Safety Tyrann Mathieu salutes after making the game-sealing tackle Sunday in the Cardinals' 25-21 win over Detroit.
A week after giving up the game-losing drive in the game's final minutes – and stewing about it – the Cardinals' defense was prepared.
"After blowing it last week, we overly practiced it," defensive end Calais Campbell said of his team's late-game performance, including a fourth-down stop with just over a minute to go to seal up a 25-21 win over the Lions at University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday.
"It showed. In crunch time, two-minute, that equals victories."
In this case, it equaled the first – the first of the season for the Cardinals (1-1) and the first of the non-interim head coaching career of Bruce Arians. And it was a crucial step for a team about to play its next two games far away from home, in New Orleans and in Tampa.
There was nothing simple about Sunday's game, with top receiver Larry Fitzgerald far from healthy because of a bad hamstring and
the offense lurching to a disappointing 1-for-13 day converting third downs – which made the end much more dramatic than it needed to be.
Then again, without a defense that stiffened in the second half, it might have been a loss. Instead, coordinator Todd Bowles' unit locked down a good Detroit offense.
"Our defense was lights out in the second half," Arians said.
In six second-half possessions, the Lions (1-1) managed just 84 yards total and one field-goal attempt, which was blocked by emerging Cardinals special-teams star Justin Bethel. Detroit's only second-half points came on a 66-yard interception return by linebacker DeAndre Levy for a touchdown, a mistake by quarterback Carson Palmer.
"We took a lot of criticism Week One," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "This week was big for us. Everybody practiced with a chip on their shoulder."
Clamping down on the Lions was never more evident than on Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson, who got loose for four receptions, 96 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. But the biggest blow, a 72-yard catch-and-run, came only after linebacker Karlos Dansby anticipated the pass and yet couldn't knock it down.
In the second half, Johnson was a non-factor with two catches for 20 yards.
"My game plan coming in here was to continue to be physical with him, continuing to play my game no matter what," Peterson said. "To stay calm and stay patient and let the game come to me. I didn't want to overdo it … so I believe I played pretty well besides that big play."
Lions running back Reggie Bush, who lost a fumble early in the second half and was trying to play with a knee injury, was never a factor after getting hurt. He had just 25 yards on nine carries and three catches for 44 yards.
That was important, because for much of the game, the Cardinals' offense was dealing in fits and starts. Palmer was only sacked once and his stat line – aside from the interception – wasn't bad, going 22-for-39 for 248 yards. But kicker Jay Feely made all four of his field-goal attempts, a big deal on a day when it didn't look like the offense would do enough.
There was an good start, especially after Palmer hit rookie running back Andre Ellington out of the backfield for a 36-yard touchdown play on a similar wheel route Palmer and Ellington missed on at the end of the St. Louis game.
But Fitzgerald's bad leg – he came out early in the fourth quarter, never to return -- seemed to underscore the frustration of the day. (Fitzgerald said later there was "no question" he will play in New Orleans next week.)
Fortunately the defense kept it a two-point game until the Cards got the ball on their own 39-yard line with 4:28 left. Ellington started the drive with a 16-yard run, but the biggest play – on third-and-8, no less – was a 31-yard pass interference flag after cornerback Bill Bentley ran over Andre Roberts deep down the field. It was a clear foul, and two plays later, running back Rashard Mendenhall ran in a touchdown from a yard out.
"Mentally, there are so many frustrations and so many things going through your head," Palmer said. "You have to block those things out. The teams that do that win."
Then it was up to the defense to hold for the final 1:59. The Lions got one first down, but eventually it was fourth-and-4 on the Detroit 43 – and safety Tyrann Mathieu stepped up to bring receiver Nate Burleson down a yard short of the first.
"I kind of knew they'd be coming at me, me being a rookie," Mathieu said. "We just wanted to challenge those guys at the line of scrimmage in the second half. I think we did a pretty good job. I'm excited to make a play."
And this time, come off the field without a sour taste in the mouth, unlike St. Louis.
"That's all we talk about, finishing games," Arians said. "Eighty-some percent of the games are decided in the two minutes at the end of the half and the end of the game. We practice two-minute a ton and we talk two-minute a ton.
"Last week we didn't finish. This week we did."