Published November 15, 2014
(SportsNetwork.com) - While the Detroit Lions got stronger last weekend with the return of their star wide receiver in Calvin Johnson, the Arizona Cardinals suffered a mighty blow to their special season with the loss of quarterback Carson Palmer.
The Cardinals turn to Drew Stanton this Sunday hoping the former Lion can add to their NFL-leading record in a home matchup with Detroit at University of Phoenix Stadium.
At 8-1, NFC West-leading Arizona has matched its best record ever through nine games (1925 and 1948) and has won its first five home games for the first time since 1976. The Cardinals' current five-game winning streak is the longest for the franchise in a single season since a six-game run in 1977, but those runs must all be extended without Palmer.
The Cardinals starting quarterback suffered a season-ending left knee injury in Sunday's 31-14 win over the St. Louis Rams as he tore his ACL while getting sacked by Rams safety Mark Barron.
"It's just a shame it happened now, with this team," said Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians earlier this week.
Palmer, who has thrown for 1,626 yards and 11 touchdowns while missing three games earlier in the year with a shoulder injury, eventually walked off the field with a noticeable limp. He was then put on a cart and taken to the locker room.
The Cardinals were trailing 14-10 at the time of the injury, but Stanton came in and threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to rookie Josh Brown with 7:40 to play, and cornerback Patrick Peterson followed with a pair of interceptions, taking the second back 30 yards for a score.
Arizona's defense followed with another score after Kareem Martin sacked St. Louis quarterback Austin Davis. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie scooped up the loose ball and raced 14 yards the other way for a touchdown.
"As far as hitting our quarterback, we definitely took that personal," said Peterson. "When Carson went down, obviously it was a non-contact injury, but after he went down, we just wanted to win this ballgame that much more, and try and tee off on their quarterback."
Larry Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 112 yards for Arizona, which is two games up on second-place Seattle in the division.
While the Cardinals are dealing with subtraction, the Lions got a big boost with Johnson's return to the lineup. The star wide receiver had missed three games in a row due to a high ankle sprain and hauled in seven passes for 113 yards in a 20-16 win over the Miami Dolphins. Johnson also scored his first touchdown since Week 1, a 49-yard pass from Matthew Stafford.
Stafford rallied the Lions to the win by hitting running back Theo Riddick for an 11-yard score with 29 seconds remaining. The winning drive came after the Lions defense forced the Dolphins offense off the field after it took only 34 seconds off the clock.
Stafford was 8-of-11 for 79 yards on the winning drive and finished 25-of-40 for 280 yards with a pair of touchdowns and an interception for the Lions (7-2), who were coming off their bye and won their fourth straight game. The last three wins have come by a combined six points.
Golden Tate also had a big day with 11 catches for 109 yards to keep the 7-2 Lions a game ahead of Green Bay for first place in the NFC North.
"We're not putting a ceiling on this season and just seeing as high as we can go," said Johnson. "We just stick to being smart out there on the field and hope things keep going the way they are."
The Lions' 7-2 record matches the team's best nine-game start since it posted the same mark in 1993.
Detroit, though, has lost five in a row and 10 of its past 13 meetings with Arizona. That includes a 25-21 setback on the road last season, with the Cardinals scoring nine points in the fourth quarter to go ahead.
Johnson had a pair of touchdowns in that game, including a 72-yarder in the first quarter.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The focus now shifts to Stanton, who will make his fourth start of the season -- a career high -- and has passed for 614 yards this season with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Stanton starred at Michigan State and was drafted in the second round by Detroit in 2007. He missed his rookie season with a knee injury and ended up playing in 12 games with four starts for the Lions between 2008-11.
"As far as our football team, everybody in the locker room, including myself, has all the confidence in the world in Drew," Arians said.
With Palmer out, Arians will have to decide who will serve as the No. 2 quarterback behind Stanton: either rookie Logan Thomas or Ryan Lindley, who was signed off San Diego's practice squad this week.
Lindley started four games as a rookie in 2012 with Arizona and served as the team's No. 3 quarterback last season.
While Fitzgerald is a solid passing option for Stanton, Brown has already flashed game-changing ability with an NFL rookie-record four game-winning touchdowns. He has five touchdowns in five home games this season.
Stanton won't get much help on the ground either, as Arizona ranks 29th in the NFL with just 83.6 rushing yards per game.
Arizona's defense will also need to step up as it ranks third in the league against the run but is yielding 274.2 passing yards per game. Peterson and Cromartie, along with safeties Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jefferson and Rashad Johnson will have their hands full this weekend with Calvin Johnson and Tate.
"It's a very tough situation for us," Rashad Johnson told Arizona's website. "Carson is a leader, but as a defensive unit, this is the opportunity to take another step. We've been good, but now we have the opportunity to be great, to do something special, to carry a lot of the load on our side."
Arizona's defense will have a chance to make a statement against Calvin Johnson and Tate.
The Lions wide receiver is healthy and joined some nice company last weekend. He finished with 601 career catches, joining Herman Moore (670) as the only players in team history with at least 600, and his 70 career touchdowns is second in team annuals behind only Barry Sanders (109).
"Oh man, great to be back on the field," noted Calvin Johnson. "There's nothing like being out there and winning with your teammates."
Tate, meanwhile, set a new franchise record with six straight games of at least seven receptions and he should see plenty of open space now that Johnson is back.
"There's quickness, obviously it's something that jumps out at you right away," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said of Tate. "He's quicker than the norm. He's a guy that can avoid tackles, he has a great awareness about him."
One thing working in Arizona's favor is that duel-threat running back Reggie Bush may not play after aggravating an ankle injury versus the Dolphins. That will increase the workload for Joique Bell and Riddick.
Also, Detroit lost right guard Larry Warford versus Miami with a left knee injury and it is unknown when he will return.
Detroit owns the league's top defense and is allowing just 283.4 yards per game, the only team in the NFL giving up under 300 a game. The Lions also rank second against the run and third versus the pass.
Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has 4 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles in his past four games.
It's a tough break for the Cardinals given their success this season, though they did go 2-1 under Stanton with wins over the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers earlier in the season when Palmer was out. Still, the loss of the veteran has to be a blow to the club's confidence on the field.
Detroit, meanwhile, should be full of confidence given the play of its defense and the return of Calvin Johnson, who makes the entire offense that much better.
The Lions and Cardinals both rank in the top five in points allowed this season, but Detroit has the potential to put points on the board even on the road.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Lions 17, Cardinals 13