JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Defense is a big reason the Arizona Cardinals are right in the middle of the playoff picture going into the final six weeks of the season.
That's why giving up two quick scores to the Jacksonville Jaguars — who had not scored a TD at home all season — was no reason for concern.
"They ran out of gimmick plays," cornerback Patrick Peterson said after a 27-14 victory Sunday. "And I thought we came out in the second half and played Cardinal defense."
The Jaguars went up 7-0 on a fourth-and-2 play from their 38 — the opening drive of the game — when Arizona stacked the line and Chad Henne found tight end Danny Noble all to himself for a catch-and-run that went 62 yards. It was his first NFL reception.
After a 59-yard kickoff return, tight end Clay Harbour left the huddle early and no one for Arizona noticed until Henne took the snap and threw to the sideline. No one was within 10 yards of Harbour, and he rumbled down to the 5 to set up another touchdown.
And that was that.
The Jaguars (1-9) didn't score again, and didn't even get beyond Arizona's 40-yard line until late in the game. Carson Palmer did not throw an interception for the first time all season, going 30 of 42 for 419 yards to nine receivers and two touchdowns.
One was a 91-yard score to Michael Floyd, who ran the final 70 yards while bouncing off three defenders. The other was to Larry Fitzgerald early in the game.
The Cardinals (6-4) held Jacksonville to 57 yards in the second half.
"We knew once we settled down a little bit and they got rid of the gimmicks, they had to play football," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "In the second half, we were ready to play football and took over the game. We played hard, sound and fast. Once we got past all the gimmicks, the tricks they had up their sleeves, they had to come back to reality."
Henne finished 27 of 42 for 255 yards and two late interceptions when he had to throw the ball downfield. For most of the game, he had been throwing bubble screens with hopes the Jaguars could find a crack in the defense. It never did.
Here are five reasons why the Cardinals won their third straight game, and why the Jaguars failed to put together their first winning streak in nearly three years.
PROTECTION: Palmer had 15 interceptions, second only to Eli Manning, and coach Bruce Arians said most of them were from his quarterback trying to unload the ball under pressure. Palmer was sacked three times against the Jaguars, but for the most part, he had a clean pocket and plenty of time. He had six passes go for at least 20 yards, including three in one drive that ended on a 5-yard TD run by Rashard Mendenhall. His only mistake was throwing one up for grabs, which was picked off — except that the Cardinals had called time out and the play didn't count.
DEFENSE: The Cardinals had the No. 3 defense against the run. The Jaguars tried it anyway, and didn't get very far. Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 23 yards on 14 carries. The Jaguars didn't have a single running play go for more than 9 yards. The front seven of Arizona was so strong that even a series of bubble screens didn't get very far. With the score tied at 14 at the half, the Cardinals held Jacksonville to 57 yards after intermission.
STAYING ON THE FIELD: Eight of the Jaguars' 13 drives lasted five plays or fewer, including their first touchdown on a 62-yard pass on fourth-and-2. The Jaguars lost the time-of-possession battle in all four quarters, a nearly 12-minute differential for the game. The Jaguars were only 2 of 14 on third-down conversions.
RUNNING GAME: Jacksonville center Brad Meester wanted to look at film to see what happened with the running game, which didn't exist. Maurice Jones-Drew is averaging 2.9 yards per carry for the season. He used to either fall forward or push the pile that much before his injuries. Jacksonville came into the game at No. 31 in the league rushing the ball, and left with 32 yards on 16 carries. With a quarterback who looked more comfortable throwing sideways instead of down the field, it's not a good recipe.
ATTITUDE: This could have been a trap game for the Cardinals, who were a touchdown favorite on the road against perhaps the worst team in the league. They are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for second place in the NFC West, three games behind Seattle, but they're right in the mix for the playoffs as a four-loss team. Arians wants them to treat every game like a playoff game, and the Cardinals are responding to that.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org