Quarterback Carson Palmer (3) and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) congratulate running back Andre Ellington on his touchdown late in Sunday's 30-10 win over St. Louis.
Carson Palmer didn't throw a pass in practice all week. Not one.
The Cardinals were protecting his tender right elbow, and that was the plan set down by head athletic trainer Tom Reed. Palmer would take it easy, throwing a few warmup tosses and handing off a few times, but keeping his arm under wraps until the day it meant something.
Then Sunday, Palmer came out and dissected the Rams, completing 27 of 32 passes in one of his best performances of the season as the Cards stayed alive in the playoff hunt with a 30-10 thrashing of their NFC West rival.
The win broke an eight-game NFC West losing streak for the Cardinals (8-5). If it weren't for the painful news that starting rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu is likely done for the season with torn knee ligaments – coach Bruce Arians said Mathieu's initial
diagnosis needs final confirmation Monday with an MRI – it would have been another game day of good news.
"It's just fun being on a good football team," Palmer said.
Veteran linebackers Karlos Dansby and John Abraham continued to have fantastic seasons. Dansby had another interception for a touchdown, two tackles for loss, a sack and a team-best eight tackles. Abraham had three sacks, bringing his season total to 11 and surpassing the great Lawrence Taylor on the all-time NFL sacks list – and happened to add another three tackles for loss.
Meanwhile, with Michael Floyd clearly gimpy with his ailing ankle, Larry Fitzgerald hauled in a season-high 12 catches for 96 yards. Andre Ellington scored a touchdown after missing a game, and if it weren't for a pair of missed Jay Feely field goals and a fumble by tight end Jim Dray inside the Rams' 1-yard line, the Cardinals likely would have reached 40 points for a second straight home game.
"We don't want to lose in this building," Arians said. "We had to win a division game. We're really pleased that monkey is off our back, and you guys (in the media) can write about something else now."
But the central story was Palmer, whose elbow was hurt on the third play of the game in Philadelphia. Palmer gutted through the Eagles game but then did little during the week leading up to the game.
Palmer said he doesn't want to make such rest regular – "No, I need to practice" – but insisted he never questioned Reed's plan.
"I just needed to stick with what he was saying," Palmer said.
Arians said he didn't know for sure Palmer would play until two hours before the game, but Palmer said he felt all week he would play even without any throwing reps.
"He told me he was going to play (all week)," Fitzgerald said, "and all you can do is take a man at his word."
As if to underscore Palmer's appearance, Arians called a pass on the first play of the game, which Palmer delivered to Fitzgerald for a 19-yard gain. That started an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in which Palmer completed all three of his throws.
Palmer ended up completing his first 11 before missing open tight end Rob Housler deep down the seam, one of the few misses he had. By the time the game was over, he had 269 yards and a touchdown, no turnovers, and had piloted the Cardinals to their sixth home win in seven tries.
"He was assertive, a great leader in the huddle," Fitzgerald said. "He showed a lot of toughness. We all knew he was dealing with some issues."
Fitzgerald never reached 100 yards, but the Palmer-to-Fitzgerald hookup was perfect on 12 targets, and Fitzgerald's touchdown was his 10th this season – making him only the ninth player in NFL history to have at least 10 receiving touchdowns in five different seasons. It's also six more touchdowns than he had in all of 2012, and there are still three games to go.
More impressively, Palmer was sacked just once – by Alex Ogletree – and the protection looked light years better than what the Cardinals were able to provide in their Week One loss in St. Louis. Defensive end Robert Quinn, who had three sacks the first matchup, not only didn't get a sack but his most notable play was a 15-yard penalty for removing his helmet on the field.
Arians said the Cardinals "did a better job coaching" on protection, which gave help to left tackle Bradley Sowell often.
"I thought the game plan was smart," right tackle Eric Winston said. "We did not allow their good players to get into the game. I think we frustrated Quinn all game. I was relatively successful against (Chris) Long. I'm not going to tell you I went out there and shut him down every play because he's a good player. I think when you can do that to anybody's defense, when you can make sure their good players don't get off on you, now you have a chance to go down field and do some things."
Said Palmer, "That defense rarely gets just one sack. The protection was phenomenal."
It was good enough that Palmer's 84.3 percent completions was the second-highest in team history, behind only Kurt Warner's NFL record 92.3 set in Jacksonville in 2009.
The Rams (5-8) are eliminated from the playoffs. The Cards shut down their run, and only a late 56-yard reverse by rookie Tavon Austin allowed St. Louis to reach exactly 100 yards on the ground. At 8-5, the Cardinals have two straight road games – at Tennessee and at Seattle – upcoming as they try to stay within the playoff hunt.
With quarterback play like they are getting, they have to feel good about competing.
"Now it's going back to winning one of the road," Arians said. "We'll start that commitment right now."