twice in the loss, but went over 300 yards passing for the first time this season and has two touchdown strikes to a pair of interceptions in three career games versus the Chiefs. He did not face them last year due to injury. Benson ran for 111 yards and a score on 25 attempts in last year's meeting, while Johnson had just 18 yards on 10 carries for the Chiefs.
Due to Kansas City allowing 162.6 yards per game on the ground -- 31st in the league -- the Chiefs should see plenty of Benson and Johnson this weekend. They surely saw enough of Harrison in his record-breaking day last Sunday. Harrison's 286 rushing yards were the third-highest total in NFL history, behind just Adrian Peterson and Jamal Lewis. The Chiefs also allowed Cribbs to return kicks 100 and 103 yards for scores. Inside linebacker Demorrio Williams (102 tackles) made a team-high 13 tackles with the Browns pounding the ball on the ground, with safety DaJuan Morgan (18 tackles) adding eight. Though the Chiefs failed to record a sack in the game, they did record two interceptions. Corners Brandon Carr (52 tackles, 1 INT) and Brandon Flowers (56 tackles, 4 INT) each came away with a pick, giving the Chiefs 11 total interceptions on the season. That is tied for 23rd in the league, and Kansas City is also 31st in the NFL with just 19 sacks. Flowers has an interception in each of his last two games.
This is the weekend when most fantasy leagues hold their respective finals, so of course it is a time to overanalyze and sweat bullets. Charles faces a tough matchup, but he has been on fire as of late and if he got you this far, it might not hurt to stick with him. Kansas City's offense offers few other options outside of Chambers, but Bowe could be a factor if the Chiefs are forced to go to the air. Avoid the KC defense.
Benson was a bit of a letdown last weekend, but the Bengals win by running the ball and that is what they will do this weekend. The only thing that would stop Benson from having a monster day is a big, early advantage on the scoreboard that leads to him getting rested. Palmer came up big last week but should see his throw attempts go down this weekend, while Ochocinco is a nice play. Cincinnati's defense is a good but not great option.
The Bengals win games by running the ball, so this matchup plays greatly into their favor. Expect Cincinnati to get back on track with a heavy dose of Benson and Johnson, as the former will be amped up to get his team into the playoffs while the latter is aiming for redemption. Despite the big points put up last weekend, the Chiefs still couldn't get a win -- over the Browns nonetheless -- and will have trouble holding serve in this one. Expect grieving Cincinnati to get closure on its 2009 regular season this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 24, Chiefs 13
Rams vying for major upset in Arizona
(Sports Network) - The year 2009 is one the Arizona Cardinals will remember forever, and another the St. Louis Rams would just as soon forget.
The two NFC West foes will renew acquaintances once again this Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, where the division champion Cardinals will be out to extend their recent dominance in this series.
Arizona started out this calendar year with a bang, winning three straight playoff games in January to earn the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. This season has brought more success to the Cardinals, who will be making back-to-back postseason trips for the first time since 1974-75 after wrapping up a second straight NFC West crown with last week's 31-24 decision over downtrodden Detroit.
The Cardinals didn't exactly look playoff-worthy against the two-win Lions, however, as a seemingly-disinterested defense allowed 24 second-half points to blow a 17-0 lead at intermission before quarterback Kurt Warner orchestrated a go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minutes. It was the second straight lackluster performance for Arizona, which failed to match San Francisco's intensity in a 24-9 defeat to the 49ers back in Week 14.
With only a remote chance of gaining one of two first-round byes for the upcoming NFC Playoffs, it remains to be seen whether the Cardinals will be pumped up to play a depleted St. Louis squad that fell to a league-worst 1-13 following this past Sunday's 16-13 setback to Houston. The loss was the 23rd in the last 24 games for the lowly Rams, whose six victories over the last three seasons are the fewest of any team.
While the organization has visions of Nebraska defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen dancing in its heads this holiday season, the Rams have begun the painful process of evaluating their young talent as they play out the string. Eight first or second-year players were in the starting lineup for last week's matchup with the Texans, and rookie signal-caller Keith Null is the favorite to begin his third consecutive game under center on Sunday.
Null showed marked improvement in his second career start, as the relatively- unknown sixth-round draft pick completed 18-of-27 passing for 173 yards and a touchdown with one interception while nearly leading the Rams to an upset win. The 24-year-old had a rocky debut in the team's 47-7 shellacking at the hands of Tennessee one week earlier, throwing five interceptions and mustering only 165 yards on 44 attempts.
Warner, on the other hand, is set to make the 126th start (including playoffs) of a storybook 12-year career that included two NFL MVP Awards during a successful six-year run with the Rams from 1998-2003. The 38-year-old needs just one more touchdown pass to join Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton as the only players in league annals to have 100 scoring strikes for two different clubs.
The Rams hold a 30-29-2 lead in the all-time series with the Cardinals, but have lost six straight in the series since scoring a 16-14 win at Arizona during the 2006 season. The Cardinals were 21-13 winners when they visited their former home of St. Louis in Week 11, and on Sunday will be going for their third consecutive home-and-home sweep of the Rams. St. Louis was a 34-10 loser when it visited University of Phoenix Stadium last season.
The Rams won the only postseason meeting between the two, with the then-Los Angeles-based franchise pulling out a 35-23 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in a 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff.
Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is 5-0 against the Rams as a head coach, while St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo is 0-1 versus both Whisenhunt and Arizona as a head man.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
The St. Louis offense continues to go through workhorse Steven Jackson (1353 rushing yards, 4 TD, 51 receptions) despite a nagging back problem that has prevented the standout running back from practicing for more than a month. He's still managed to stay productive on the field, as last week's 123 combined yards (82 rushing, 41 receiving) against the Texans suggests, and put up 116 rushing yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in November's loss to Arizona. The Rams might need a similar showing from their offensive star to have a chance on Sunday, considering Null (338 passing yards, 2 TD, 6 INT) is undergoing a baptism by fire and the team will be without three of its season- opening starters up front, including 2009 No. 2 overall draft selection Jason Smith (concussion). St. Louis is also experiencing growing pains at the wide receiver position, where sophomore Donnie Avery (43 receptions, 5 TD) and rookie Brandon Gibson (26 receptions) have both shown flashes but lacked consistency. Undrafted Wes Welker-clone Danny Amendola (34 receptions, 1 TD) has done some good things out of the slot and as a return man, though, and recorded a career-best 61 yards on four grabs in the earlier meeting between these teams.
Provided his patchwork offensive line can open up holes, Jackson could be in line for another good day against an Arizona run defense that's been rather leaky as of late. The Cardinals allowed perennial backup Maurice Morris to rush for 126 yards and a score on just 17 attempts last Sunday, one week after San Francisco's Frank Gore put up 167 yards on the group. Over its last eight outings, Arizona has permitted an unhealthy average of 150.3 yards per game on the ground, a surprising number for a team that possesses quality run stoppers in inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (102 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Gerald Hayes (58 tackles) and two-time Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson (70 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT). Arizona did receive two interceptions from gifted young cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (47 tackles, 5 INT, 23 PD) versus Detroit and has picked off a solid 17 passes for the year. If the still- learning Null picks up another start, expect both the secondary and outside linebackers Clark Haggans (66 tackles, 5 sacks) and Bertrand Berry (9 tackles, 5 sacks) to be very aggressive against the rookie. The Cards have compiled 38 sacks as a team, tied for the fifth-most in the league.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
While balance hasn't been the trademark of a pass-heavy Arizona offense that comes in ranked 11th in yards through the air (256.1 ypg) and just 27th in rushing (95.1 ypg), the team was able to carve out a season-best 183 rushing yards on the ground in last month's win over the Rams. Second-year pro Tim Hightower (542 rushing yards, 7 TD, 59 receptions) racked up 110 yards on only 14 attempts in that game, but he's since given way to emerging rookie Beanie Wells (706 rushing yards, 6 TD, 11 receptions) as the main man in the backfield. The first-round draft pick posted his first-ever 100-yard game with last Sunday's 17-carry, 106-yard effort against Detroit, providing a nice complement to Warner (3414 passing yards, 25 TD, 14 INT) and a potent passing game that features arguably the league's premier pass-catching duo in wideouts Larry Fitzgerald (89 receptions, 1027 yards, 11 TD) and Anquan Boldin (74 receptions, 875 yards, 5 TD). The pair was too much for St. Louis' suspect defense to handle earlier this season, combining for 190 yards and two scores on 16 catches. Warner played only the first half of that game after sustaining a mild concussion, but still managed to throw for 203 yards and a pair of touchdowns on a razor-sharp 15-of-19 passing.
Warner and Arizona's stellar receiving corps get to bomb away at an abysmal St. Louis stop unit that was shredded for 367 yards by Houston's Matt Schaub a week ago and is next-to-last in the league in pass efficiency defense. It won't help matters that playmaking free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (74 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and cornerback Quincy Butler (28 tackles) will be unavailable this week due to injuries, or that top pass rusher Leonard Little (23 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT) will likely sit out a second straight game because of a knee infection. High draft choice Chris Long (37 tackles, 4 sacks) will be asked to lead a pass rush that's mustered a paltry 20 sacks thus far this season from his end spot, while cornerback and fellow youngster Justin King (25 tackles) gets an opportunity to test his skills against the formidable tandem of Fitzgerald and Boldin. The Rams have been porous versus the run for most of 2009, but limited the Texans to a meager 52 rushing yards on 24 attempts in last Sunday's loss. Rookie middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (109 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) has been the team's best defender among the front seven and was credited with a whopping 16 solo tackles against the Cardinals back in November.
Arizona is in the position to potentially rest some of its key players, but that scenario still shouldn't dissuade Fitzgerald or Boldin holders from using either elite receiver in a week where most leagues are playing for the championship. The Cardinals have done a very good job keeping Wells fresh for the stretch run, and the rookie has responded with a string of productive days that have made him both a reliable source of points and a strong play against a poor St. Louis defense this week. Don't expect a huge game out of Warner, a prime candidate to be pulled if Arizona builds a big lead, but the steady veteran should do enough to warrant a lineup spot. Jackson is the only Ram deserving of a starting nod, although it wouldn't be surprising if the team gives Null more of a chance to showcase himself, which would make Avery, Gibson and Amendola all worthy of consideration by desperate owners. Any defense that gets to face the Rams is usually a prudent choice, but steer clear of Cards kicker Neil Rackers, who will probably sit out another week to rest a groin injury.
As last week's result indicates, the Cardinals rarely give their best shot when going up against a bottom-feeder, but that may not matter anyway. The Rams just don't have the firepower on offense or talent on defense to pose a serious threat here, especially with the team being so banged up. Look for Arizona to once again jump out to a comfortable lead and cruise the rest of the way, with the only real mystery of this game being which team comes out on the favorable side of the sizeable point spread.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 31, Rams 17