More than winning streaks will be on the line between the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions. The Cardinals own the NFC’s longest current winning streak at five straight, and the Lions are next up with four consecutive victories. Whoever claims Sunday’s matchup at U of Phoenix Stadium will own the best record in the NFC, and hold the inside edge when the playoff races heat up in the final weeks of the regular season.
Still both sides need this win for perhaps bigger reasons. The 8-1 Cardinals need to quickly rebound from the loss of quarterback Carson Palmer to a season-ending knee injury, while 7-2 Detroit can make believers out of the rest of the league with their first quality road victory of the season.
Palmer went down with a freak injury in last week’s 31-14 win over St. Louis, and now Drew Stanton once again takes over starting duties. To be fair, without Stanton the Cardinals wouldn’t be in this highly envious position in the first place. With Palmer out due to a shoulder injury, Stanton started in Weeks 3 through 5, and notched key wins at the New York Giants and home against San Francisco, to take the early NFC West lead. Stanton did lose his most recent start at Denver 41-20, going 11-for-26 for 118 yards, but kepth Arizona competitive until the fourth quarter.
Palmer took over from there and has guided the five-game streak atop the NFC, but specifically he helped rejuvenate receiver Larry Fitzgerald. During the current run, the veteran Fitzgerald has pulled in 31 receptions for 461 yards and two touchdowns, more than two-thirds his haul for the season.
Keeping Fitzgerald involved in the offense, while getting No. 2 receiver Michael Floyd back in the flow will be the keys for Stanton. Floyd started the season hot with two 100-plus yards games in the first three weeks, but now many of his initial targets are going to running back Andre Ellington or rookie receiver John Brown. Ellington’s made 24 receptions for 170 yards and two scores during the streak, and Brown notched both his first 100-yard game and the winning touchdown in the closing minutes versus Philadelphia in Week 8.
Clearly there are a lot of moving parts that Stanton has to monitor throughout the crucial matchup, but he’ll also need a big performance from his secondary. Arizona’s allowing 274 yards per game in the air, No. 30 in the league, but that number’s a little deceiving since the Cardinals are first in the NFL in interceptions (14). And as much as Stanton’s play matters, how well defensive backs Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie and Jerraud Powers contain Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson figures to be the crux of the game.
Johnson sat out three straight games due to an ankle injury and the Lions won with their top ranked defense, but they are still seeking a quality road win over a .500 or better opponent. Across the board Detroit owns the best defense in the NFL, ranking first in points allowed (15.8) and total yards (283.4), with 26 sacks and opposing quarterbacks averaging a 79.3 passer rating. Yet the Lions only successes away from Ford Field were over the 2-8 N.Y. Jets, 4-5 Minnesota and 3-6 Atlanta, and they needed a 12-point fourth-quarter comeback in the last one.
Johnson made an explosive return in last week’s 20-16 comeback win over Miami, re-forming maybe the most devastating receiver duo in the league with Golden Tate. Johnson totaled 113 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown bomb, off seven receptions, while Tate racked up 11 catches for 109 yards. When Johnson went down Tate blew up, recording three straight 100-plus yard games with two scores, and now defenses must respect both pass-catchers. Johnson and Tate will no doubt try to exploit the Cardinals propensity to give up big plays. Arizona’s allowed 35 plays of 20-plus yards, tied for fifth-worst in the NFL, and has let up another eight plays of 40 or more yards.
Detroit also had to find an answer for the banged up Reggie Bush, and second-year running back Theo Riddick responded. Riddick's notched touchdown receptions in three straight games, including the game winner with 29 seconds left against Miami. He's totaled 15 catches for 153 yards and three scores, allowing Joique Bell to play his between-the-tackle role.
But even with so many weapons, Stafford has to be mindful of Arizona’s secondary. Four of his eight interceptions on the season have come in the last three games.
Start Time: Sunday, 4:25 PM ET
TV Channel: FOX
Betting Odds: Arizona -2
Over/Under: 41.5 points
Prediction: Arizona over Detroit 23-17