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Falcons try to maintain recent mastery of Rams

A thrilling victory over the St. Louis Rams at the start of November looked as if it was going to get the Arizona Cardinals' season on a positive track.

Just two weeks later, the Cards don't look any better off than they were before the win.

Things haven't been much better for the Rams, and they'll try to find some rare success against their division rivals this Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome.

The Cardinals were in the midst of a six-game losing streak when they hosted the Rams on Nov. 6. Consecutive safeties on backup quarterback John Skelton in the third quarter had put Arizona in a seven-point hole, but Skelton rebounded to hit Larry Fitzgerald for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 4:51 left in regulation.

Defensive end Calais Campbell then blocked a 42-yard field attempt by St. Louis kicker Josh Brown on the final play of the fourth quarter, forcing overtime and leading to an electric 99-yard punt return for a score by rookie Patrick Peterson that gave the Cardinals a 19-13 win. It was the second-longest punt return for a touchdown in NFL history and kick-started a two-game winning streak for Arizona that included a 21-17 victory in Philadelphia the following weekend.

However, Arizona lost all of its momentum this past Sunday, when it was routed by NFC West-leading San Francisco, 23-7. In his third straight start for the injured Kevin Kolb, Skelton threw three interceptions and was replaced late in the game by Richard Bartel.

Bartel prevented the shutout when he threw his first career touchdown pass, a 23-yard score to Fitzgerald with 8:38 to play in the fourth quarter.

"I'm not trying to put it all on John," said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. "It was a tough day for a lot of us out there [last week] and we didn't get the job done."

Arizona will play the finale of a three-game road trip and is just 1-5 as the guest this season. The Cardinals have lost 12 of their last 13 on the road since a win at St. Louis on Sept. 12 of last season.

St. Louis will need to be cautious of Arizona's special teams. Peterson leads the NFL with 463 punt return yards and three touchdowns, while his 17.1 average per runback is second in the league. Also, Campbell has blocked three field goals this season after getting his hand on another one a week ago.

Peterson also blocked a field goal try against the 49ers, marking the first time the Cardinals had two in the same game since Sept. 17, 1972.

St. Louis has lost two of three since snapping a season-opening six-game slide with a win over New Orleans on Oct. 30. The Rams rebounded from their loss to the Cardinals to win at Cleveland by a 13-12 count on Nov. 13, but were run over by Seattle in a 24-7 setback this past Sunday.

The Rams, who are last in the division, scored the game's first touchdown on a 30-yard pass by quarterback Sam Bradford to wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, and trailed the Seahawks by only three points at the half. However, they yielded a pair of rushing touchdowns in the second half while their offense stalled.

"It's hard to play defense when you're behind, it's hard to win games when you only score seven points," said Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo.

Running back Steven Jackson found little room to run versus the Seahawks and had a string of three straight 100-yard rushing games come to an end. That streak included a 130-yard effort versus the Cardinals in Week 9.

St. Louis fell to 1-4 at home this season.

SERIES HISTORY

Arizona took a 32-31-2 lead in this long-played series, which dates back to 1937, with its above-mentioned overtime triumph three weeks back and has defeated the Rams in nine of the last 10 bouts between the teams. The Cardinals have also emerged victorious in each of their last six visits to the Edward Jones Dome, including a 17-13 decision in the 2010 season opener, with the Rams' most recent home win over Arizona taking place in 2004. The Rams did halt a string of eight consecutive losses to the Cards with a 19-6 ousting at University of Phoenix Stadium last December.

Of course, the Cardinals were based in St. Louis between 1960-87, and the franchise still resided in the Gateway City during its lone lifetime postseason clash with the Rams. That took place during the 1975 campaign, when the then-Los Angeles Rams pulled out a 35-23 home win in an NFC Divisional Playoff.

Whisenhunt owns an 8-1 record against the Rams since taking over as the Cardinals' head coach in 2007, while Spagnuolo is 1-4 against both Arizona and Whisenhunt for his career.

WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL

Despite his struggles last weekend, Whisenhunt said he will stick with Skelton (636 passing yards, 4 TD, 5 INT) for this game if Kolb (1706 passing yards, 8 TD, 8 INT) isn't ready to return from his turf toe injury. Skelton completed only six of his 19 pass attempts versus the 49ers for 99 yards, while Arizona and its 25th-ranked offense (309.9 ypg) racked up just 229 yards and turned the ball over five times in the loss. In addition to Skelton's three picks, both running back Beanie Wells (621 rushing yards, 7 TD) and return man Peterson lost a fumble. Wells continues to battle through a knee injury and rushed just eight times against San Francisco for 33 yards. He hasn't topped 62 yards on the ground in three straight games while not scoring over that span as well. Wells is still one touchdown shy of the career-best seven he ran for as a rookie in 2009. Fitzgerald (48 receptions, 6 TD) continues to make plays no matter who is under center, and his 41 yards on three catches last week made him the second-youngest player in league history to surpass 9,000 in a career. He has 13 touchdown catches in 15 career games versus the Rams. Wideout Early Doucet (42 receptions, 4 TD) continued his career season with six catches and 50 yards versus the 49ers, while Andre Roberts (25 receptions) added three for 51 yards. Tight end Todd Heap (13 receptions) sat out for the fifth time in six games due to injury, with Jeff King (18 receptions, 2 TD) starting in his place.

The Rams rank ninth in the NFL in defending the pass, giving up 215.0 yards per game, and have tallied 26 sacks on the season. They added to that total with four versus the Seahawks, but also saw their 32nd-ranked run defense (148.1 ypg) get touched for 126 yards on the day. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (84 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) led St. Louis with 13 tackles, but came out of the game with a sore foot. St. Louis will need its leading tackler if it hopes to contain Arizona's run game and could also use contributions from defensive tackles Fred Robbins (19 tackles, 1 sack) and Justin Bannan (17 tackles). Pressuring the quarterback shouldn't be a problem for defensive end Chris Long (21 tackles), who notched a career-high ninth sack of the season a week ago. Fellow end James Hall (31 tackles, 4 sacks) also got to the quarterback, as did rookie end Robert Quinn (14 tackles, 4 sacks) and safety Darian Stewart (54 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT). Stewart ended with eight tackles, while linebacker Chris Chamberlain (41 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and safety Quintin Mikell (56 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) grabbed interceptions. Corners Justin King (44 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Josh Gordy (23 tackles, 1 INT) draw the unwanted task of slowing down Fitzgerald.

WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL

While St. Louis' defense put up a solid effort last week, the offense could not match and logged a mere 185 yards against the Seahawks. On the season, the Rams rank 30th in total offense at 297.9 yards per game and are the league's lowest scoring team at 12.0 points per contest. Bradford (1768 passing yards, 5 TD, 5 INT) completed half of his 40 passes for 181 yards, getting picked off once and sacked five times. Issues at left tackle led to Bradford facing heavy pressure, as starter Rodger Saffold suffered a torn pectoral muscle two days prior to the game that ended his season and backup Mark LeVoir sustained a right shoulder injury in the first quarter. That forced Kevin Hughes into extensive action after he was just elevated from the practice squad. Bradford was still able to continue his recent chemistry with Lloyd (26 receptions, 3 TD), who was targeted 14 times and made five catches for 67 yards. Wide receivers Brandon Gibson (28 receptions, 1 TD) and Mark Clayton added four and three receptions, respectively. Jackson (749 rushing yards, 23 receptions, 5 total TD) was held to only 42 yards on 15 carries, but still has 459 yards over his last four games. He also has 429 yards and a pair of scores in his last two appearances against the Cardinals and is 124 all-purpose yards shy of matching Henry Ellard for third-most in team history.

Arizona is giving up 383.8 yards per game to rank 28th in the NFL, with 256.6 of those coming through the air. The 49ers posted 431 yards of offense versus the Cardinals last weekend, including 164 on the ground. Arizona also got little pressure on the quarterback and failed to record a sack, though linebacker Daryl Washington (60 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) did notch an interception in the end zone. Former Rams linebacker Paris Lenon (62 tackles, 2 sacks) led the way with nine tackles last week and safety Rashad Johnson (33 tackles) had eight as he continues to fill in for the injured Kerry Rhodes. Defensive tackle Dan Williams (20 tackles) made six stops before sustaining a broken left arm that ended his season. The Rams will have to account for Campbell (50 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT), who has at least one sack in four straight games in this series. He logged a pair of sacks and two tackles for a loss in the first meeting. Safety Adrian Wilson (39 tackles, 1 INT) has 7 1/2 sacks in his career versus St. Louis and has logged an interception in four of his past five games against the club. As a whole, the Cardinals have notched eight sacks and four interceptions in three meetings with Bradford. Campbell had two of the four sacks in the first meeting and cornerback Richard Marshall (44 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) also had one.

KEYS TO THE GAME

The Cardinals can take a lot of pressure of Skelton by getting the running game going, and back Chester Taylor could see added carries if Wells' knee continues to be an issue. Taylor was Arizona's leading rusher last weekend after ripping off 34 yards on his only attempt.

Though Peterson fielding a punt at the one-yard line was ill-advised, it worked out for the rookie and he should be in the collective heads of the Rams' punting unit. Look for St. Louis punter Donnie Jones, who averages 44.5 yards and has pinned 20 kicks inside the 20, to avoid the playmaker.

Bradford's blind-side was under attack last weekend, and it could be another long day for the quarterback if Hughes is the man again at left tackle. Arizona already has a history of pressuring Bradford, so the Rams will need to find ways to take the pressure off. Screens and play-action could help, as would not falling behind early.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Fans of offense may want to avoid this meaningless matchup between NFC West afterthoughts. The Rams are the more disappointing of the two, as they were expected to contend for the division title but instead are brining up the rear after taking positive steps a season ago. Things are starting to get a little hot for Spagnuolo and he could really use a victory over the Cardinals this Sunday. Unfortunately, this series has been slanted towards Arizona as of late, making it tough to pick against the Cardinals in this toss-up.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 13, Rams 9