Carson Palmer crumbled to the turf of University of Phoenix Stadium in the 4th quarter of Sunday’s matchup with the Rams agonizing in pain.
We all know what happened from there, Palmer was diagnosed with a torn ACL and placed on season-ending IR. As devastating of an injury this is for Palmer, the Cardinals can ill-afford to sulk in his misery. It’s the cruel world of the NFL, but at 8-1, the Cardinals sit atop the NFC playoff picture and must quickly digest and move on from Palmer’s injury.
Enter Drew Stanton. The Michigan State product has already started three games this season while Palmer was dealing with a curious elbow injury. Stanton went 1-2 in those three starts compiling a stat line of 43-88, 48.9 Comp %, 529 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT. After Palmer was injured Sunday Stanton once again filled in admirably as he went 3-5 for 85 yards and threw a touchdown pass that capped a four-play 89-yard go-ahead drive that gave the Cardinals a 17-14 lead.
While Stanton is not the established veteran quarterback that Palmer is take a look at this table from grantland.com’s Bill Barnwell:
Palmer boasts a vastly better completion percentage, but Stanton actually has the edge in QBR, points per possession and yards per play. In other words the Cardinals aren’t 8-1 because of Palmer’s contributions.
The Cardinals are 8-1 because of their defense’s ability to close out victories and win tight contests in the fourth quarter. The Cardinals ability to repeatedly come up with close victories throughout the season has been their calling card. Consider that despite having the league’s best record the Cardinals rank just eighth in point differential. The Cardinals largest victory actually came this past week when they defeated the Rams 31-14. The Rams actually led in the fourth quarter, but the Cardinals scored two late defensive touchdowns that ballooned the margin of victory. Take away that differential against the Rams and the Cardinals margins of victory are by 1, 11, 9, 10, 11, 4, and 11 points.
The Cardinals close margins of victory should not be discounted as happenstance or luck. Instead, look to defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, and the defense. The Cardinals rank just 18th in total defense based on yardage. However, in terms of DVOA (found and explained on footballoutsiders.com) which measures defensive value the Cardinals rank sixth in the NFL. Also consider their scoring defense where they rank fourth allowing 18.9 PPG. Need more evidence? The Cardinals rank third in the league in second half scoring defense allowing 7.9 PPG (behind CLE-7.6 and KC-7.0). And in the 4th quarter the Cardinals allow an average of just 3.8 PPG good for second in the NFL behind the Chiefs at 3.1 PPG.
It is the Cardinals defense that will allow the Cardinals to continue their winning ways despite Palmer’s injury. Yes, Palmer directed late game-winning drives against the likes of the Chargers in week one and Philly in week eight, but the defense has staved off opposing offenses when it matters most.
Looking at the Cardinals defense in all of the Cardinals eight wins:
Week 1: Remember that thing I said about not contributing the Cardinal victories to luck, well forget it in this case. That botched snap by the Chargers was LUCKY and saved the Cardinals’ defense. Cardinals beat Chargers 18-17.
Week 2: The defense forces four turnovers and give up seven second-half points including zero in the fourth quarter as the Cardinals score the game’s last 15 points. Cardinals beat Giants 25-14.
Week 3: The Cardinals shutout the 49ers in the second half after trailing 14-6 at halftime. Cardinals beat 49ers 23-14.
Week 6: The defense allows seven second-half points and come up with three fourth quarter interceptions off Kirk Cousins including a game-clinching pick-six by Rashad Johnson with 29 seconds left. Cardinals beat Redskins 30-20.
Week 7: The defense allows just three second-half points capped by another fourth quarter shutout. The defense allows the Raiders to gain just 34 yards of offense in the fourth quarter. Cardinals beat Raiders 24-13.
Week 8: The Cardinals’ defense makes a goal-line stand and holds the Eagles to a field goal with two minutes remaining. After Palmer leads go-ahead drive to put the Cards up 24-20 with 1:21 left, the defense holds Philly out of the end zone. Cardinals beat Eagles 24-20.
Week 9: After Palmer’s early pick-six the Cardinals’ defense allows just three points the rest of the game with the exception of a garbage-time touchdown from Dez Bryant with 1:08 left in the game. Cardinals beat Cowboys 28-17.
Week 10: The defense allows zero points to the Rams in the second-half and score two late touchdowns to seal the victory with Patrick Peterson’s pick-six and Antonio Cromartie’s fumble return. Cardinals beat Rams 31-14.
The Cardinals’ remaining schedule is tough as they host Detroit this week. Also among their remaining games: vs. SEA, @SEA, vs. KC, and @SF. Under the guidance of consensus Coach of the Year candidate, Bruce Arians, the team will not ask Stanton to do too much and will rely on their defense to continue their winning ways.
Thanks to Bowles and the defense’s clutch performances in crunch-time that might be just enough to make the road to Arizona go through Arizona.
 Palmer signed a 3-year $50 million contract extension just two days before the injury. Palmer also tore his left ACL in the 2006 playoffs just 10 days after signing a $118 million extension with the Bengals.
 This ranking was previous to last week’s games.