The Arizona Cardinals entered the season as the NFC West Division favorites, and after four weeks of play, a team off to a surprisingly poor 1-3 start now finds itself two games behind Seattle and Los Angeles.
After a 17-13 loss to the Rams at home Sunday, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said he thought his players performed well, and matched the physicality of a tough Los Angeles squad. Unfortunately for Arians, he's right, which makes the loss all the more concerning.
"Obviously disappointed in the loss but I thought our guys played extremely hard," Arians said. "Knew it would be a physical game and I thought we matched that. I thought we were ready to play in all phases, there were big plays both ways and obviously the punt return at the end was huge, we had made some good stops, we didn't get that four minute offense, that last conversion we needed, and then the punt return."
Arizona out-gained Los Angeles 420-288, recorded 26 first downs compared to just 12 for the Rams and limited a potentially-potent rushing attack to just 41 yards on the ground.
Despite performing well in many aspects of the game, though, Arizona passed up touchdowns for field goals in the red zone, and lost the turnover battle five-to-one.
Quarterback Carson Palmer tossed one interception and lost a fumble, running back David Johnson lost a fumble, and backup quarterback Drew Stanton threw two costly interceptions late as Arizona couldn't dig itself out of a hole. Aside from the turnovers, two red zone penalties, a holding and a false start served as drive-stalling plays.
"Other than the turnovers, I thought we ran the ball extremely well. I've got to see that holding penalty, which was huge, because we're on the one-inch line and those calls are part of the game."
The loss against Los Angeles marked the second time Arizona has lost a close, winnable game at home this season. In the opening week, a botched snap on a potential game-winning field goal attempt sent the Cardinals to a 23-21 loss against New England. This Sunday, another special teams gaffe opened the door for the Rams, as a 47-yard fourth quarter punt return from Tavon Austin set Los Angeles up for a game-winning touchdown.
"We've won a lot of close games, and we have not won them this year. We made a living winning close games for a long time and this year, we are not making the plays to win them and that's the difference in the season."
After losing Palmer on a fourth quarter sack that forced the Cardinals' signal-caller into the league's concussion protocol, Arizona now has its back up against the wall at the worst possible time.
A normal week, and Palmer might be able to play. However, Arizona drew a Thursday night road contest with San Francisco this week, and the Cardinals may be forced to start Stanton if Palmer isn't feeling up to speed soon.
At 1-3, Arizona can't afford another loss to a division opponent, especially against a miserable 49ers team that the Cardinals know they need to take advantage of twice this season. Divisional matchups are incredibly important in the NFL, especially divisional matchups a team like the Cardinals have no excuse to lose.
Now, with Palmer out, a number of factors could be working against Arizona. Even after suffering a disappointing loss, though, Arians was steadfast in his commitment to stay the course.
"It was a fourth quarter ball game and you knew it would be, all our games with them have been fairly tight other than just one," Arians said. "We are not panicking, we are going to show up for work tomorrow because we've got a game Thursday night against a very good team, San Francisco, and we don't have time to dwell on this one. We only have time to watch the film, so we'll be at work tomorrow at 8 o'clock in the morning trying to get better and get a win. The sky is not falling for us, I'm sure it is for a bunch of the fans, I'm as disappointed as they are but we've got a game Thursday night."