Late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's matchup with the Los Angeles Rams, the Arizona Cardinals' season hung in the balance.
A touchdown drive and a defensive stop could have propelled Arizona to a comeback win, and put the team in excellent position to move to 2-0 in the NFC West with a road showdown against a depleted San Francisco squad coming up on Thursday night.
But instead of claiming a victory, the Cardinals were defeated in the worst possible way. On his 38th drop back of the game, quarterback Carson Palmer was sandwiched on a sack by Rams' linemen Aaron Donald and Eugene Sims. Palmer took a blow to the head, and entered concussion protocol as backup Drew Stanton was forced to finish out the game.
With the Cardinals' trailing 17-13, Stanton had two more opportunities to lead game-winning drives, but each time, an errant pass was intercepted by a Rams' defender, thus sending the Cardinals to their second straight loss.
On Wednesday, Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians ruled Palmer out for Thursday's game in San Francisco, explaining that Palmer had improved but would not travel with the team to play against the 49ers.
"Carson made great progress, but there's no way I'm going to take any chances with him," Arians said. "He argued a little bit, but he's not cleared. He's feeling much better, and hopefully we'll have him back next week."
In many ways, Thursday's game is exactly the type of contest the Cardinals can afford for Palmer to miss. A matchup with one of the NFL's worst teams, against a defense missing two of its most talented players, in a game where the Cardinals have more than enough talent to overcome the loss of even their most important player.
But in some ways, Palmer's absence Thursday could give Arizona reason for panic. Stanton has demonstrated minimal competency in limited opportunities during the preseason and regular season this year, and he's now being asked to lead a struggling offense against a team it has no business losing against. Toss in the fact a loss would send the Cardinals to 1-4 and push them to the bottom of the NFC West with just 11 games to play, and Arizona might need Palmer more right now than it ever has in the past.
Regardless of how much Arizona needs Palmer, it is stuck with Stanton. The Cardinals have refused to entertain much of a competition between backup quarterbacks under Arians, practically always deferring to the seasoned veteran out of Michigan State.
The Cardinals' insistence on keeping Stanton, though, has been somewhat puzzling. While the 10th year veteran has surely learned quite a bit during his NFL career, he hasn't proven much, especially lately.
Thursday night's game marks the 13th start of Stanton's career, and his first start since a 2014 season in which he earned eight starts in place of an injured Palmer. To date, Stanton has thrown 12 touchdown passes against 18 interceptions, completing just 54 percent of his career pass attempts.
While Stanton was serviceable in Palmer's 2014 absence, winning five of his eight starts, his recent performances have left so much to be desired. In the last truly extended action of his career, which came in a 36-6 loss to Seattle at the end of 2015, Stanton went 8-for-18 for 84 yards and two interceptions. In limited playing time this year, Stanton is 5-for-15 for 48 yards and two interceptions.
During this year's preseason, Stanton also struggled, especially with accuracy, as he completed just 12-of-28 attempts for no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Stanton has been wildly erratic in his last few appearances on the football field, which does little to suggest he'll be markedly improved after less than a week of practicing with Arizona's first team offense. Simply put, Thursday's game should feature a heavy dose of David Johnson, and even a long look at Andre Ellington.
The Cardinals are more talented than the 49ers at just about every position group on the field, so it's up to the Cardinals to devise a game plan that keeps Stanton from turning the ball over.
The down field shots Palmer takes? Probably not worth it. Throwing into holes in zone coverage? That seems risky, too. The Cardinals must keep in mind that Palmer will likely be back in a week, and though Stanton probably wouldn't do enough to win a game on his own, his erratic tendencies are more than enough to lose a game.
Thursday nights in the NFL are bizarre, but the Cardinals can't afford to let this Thursday's game get too crazy. If they were up against a different opponent, they might be stuck, but playing the 49ers gives Arizona some leverage, and that leverage comes at the line of scrimmage, where the Cardinals know they have to run the ball.null