Rams, Cardinals vie to escape NFC West cellar

Sunday, November 6, 2011
Rams running back Steven Jackson, center, is tackled by Saints linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, left, and linebacker Jonathan Vilma during the first quarter of their game last week in St. Louis. (JEFF ROBERSON ~ Associated Press)

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals meet with their starting quarterbacks hurting and last place in arguably the worst division in pro football at stake.

The Rams and Cardinals match 1-6 records today and, if a team can claim momentum in such a situation, it would be St. Louis. The Rams upset New Orleans 31-21 with backup A.J. Feeley replacing quarterback Sam Bradford last weekend.

"It definitely gives you something to build off of. It's starting to turn the mood around," Ramss running back Steven Jackson said. "Of course, whenever you go 0-6 or you go winless for a little bit, the mood changes and things become not as fun. The life has returned back into the locker room. Guys are feeling good about what we did last week, but we are completely focused that it is a week-to-week season. It's good to get that one last week. Now we have to keep it going and prove that last week wasn't just a fluke."

Bradford might return this week after missing two games with a high left ankle sprain.

Meanwhile, Arizona's Kevin Kolb has a turf toe injury to his right foot and could be replaced by second-year pro John Skelton, who went 2-2 as a rookie starter late last season.

"I got the experience under my belt," Skelton said. "I got hit by an NFL player. I threw an NFL pass. The whole experience helps you in so many ways. I think I fit in now. Maybe last year in training camp and stuff I felt out of place. But now I know I can make all the throws. I've seen a lot of defenses, and I'll be prepared for what they bring."

No matter who plays quarterback, this is not where these teams thought they would be going into the halfway point of the season.

The Rams were coming off a 7-9 record that was their best since 2006. The Cardinals, after a dismal 5-11 season, made several personnel moves, most significantly the trade to bring in Kolb. Yet St. Louis, with a rough early schedule and a slew of injuries, lost its first six. Arizona won its season opener, but has dropped six in a row with Kolb struggling more than anticipated.

"We expect to win every Sunday, and if you don't do that, you should not be playing in this league," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "We were disappointed and we kept grinding and kept grinding. Guys kept working. Nobody gave in. Guys didn't point fingers, and that was important."

While the Rams stopped their free-fall, at least for now, the Cardinals are grasping for a much-needed win in their only home stop in a four-game stretch. Last Sunday's 30-27 last-second loss at Baltimore was Arizona's 11th consecutive road loss, a streak that dates to the 2010 season opener at St. Louis. The Cardinals had beaten the Rams eight times in a row before losing to them at home last December.

Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett expressed admiration for what the Rams were able to do against the heavily favored Saints.

"I'm pretty sure everybody in the world counted them out against the Saints, and they proved everybody wrong," Dockett said.

The Cardinals find no solace in the fact that four of their losses have come by four points or fewer. Arizona led 24-3 in the first half only to lose on a last-second field goal against the Ravens last week.

"It hurts," Dockett said. "But you learn a lesson from that. The game ain't over until it's over.

The other close losses came by one at Washington, three at Seattle and four at home to the New York Giants. By contrast, only one of St. Louis' losses was by single digits, 17-10 at home against Washington. Before they stunned the Saints, the Rams had been outscored 58-10 in consecutive defeats at Green Bay and Dallas, part of a brutal early schedule that also included games against Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, have struggled to protect the passer. Kolb has been sacked 24 times, the most for one NFC quarterback, and went down six times against the Ravens. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said it's a combination of pass blocking and Kolb not getting the ball out quickly enough. It doesn't help that the team has played Pittsburgh and Baltimore, two of the league's top defenses, the past two weeks.

While the teams have had more than their fair share of woes, both have had some success on the ground.

Jackson, the Rams' career leader in yards rushing, worked himself back from a quadriceps injury that occurred on the first play of the season to gain 159 yards on 25 carries, including two touchdowns against New Orleans. Arizona's Beanie Wells, despite a nagging sore knee, had 83 yards on 22 attempts against Baltimore. The two big backs have similar bruising running styles.

"Beanie is a horse now," Spagnuolo said. "He can do anything. He can run outside, inside, he cuts it back, he runs over people, he can shake people. He's a premier back."

Wells has 506 yards rushing on 115 attempts, an average of 4.5 per carry, even though he has missed a game. Jackson has 449 yards on just 84 carries, an average of 5.3.

Jackson's style has led to a series of injuries, but he always seems to come back with a flourish.

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