Tight end John Carlson rumbles upfield after making a catch of a Drew Stanton pass against the Rams.
When wide receiver John Brown was drafted by the Cardinals in May, he had never heard of backup quarterback Drew Stanton. That's OK. Inside the locker room, nobody had heard of Brown, either.
Six months later, those two and the rest of the passing game contingent may decide whether the Cardinals remain on the short-list of Super Bowl contenders or fizzle out after a great start.
The sobering news of starting quarterback Carson Palmer's season-ending torn ACL was made official on Monday, the latest in a long line of injuries to key players. The Cardinals have persevered, accumulating the best record in the NFL through Week 10,
but now must go the rest of the way with their backup under center.
Stanton has experience already, winning two of three games earlier this season when Palmer sat with the nerve issue in his shoulder, and then finding Brown for the game-winning touchdown on Sunday against the Rams.
The players who will be on the receiving end of Stanton's passes have little doubt he can replicate Palmer's success and keep the Cardinals on the same path.
"Obviously we feel bad for Carson," tight end John Carlson said. "He was playing great. We all feel bad for him having to miss this time, but we have a lot of confidence in Drew. Drew being in there will not prevent us from having the opportunity to do what we want to do – continue to win games and push toward the postseason."
Palmer played in six games this season, finishing 141-of-224 for 1,626 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. He had a 62.9 completion percentage, a yards-per-attempt average of 7.3, a quarterback rating of 95.6 and was playing well enough to garner a three-year contract extension from the Cardinals just two days before the injury.
Stanton is 46-of-93 passing for 614 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He has a 49.5 completion percentage, a yards-per-attempt average of 6.6 and a rating of 81.6.
While the numbers are different, the skill-sets are similar, which has allowed the Cardinals to find success with both signal-callers. Brown said it's rare to switch quarterbacks and not notice a change, but in this case it's true.
"The balls come out the same and everything to me," Brown said. "It's no difference to me. I love both of those guys. They make plays happen."
Stanton hasn't been as good statistically as Palmer – and the lower completion percentage is the most worrisome number -- but being thrown in as the backup is also much harder than preparing as the clear-cut starter. Stanton will be the man the rest of the way, the first extended playing time of his career.
"He's going to grasp this opportunity," coach Bruce Arians said. "He's been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, as he was for New York. The New York game, finding out 20 minutes before warming up that you're the starter, I think that speaks volumes about his preparedness to play."
Stanton has already thrown three touchdown passes to Brown this season, but his fate could be determined by the chemistry he
builds with the team's top two receivers, Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald has starred during the Cardinals' current five-game winning streak, hauling in 31 receptions for 461 yards and two touchdowns. He's on pace to surpass 1,000 yards receiving for the first time since 2011, and while his big-yardage games have come with Palmer at the helm, he's averaged more than one extra target (8-6.8) in games Stanton has started.
"Drew is very confident in his ability, and we're just as confident in him," Fitzgerald said. "He's been with B.A. the longest out of anybody on our team. He's got a great grasp of what's expected of him in this offense and we're going to rally behind him. We know we're going to go out there and get great results with him."
While Fitzgerald has heated up of late, Floyd has cooled down. After leading the Cardinals in receiving yards in 2013 and starting this year with two 100-yard games in the first three weeks, he hasn't surpassed 47 receiving yards in the last six games.
Floyd has 13 catches for 148 yards in that span, an average of 24.7 yards per game. The Cardinals are still taking their shots downfield with him, but they haven't connected.
"He had some opportunities," Arians said. "He was wide open twice last week and we got pushed off the spot and didn't get it to him. So, yeah, we need Mike to get going."
A large part of Palmer's success had to do with distributing the ball to multiple receivers, a change from the philosophy he used earlier in his career. Stanton said he will follow the same plan, choosing the higher-percentage pass regardless of the player on the receiving end.
"Everybody wants to talk about in the past some weeks, 'Larry has 11 targets and everybody's like, 'Why aren't you throwing the ball to Michael?'" Stanton said. "Then, the next week, Michael has 11 targets, 'Why aren't you throwing the ball to Larry?' So we don't have that dissension, which is really nice for a quarterback because when you have that it can get a little dicey.
"When you have the ability to get the ball in different guys' hands – you look at a guy like Jaron Brown who just continuously gets third downs for us and converts for us and touchdowns and all that stuff – it really makes a defense play you more honest because they can't line up and say, 'OK, we need to stop this guy.'"
Even though Palmer posted the second-best passer rating of his career this season, a struggling running game has left the Cardinals 24th in total offense. It won't get any easier this week, as the Lions are the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL, giving up only 283.4 yards per game.
The Cardinals have a stellar defense and don't necessarily need the offense to win shootouts, but it must be competent. Stanton has showed that ability in his four games this year, and now must do it for seven more.
"Drew's ready," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "We have confidence in him. Here we go."