Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald makes a catch for the Cardinals' final touchdown during Sunday's 34-20 win over the Browns.
CLEVELAND – The wind was gusting at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday, but it didn't have to clear the Smoke because he was already on the sideline.
With the weather issue and the absent star receiver – John "Smokey" Brown missed his first game ever with a hamstring injury – the Cardinals' passing game was already behind the 8-ball. Add in the fact that running back Chris Johnson was facing a rush defense ranked last in the NFL, and this Browns matchup seemed ripe for ground and pound.
While the Cardinals achieved perfect balance on offense – 38 carries and 38 passes – it was still the passing game which led the
way to the 34-20 victory to get the Cardinals to 6-2 heading into their bye week.
Quarterback Carson Palmer continued his fantastic season, completing 23-of-38 passes for 374 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. The Cardinals turned the ball over four times but still racked up 34 points on the strength of the vertical passing game.
"We kept giving them the ball; we kept giving them opportunities," Palmer said. "Had we not done that, who knows what those statistics would have been?
Wide receiver Michael Floyd led the way on offense with four catches for 106 yards and a touchdown, while Larry Fitzgerald had nine catches for 84 yards and a score. Floyd's 60-yard touchdown kick-started the Cardinals' comeback as he caught a deep pass down the right sideline from Palmer and strode into the end zone as cornerback Joe Haden watched helplessly from the ground.
"Mike kept telling me, 'I can get him deep. I can get him deep,'" coach Bruce Arians said. "So we called it and he came through for the first time in three years when he told me he was open. I believed him this time."
Said Floyd: "It was the way the guy was playing me. He was leaving the outside open for me to open my gait. I told Carson, I told B.A. that he was letting me get open."
The Cardinals also received contributions from a pair of players who moved up the depth chart in Brown's absence. Rookie J.J. Nelson had a memorable first career catch when he hauled in a 38-yard pass early in the game and finished with three catches for 70 yards. Jaron Brown added a 39-yard grab in the third quarter to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
John Brown's availability wasn't determined until the day of the game, and Nelson was forced to fill in.
"We thought Smokey was going to be able to play, and then J.J. gets thrust into some different personnel groups," Palmer said. "Mike and Larry are grabbing him by the neck, telling him where to line up and telling him what to run. … I don't have time to coach that up, but Larry and Mike know the system so well that they bring those young guys along."
The long reception early is something he knows well, but this one had a high degree of difficulty as one of Nelson's hands was being held back as he cradled the ball with only the other.
"I saw the ball go in the air and then it went in the sun," Nelson said. "I was like, 'Man, I've got to come down with this ball.' I stuck my hand out, and Carson threw a great ball which stuck right in my hand."
John Brown said it wasn't easy watching the game from the sideline, but knew Jaron Brown and Nelson would fill in nicely.
"When (Arians) told me he was going to use me only in an emergency, I wasn't worried because I know what those guys can do," Brown said. "They did exactly what I thought they were going to do."
Even with the flashy numbers, there were missed opportunities. Palmer tried first-half deep shots for Floyd and Fitzgerald that would have been touchdowns in stride, but the passes sailed because of the wind. Palmer said he made a concerted effort later to fire passes with less loft.
"Everything just kept gliding when it was going into the wind and we missed them right off their fingertips three times," Arians said.
Floyd also had a touchdown called back because of an illegal shift penalty, and the Cardinals had to settle for a field goal with time running out before the half. The miscues are why the Cardinals still don't believe they've played up to their full potential, but once the passing game clicked, it led the Cardinals back after an early 20-7 hole.
"It was great to see that we can turn the ball over at a ridiculous clip like we did today and still be able to get out of here with a win," Fitzgerald said. "Because usually when that happens on the road, that's a recipe for disaster."