Backed by an outstanding effort on the defensive side, resurgent Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals have become a serious threat to chase down an NFC wild-card spot.
The Cardinals may have a good chance to keep pace as they go for their sixth win in seven games Sunday against a Tennessee Titans team on the verge of the franchise's worst home skid in 17 years.
Though he was unable to throw a pass in last week's workouts because of a sore right elbow, Palmer stayed hot by completing 27 of 32 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's 30-10 victory over visiting St. Louis.
Palmer finished with an 84.4 percent completion rate that ranks second for a single game in franchise history behind Kurt Warner's NFL-record 92.3 (24 of 26) percent.
'(Trainer) Tom Reed and his staff, they are the best in the business,' Palmer said. 'He had a plan from Monday on, and he stuck to it. I had 100 percent faith and trust in him that he knew what he was doing and that he and his staff would have me ready to play.'
The 10th-year pro, who had to apply a heating pad to the elbow between possessions, has completed a league-high 70.4 percent of his passes for an average of 326.0 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions in the past four weeks.
Only New England's Tom Brady has put up more yards per game (357.3) in that stretch.
'We throw it where they will let us throw it,' coach Bruce Arians said. "Carson was spot on it.'
The Cardinals (8-5) remain one game behind wild-card leaders San Francisco and Carolina. The 49ers will win any tiebreaker with Arizona due to a better division record, but the Cardinals own the head-to-head edge over the Panthers by virtue of their Week 5 victory.
Larry Fitzgerald has shined during Palmer's tear with 28 catches for 281 yards and five touchdowns. Last week, he finished with 96 receiving yards while his 12 receptions were his most since matching a career high with 13 against Seattle on Oct. 18, 2009.
Fitzgerald has 10 touchdown catches this season, becoming the ninth player in NFL history with five seasons of double-digit TD receptions.
Now, Palmer and Fitzgerald face a Tennessee team that has allowed an average of 29.0 points during its four-game home losing streak. The franchise hasn't dropped five in a row at home since 1996, when it was the Houston Oilers.
Amazingly, though, the Titans haven't allowed a touchdown pass in that stretch. All nine touchdowns the Tennessee defense has yielded during the skid have come on the ground, with the offense's 10 turnovers not helping matters.
While the Titans (5-8) are mathematically alive for a playoff berth, they're 2-7 in their last nine after Sunday's 51-28 loss at Denver. They've dropped four of five since Jake Locker went down for the season with a foot injury.
'Look at any team that's lost their quarterback, it's hard," said coach Mike Munchak. "It creates issues when you have to make that change."
Since completing 71.8 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions over a three-game stretch following Locker's injury, Ryan Fitzpatrick has connected on 55.7 percent with two scores and four picks in his last two.
Rookie Justin Hunter has emerged as a top target with two 100-yard receiving efforts in his last three games. He had four catches for 114 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos.
Chris Johnson's struggles continued with 46 rushing yards on 12 carries. He's averaging a career-low 3.8 per carry and isn't likely to breakout against the Cardinals, who have the league's third-best run defense at 84.5 yards allowed per game.
Arizona scored twice on defense last week, as Karlos Dansby returned an interception 23 yards for a touchdown and John Abraham tackled Kellen Clemens for a safety. Abraham also had three sacks, giving him a team-high 11 on the season.
The Cardinals, however, suffered a big loss when second-leading tackler Tyrann Mathieu went down with a torn ACL. Arians believed Mathieu had played his way into consideration for NFL defensive rookie of the year honors.
'I think no one else has played as much as he's played, and all the positions he's played,' he said.
The Titans have won four of six meetings. Johnson had 154 rushing yards, including an 85-yard TD, in the Titans' 20-17 victory in 2009.
The Associated Press News Service
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