Cornerback Jerraud Powers knocks down the Texans' final pass in front of Houston receiver DeAndre Hopkins to seal the Cardinals' 27-24 win.
The situation turned ugly quickly, after a fumble allowed the Texans a touchdown on a short field and a questionable spot cost the Cardinals a game-clinching first down, but the Cardinals were in many ways right where they wanted to be with two minutes left Sunday.
It was the defense standing between victory and disappointment, and "that's who we want on the field," coach Bruce Arians said.
Only a few plays elapsed before the Cardinals owned a 27-24 win over the Houston Texans at University of Phoenix Stadium, yet the outcome is becoming predictable. The only points scored by Houston in the second half came after that turnover late, and there is little question why the Cards (5-4) have moved over .500 for the season.
"We played against the number one (ranked) defense (in the NFL) today," Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer said, "and I would take our defense over their defense."
Arians stressed it was a team victory, and there were aspects of that. Palmer played a steady game (20-for-32, 241 yards, two touchdowns, one
interception) and the running game compiled 97 yards. After wide receiver Michael Floyd left the game early with a right shoulder AC sprain – Arians said he hoped Floyd would be back next week – Andre Roberts (five catches, 72 yards) and tight end Rob Housler (four catches, 57 yards) each came up with touchdown receptions.
Patrick Peterson had his best game returning punts in a while (12.3-yard average), punter Dave Zastudil planted a pair of kicks at the Houston 1-yard line and Justin Bethel continued his Pro Bowl push with a blocked field goal that obviously meant a lot in a three-point game.
Yet from the time the games started and linebacker John Abraham sacked Texans quarterback Case Keenum on the very first play, forcing a fumble that teammate Matt Shaughnessy returned for his first NFL touchdown, the path was set for the Cards.
"We are a confident bunch," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "We know that if we do our job to the best of our ability, we have a pretty good, strong opportunity to win the game."
The road wasn't straight. Keenum rallied to play a good first half, and two spectacular toe-tapping touchdowns from Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson frustrated the Cardinals. So too did three-should-have-been-interceptions from linebackers Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington, that all could have changed the complexion of the game much earlier.
But in the second half, Keenum was just 7-for-17 for 42 yards and while the Cardinals ended up with just three sacks, they harassed the young quarterback making just his third start enough to render him moot.
"We have an extremely smart, intelligent defensive staff," Peterson said. "We just went to a little bit more man-to-man pressure to make Case beat us. We knew he couldn't beat us throwing the ball into tight coverages."
The Cardinals built a 10-point lead with a decent offense and a touchdown drive straight out of the this-is-how-we-want-to-do-it script, a nine-play march with four runs, two well-executed screen passes and then a perfect 19-yard touchdown bomb to Roberts to beat the all-out blitz.
"I think we're getting into our own little rhythm," guard Daryn Colledge said. "But I think everyone is still disappointed because we have the potential to do a lot more than we are doing and we are missing it still by one or two things."
The game was all but over when the Cards got the ball back inside their own 10 with less than five minutes left. But running back Rashard Mendenhall lost the fumble – Arians said after the game he thought he heard multiple whistles before the turnover and Mendenhall was down -- that made it a little bit closer than it needed to be.
The defense took care of that, though, sending the Texans (2-7) to a seventh straight loss. The Cardinals, meanwhile, visit 1-8 Jacksonville next week with a chance to win a third straight.
"We pride ourselves on playing good ball," Washington said. "I thought we started out fast and kind of got conservative. But second half, we had a whole (new) demeanor to ourselves. We said, 'Seventeen points is the max.' No more points to be scored. I thought we really stood up as a defense."