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Yes, Cardinals-Lions Has Playoff Implications

Whether it's mentioned or not, winner has a leg up in the NFC playoff race

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Defensive end Calais Campbell celebrates the Cardinals' win over St. Louis last weekend.

Safety Tony Jefferson chuckled when he heard about the latest blunt statement from Bruce Arians.

The Cardinals' coach has become beloved in Arizona, in large part because of the incredible turnaround he's administered, but also for his penchant to speak honestly.

When Lions coach Jim Caldwell was asked about the ramifications of this week's showdown against the Cardinals, he downplayed its potential impact on the postseason seedings.

"We don't even talk about playoffs or anything of that nature," Caldwell said. "You don't get any awards, anything of that nature,

any locks in terms of positioning and so on and so forth, or even entrance into that area. That's something that's earned. We haven't earned it yet. We have to keep playing."

Two hours later, Arians was also asked if he ponders this game's effect on the standings.

"Hell yeah," Arians said. "It's for the No. 1 seed in the NFC this week. Just this week now, not the rest. It's big. I feel a hell of a lot better with those four wins against the NFC East right now if we get there. That's a long way off – but hell yeah it does."

The Cardinals maintained their spot atop the NFL with a win over the Rams on Sunday, pushing their mark to 8-1 on the year. There are several teams within striking distance of them in the conference, but the Cardinals have secured the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cowboys and Eagles and have the best conference record against NFC foes (6-0), which is the next tiebreaker on the list.

If the Cardinals beat the Lions (7-2) on Sunday, they will be, in essence, two games ahead of everyone else in the NFC with six to play. But if they lose, Detroit takes over the top spot and is in the driver's seat. Whether a coach admits it publicly or not, the players all understand the significance.

"It's the truth," Jefferson said. "You don't want to act like it's not presented in front of you. Most importantly you just want to win,

but you've got to look at the bigger picture as well. We're trying to be right here come Super Bowl time."

This will be the first game of the Drew Stanton era, the new starting quarterback following Carson Palmer's season-ending ACL tear on Sunday. Stanton has never gotten the keys to a franchise for this long, and the stakes couldn't be higher.

He's the latest next-man-up in a season full of them, and Stanton said the mood isn't changing, even as the team switches starters at the game's most critical position.

"We handle our business every week," Stanton said. "We don't look ahead. We don't look behind. We're not worried about all the surrounding things. We can sit there and feel sorry for ourselves if we want to, but nobody else is going to."

Stanton and the offense will have its hands full against Detroit's top-ranked defense. Standout defensive tackle Nick Fairley won't play, but counterpart Ndamukong Suh and linebacker DeAndre Levy lead a unit ranked No. 2 against the run and No. 3 against the pass.

The Cardinals have a fierce defense of their own, one which played arguably its best game of the season against the Rams. The rush defense is third in the NFL and the Cardinals lead the league with 14 interceptions.

All signs point to a low-scoring affair, but Arians doesn't believe that will be the case.

"I would say every time that happens it's 30-27," Arians said. "So much will depend on who protects the football and who takes it away and third down conversions and everything that leads up to a ballgame. No, they are too powerful offensively, and I think we'll do fine scoring points."

The Cardinals have shown a knack for winning games in the fourth quarter. They've been outscored by four points over the first three quarters this season, but have won the fourth 91-34.

The Lions have done something similar in their past three games, rallying from 13-, 11- and three-point fourth-quarter deficits to beat the Saints, Falcons and Dolphins.

Arians acknowledged he would love to start faster and grab comfortable leads, but he also feels comfortable in tight spots. So if the Cardinals and Lions are stuck in a slugfest as the fourth quarter ticks down on Sunday, with the NFC's top perch in the balance, there won't be any panic.

"If the game is close, there's an honest-to-God belief every week that we're going to win the ballgame," Arians said. "Somehow, someway, somebody will make a play."

A look at the players who have kept the Cardinals' defense among the NFL's best despite personnel losses



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