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Cardinals Have Lot At Stake In Short Week

Thursday night game in St. Louis brings battle against red-hot Rams

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Jaron Brown hauls in a touchdown catch last weekend for the Cardinals.

ST. LOUIS – Through gritted teeth and sarcasm-coated answers, the Cardinals have made their stance clear on Thursday night games.

Like the majority of NFL teams, they don't like the quick turnaround. And like everybody else, they must go through this at least once a year.

"I'm on the record about Thursday Night Football," coach Bruce Arians said. "It's here to stay. Hopefully we don't have Wednesday night football."

The Cardinals (10-3) picked up a crucial victory on Sunday against the Chiefs, which kept them atop the NFC and one game ahead of the Seahawks in the NFC West while breaking a two-game losing streak.

There was little celebration, as the players returned early Monday morning to treat their aches and pains and prepare for this one

against the Rams. There was no time to review the Kansas City tape, and the coaches are running on less sleep than the few hours they normally get. And yet, the Cardinals are cognizant not to fall into the woe-is-us trap.

"You can't go in there feeling sorry for yourself that you're sore and hurt, because everybody out there is sore and hurt," center Lyle Sendlein said. "It levels the playing field."

The St. Louis team waiting for them has won two straight games by a combined score of 76-0. The Cardinals can all but guarantee a playoff berth with a victory – needing only the Cowboys-Eagles game Sunday to not end in a tie – but their opponent is playing much better than its 6-7 record would suggest.

The Rams have won three of four, including a victory over the Broncos, and have unleashed the menacing defense expected of them at the beginning of the season.

"To me, it's probably one of the best defenses in the NFL right now," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said.

Historically, Thursday night games have not been kind to the Cardinals since arriving in Arizona. Their first foray came in 1995, when they lost to the Giants, 10-6. In 2008, the Cardinals lost to the Eagles, 48-20. Two seasons ago it was a 17-3 loss to this Rams team, and last year the Cardinals got off to a slow start and fell to the Seahawks, 34-22.

Since that loss to Seattle, the Cardinals have been among the best teams in the NFL, compiling 17 victories in 22 games. They hope that's the streak that continues while the Thursday night funk washes away. The motivation will be there, as the Cardinals remain in the thick of the playoff race for the second consecutive December under Arians.

"For some teams, (football in December) doesn't mean a damn thing except the season's almost over," Arians said. "I've been

on that side. This one means a lot because everything rides from here on in, so every game is really a playoff game, especially the way the NFC is sitting right now with so many teams at nine (wins)."

To get their 11th victory and stay ahead of the pack, the Cardinals must shake off their road doldrums. They are 7-0 at University of Phoenix Stadium this year but 3-3 on the road, including the two most recent losses to Seattle and Atlanta in which they scored only one offensive touchdown combined.

Quarterback Drew Stanton is 57-of-100 for 874 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions at home, compared to 63-of-120 for 728 yards with one touchdown and three picks on the road.

He will be helped greatly if the Cardinals can run the ball as well as they did Sunday, posting a season-high 141 yards behind the emergence of Kerwynn Williams (19 carries, 100 yards). St. Louis leads the NFL with 34 sacks in its past eight games, and the Cardinals could be in trouble if they can't find offensive balance.

St. Louis is surprisingly healthy for this time of year. Defensive end Chris Long (ankle) is questionable for the game, but everyone else is ready to go.

"You're going to have to look far and long to find a team that deactivated seven healthy players last weekend like we did, so that will give you an idea," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "We dealt with it early, but everybody's made it back."

It's basically the exact opposite for the Cardinals, who placed standout running back Andre Ellington (hip) on season-ending injury reserve on Monday, will be without safety Tyrann Mathieu (thumb) for the second straight week, and hope cornerback Antonio Cromartie can play despite a torn tendon in his ankle.

Guard Paul Fanaika (ankle) is also out, whereas Arians said he may have been able to play if this was a regular Sunday affair. So the Cardinals will grin and bear the scheduling change and recognize the bright side that awaits.

"It's a bad week until Friday," Arians said. "Then it's a nice week and you're glad you played Thursday night."

The weekend would be downright pleasant with a win, but it won't be easy. The Cardinals beat the Rams 31-14 on Nov. 9, but St. Louis held the lead in the fourth quarter until a 21-point onslaught helped the Cards pull away. Starting quarterback Carson Palmer was lost for the season in that game, and the Rams' quarterback has changed, too, as veteran Shaun Hill has played well since being inserted into the lineup prior to the win over Denver.

Not only would the Cardinals effectively wrap up the playoff spot with a win, they would also have a shot to clinch the NFC West on Sunday Night Football next week at home against the Seahawks. Most pundits think Seattle will eventually overtake the Cardinals for the division, but wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald hopes the team's ability to scratch out victories will continue.

"We get in close games down the stretch and we're able to finish," Fitzgerald said. "That's what it's coming down to, and we have to be able to show that resolve as we continue the rest of the three games in the season."

Images of the Cardinals cheerleaders during Sunday's win over the Chiefs



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