Defensive tackle Cory Redding rumbles 36 yards for a touchdown after a Kareem Martin sack in the Cardinals' 38-8 pasting of the Packers Sunday.
The Cardinals lost a key defensive piece for the season when safety Tyrann Mathieu wrecked his knee, but the defense believed they could use it as motivation – and defensive tackle Cory Redding even said the unit would continue to have Honey Badger-like performances.
Then came Sunday, when the defense did things that hadn't been done since before Mathieu was even born.
The Cardinals had nine sacks – their largest total in a game since they had 10 against the Eagles in 1986 – and returned two fumbles for touchdowns in a 38-8 pasting of the Green Bay Packers at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"We just hunted today," Redding said. "We had so much fun today at the ball."
It was dominating, a fitting way for the Cardinals (13-2) to clinch a first-round playoff bye and end the faint hopes of the Packers (10-5) of catching them. The Cards can still earn the NFC's No. 1 seed if they beat the Seahawks (9-6) next week at home and the Panthers – who fell to 14-1 Sunday in an upset loss at Atlanta – were to lose at home
against the Buccaneers.
For a team that has won nine straight and has outscored their last two opponents by a combined score of 78-25, seeding may not matter a ton.
"We're playing really good football, at the right time," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "This is the time of season you want to be peaking. I don't want to say we are peaking, but we're playing at a good clip. That's a good feeling."
The celebration was more animated Sunday clinching the bye than how the Cardinals responded to their NFC West-clinching win a week ago in Philadelphia, but that was partly because the Eagles' win was muted once players and coaches quickly understood Mathieu was likely done.
"I'm just thrilled with the way this team responded," cornerback Patrick Peterson said.
The game was scoreless after a quarter, but the Cards found a rhythm soon after. Fitzgerald caught a touchdown pass to start the scoring, and then a sequence late in the second half sealed Green Bay's fate.
Up only 10-0, Palmer tried a screen pass with two minutes left that was intercepted by defensive lineman Mike Daniels. Daniels returned it to the Arizona 15-yard line, and the Packers seemed certain to make it a one-score game at the half. It was Palmer's first interception in 187 attempts, and the Cardinals first turnover in five games.
Instead, cornerback Justin Bethel – getting a ton of work with Mathieu out – made a wonderful end zone interception
of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. With 57 seconds left in the half, Palmer expertly moved the Cards down for a touchdown, finishing with a seven-yard scoring pass to John Brown with six seconds left.
The second half was about the defense – which was also without starting safety Rashad Johnson (ankle) -- making the Packers' life miserable.
Already missing their starting left tackle, the battered Green Bay offensive line lost three other starters for periods in the game. The Cardinals took full advantage. In those circumstances, "we should be sacking the quarterback," Arians said.
Oh, they did. The Cardinals only had 26 sacks this season. Now, they have 35.
"That's the type of stuff we dream about – literally," said linebacker Dwight Freeney, who had three by himself.
Defensive tackle Calais Campbell had 2½ sacks. Even Kareem Martin, who rarely gets defensive snaps, not only got a sack but forced a fumble that Redding returned 36 yards for a touchdown. Later, Freeney came up with a strip-sack, which cornerback Jerraud Powers returned for a score. Freeney, who didn't sign until the Cards had played five games, now has seven sacks in 10 games.
"I took some shots," Rodgers said. "I'm just disappointed in myself."
Rodgers had just 151 yards passing, and his lone touchdown pass came with the score already 31-0.
"I told Ty before we went out there, 'We're going to get ya'll some plays,' " Bethel said. "With him and Rashad down, someone else had to make some plays. We did that."
It made a solid offensive performance secondary. Palmer was solid, save for the interception, completing 18-of-27 throws for 265 yards and putting aside concerns that the injury to his right index finger suffered in Philadelphia would be a problem.
Michael Floyd had a good game (six catches, 111 yards) and running back David Johnson was excellent in limited time – he was rested in favor of backups in a blowout -- gaining 127 yards on 12 touches rushing and receiving combined, with a touchdown.
Arians wouldn't call it the best defensive performance he had seen as coach of the Cardinals, but it was satisfying, especially with a noticeable amount of Green Bay fans in the stands never able to use their numbers to impact the game.
"I don't know if there were any Packers fans here," Arians deadpanned. "I didn't hear any of them."
Arians again said he didn't know what will happen next week against the Seahawks. The NFL changed the kickoff time of the Panthers game -- that game, like the Cards' game, starts at 2:25 p.m. Arizona time -- so the Cardinals can't sit back and wait to see what the outcome might be. It makes the decision to rest players much more in doubt.
Besides, as was the message after the NFC West division title, so much more is left to be accomplished.
"We really haven't done anything other than get a bye," Arians said. "You don't get rings for byes. You don't even get T-shirts and hats."
Images from the Cardinals' Week 16 home matchup against the Packers