The Arizona Cardinals went into their clash against the Rams knowing a win was the only acceptable result. Just two years after a trip to the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals were struggling to reach the playoffs this season. The Cardinals held onto quickly-fading hopes of a playoff spot before the game against the Rams. Those hopes were crushed after the first 15 minutes of the game on Sunday, as they stumbled to an ugly loss. The game was not as embarrassing as the previous 33-0 meeting in London, but the result puts the Cardinals in a worse position and with more questions than answers.
The Rams took the fight to the Cardinals from the first drive of the game. Within the game’s first 15 minutes the Rams held a 16-0 lead and the Cardinals offense had yet to eclipse the half-century mark in yardage. The defense tried to stem the tide with linebacker Kareem Martin intercepting a Jared Goff pass while covering running back Todd Gurley. The offense gave the ball back to the Rams and gifted their division rival a touchdown on an Alec Ogletree interception return for a touchdown. To the surprise of many, the Cardinals picked themselves off the turf and fought back in the second quarter.
As bad as the first quarter was for Arizona, the second quarter brought hope. The offense focused on the run game and got the ball moving. Following a punt by the Rams, the Cardinals took over and went on a nine play drive, primarily led by running back Williams and ending with an Elijah Penny plunge from a yard out. Another Rams punt and a few more runs from Williams set up quarterback Blaine Gabbert to find receiver Larry Fitzgerald for a 15-yard touchdown pass. The Rams added a field goal before the half expired and took a six-point lead to the locker rooms.
The second half was not kind to the Cardinals as they scored just three more points in the game’s final 30 minutes. The defense fought hard but received no favors as the punt coverage team surrendered a big 30-yard return to the Rams, on the heels a poor punt by Andy Lee. The return put the Rams offense on a short field and the subsequent touchdown created the cushion needed for the visitors to cruise to victory.
Most Valuable Player – Larry Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald scored another touchdown and continued to pad his already amazing Hall of Fame resume. Fitzgerald finished the game with 10 catches for 98 yards. Fitz was not facing an easy pass defense but the veteran pass catcher found space and was difficult to bring down with the ball in his hands. While an argument could be made that Williams deserves credit for his 97 yards rushing on 16 carries, but the rookie runner failed to make an impact in the second half once the Rams defense made adjustments.
Least Valuable Player – Blaine Gabbert
This looked like the old Gabbert. Over the previous two weeks, fans and media personalities complimented Gabbert for his ability to make plays in the pocket and keep the Cardinals in games late. On Sunday, Gabbert reverted back to the inaccuracy which has plagued the quarterback his entire career, finishing the day with 221 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on 18 of 32 passing. Previous weeks and close contests provided some shelter for late game errant throws by Gabbert, but Sunday his mistakes happened early and often. Those mistakes also hurt badly, both interceptions leading to a touchdown for the Rams.
The Rams defense went into halftime questioning how to stop Williams and the Arizona run game. The ground game chipped away at the Rams’ early 16 point lead and eventually paved the way to cutting the deficit to one score. Williams and the offense totaled nearly 90 yards on the ground in the first half. The second half saw the ground game for Arizona come to a grinding halt when the Rams defense adjusted and began bringing an extra defender up to the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals needed Gabbert to make plays through the air, something he ultimately failed to do.
How Bad Was This Loss
Arizona has struggled to maintain a level of consistency this season. The offense either looks explosive or inept. The defense is either dominant or a revolving door. Against the Rams, Arizona looked like a team without any fight. The Cardinals are no longer in the running for an NFC West title in 2017. The loss on Sunday gave the tiebreaker to the Rams in the event that both teams end with a 9-7 record. The only path forward for Arizona is through the wild card.
What Happens Next
With the only way to a playoff spot coming through the wild card, the Cardinals will need to win their remaining four games to have a chance at playing in the postseason. The Cardinals have two remaining home games against the Titans and Giants in addition to a pair of road games against the Redskins and Seahawks. For Arizona, the pressure is on and there is no room for error.
– Ryan Adverderada is a staff writer for Full Press Coverage Cardinals and covers the Arizona Cardinals.