What a difference a week makes. Fresh off a dismal loss to the division-leading 49ers in which they were outgained 431-229 and looked like a team going nowhere but down in the standings, the Cardinals bounced back Sunday with a 23-20 road win over the division-rival Rams that featured a pair of record-breaking performances by third-year veteran RB Beanie Wells and first-round rookie CB-RS Patrick Peterson.
Wells, who in recent weeks seemed clearly limited by a nagging knee injury, exploded for a franchise-record 228 yards rushing, gaining 8.4 yards per carry, in addition to adding his career-high eighth TD on a seven-yard run in the third quarter.
Peterson, who three weeks earlier singlehandedly brought the Rams down with a 99-yard punt return for a TD in overtime, came up with a virtual carbon copy that was 80 yards in length on Sunday. It was Peterson's fourth punt return for a score this season, enabling him to tie a single-season league record with four other players, the most recent being Bears ace kick-returner Devin Hester in 2007. But none of those players had four punt-return TDs of 80-plus yards in a season.
Equally responsible for the Cardinals' third win in four games was a steadily improving defense spearheaded by another rookie, fourth-round OLB Sam Acho (two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery).
The PFW Spin
Considering San Francisco's stranglehold on the NFC West's top spot, the consensus in the desert at this stage of the season is that steady progress down the stretch is the only realistically attainable goal for the Cardinals. Despite continually substandard play under center by backup John Skelton, three wins in four games certainly qualifies as progress, even though two of those wins came against a truly wretched Rams team that has been thoroughly decimated by injuries.
Granted, Wells never looked more worthy of his first-round billing against the Rams, cranking out runs of 53 and 71 yards while shattering the franchise single-game record of 214 yards rushing set by LeShon Johnson in 1996 against the Saints. His 53-yard romp, which came shortly after his fumble that led to the Rams' only TD in the fourth quarter, set up the game-winning field goal by Jay Feely. On the fumble, Wells appeared to reinjure his knee, but obviously that ended up not being the case.
"What injury?" Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald said of Wells, who hardly looked like damaged goods on Sunday. "Beanie has shown his toughness throughout the year with dings here and there, but he stayed and fought for us. He has gotten better at pass blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield and obviously running the football for us well.
"For him to go out there and to have a dominating performance running the ball and to put the team on his back was really nice. We all know Beanie is capable of doing it."
That said, it's worth noting that Wells' performance game against a 32nd-ranked Rams run defense that earlier this season enabled Cowboys rookie DeMarco Murray to gain a league-high 254 yards.
Peterson, meanwhile, couldn't have been more surprised the Rams decided to take a chance punting him the ball in the middle of the field on his latest Hester-esque TD gallop.
"I don't even know what to say, the kid's amazing," Wells said of Peterson. "He's a beast. I haven't been around any person like him returning the football, and I can't say that many guys on our football team have."
In the grand scheme of things, though, the Arizona defense's recent progress could be the most significant development. On Sunday, the defense allowed a season-low 12 first downs and a season-low four rushing first downs. Over the past four games in 52 total drives by opposing offenses, the defense has allowed a grand total of four TDs.
Are numbers like that, coupled with the heroics of Wells and Peterson, enough to offset a QB situation that remains extremely shaky?
That's a subject for another Spin not too far down the road.