The crowd at the University of Phoenix Stadium grew louder as the game progressed. Even after the Titans jumped out to an early touchdown lead, the crowd willed the home team forward with boisterous support. Coming into Sunday’s matchup, the Arizona Cardinals were on the verge of falling out of the playoff race in the NFC while the Tennessee Titans were looking to get closer to a division title. Roughly three hours after kickoff, both teams were left in the same spot, albeit with the Cardinals celebrating a much-needed victory over a likely playoff team.
The game started well for the visiting Titans as they used a balanced offensive attack to take a 7-0 lead after a Derrick Henry touchdown run from six yards out. The score came midway through the second quarter of what was shaping up to be a sloppy and defensive minded football game. The touchdown was the only scoring for the first half that featured four sacks by the Titans and a major hit on Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota by safety Antoine Bethea. Of the eight first half drives, the teams accounted for six punts, one missed field goal, and the aforementioned touchdown. The second half of the game started with a nine play, 48 yard drive, culminating with a 47 yard field goal for Cardinals kicker Phil Dawson. It was the start of a busy 30 minutes for Dawson and the special teams unit.
The Titans attempted to get the ball going on the run after finding marginal success in the first half. The Cardinals defense crowded the line of scrimmage and often utilized safety/linebacker hybrids like Budda Baker and Deone Bucannon to tilt the odds in favor of the defense. The defense was boosted by the absence of Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan who left during the first quarter with a back injury. Lewan is an Arizona native, hailing from Cave Creek, Arizona, but was unable to return. His absence allowed the Cardinals to throw pass rushing expert Chandler Jones to the left side of the Titans line and wreak havoc on backup Dennis Kelly.
After a first half dominated by the Titans pass rush, the Cardinals focused on the run and moved towards the play action when attacking the defense through the air. Running back Kerwynn Williams started in place of an injured Adrian Peterson and finished the game with 73 yards on 20 carries. Chad Williams also got a carry on the day, exploding for a 33 yard gain over the left tackle. The play action allowed just a second or two more for Blaine Gabbert to find receivers downfield. One popular play was run action to the right of the formation before Gabbert quickly snapped to his left to find either Jermaine Gresham or Ricky-Seals Jones down the seam for chunks of yards. The balance on offense ended inside of the red zone as the Cardinals were unable to put the ball into the end zone. Phil Dawson missed from 40 yards but hit on his other attempts, finishing 4-5 on the day and accounting for all the points for the Cardinals.
The defense suffocated the Titans offense as the run game failed and quarterback Marcus Mariota was forced to use his arm rather than his legs. Mariota has struggled on the road this season and the Arizona defense made things worse with two interceptions. The first interception kept points off the board as the Titans were threatening when Mariota and receiver Rishard Matthews miscommunication with the ball going to the inside as the receiver broke to the outside. Cornerback Tramon Williams made the diving interception and got the ball back for the Cardinals. The second interception came from linebacker Josh Bynes dropped back into coverage and leaped to grab a pass intended for tight end Delanie Walker on a seam route. Mariota did not see Bynes as the linebacker had been previously spying the dual threat quarterback. The defense won the game for Arizona with a tremendous performance. Aided by four Phil Dawson field goals, the Cardinals kept their slim playoff hopes alive, even if just for another week.
Most Valuable Player – Phil Dawson
The veteran kicker found his way to the desert as a replacement for the often underwhelming Chandler Catanzaro. Catanzaro missed a few game winning or game tying kicks last season which could have been the difference in the Cardinals making a playoff run. Dawson has been a stabilizing force throughout his career with the Browns then the 49ers. Dawson has hit a few big kicks this season, being the sole offense on more than a couple of games this season for Arizona. Dawson’s four makes on Sunday were the only scoring the Cardinals could muster. The veteran has struggled overall this season but has shown the ability to make kicks when it counts the most. The Cardinals would not be celebrating a victory if it weren’t for Dawson.
Least Valuable Player – Cardinals Pass Protection
Blaine Gabbert was sacked eight times against the Titans. Pressure came from all sides and often without the blitz. It was often one on one matchups in which the Titans defender looked stronger and faster than the Cardinals blocker. The offense managed to make strides in the second half by focusing on play action passing with quick options available for Gabbert. However, once the unit entered the red zone and plays developed slower, the pass rush was all over the quarterback. The defense and Phil Dawson rescued the offense, but something needs to change moving forward.
Turning Point – Titans Failed Fake Punt
Midway through the third quarter, the Titans faced a fourth and one at their own 35 yard line. The Cardinals had shown zero offensive flashes up until that point and were struggling to get beyond midfield. Titans head coach Mike Mularkey decided to gamble and run a fake punt to get the first down. The snap went to up-back Eric Weems who was stuffed about a foot short of the first down. The Cardinals were unable to get a touchdown but they did add another three points to the scoreboard making it a 7-6 score with about 20 minutes left in the game. The stop energized the crowd and defense which made things worse for the Titans offense. The momentum had swung and Tennessee was never able to recover.
How Important Was This Win
To put it simply, the Cardinals needed this win to stay alive in the NFC playoff hunt. Arizona does require help from teams above them, namely everyone losing their remaining games, but winning continues to put pressure on the rest of the field. For the time being Arizona is still alive and kicking.
What Happens Next
The Cardinals are on the road next Sunday to take on the Washington Redskins. The Redskins were eliminated this past Sunday from playoff contention so it will be interesting to see the level of intensity coming from the home team. Arizona will need to continue to lean on the run and play action as Washington have the talent to get to the passer. After the Redskins it is back home to welcome the Giants on Christmas Eve before a trip to Seattle to finish the season. It is one game at a time in Arizona, can they pull off the impossible?