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TNF Takeaways: Freeney’s Forced Fumble Helps Cardinals Finish Vikings

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In one of the biggest games of his career to date, Teddy Bridgewater had done a phenomenal job all night Thursday, commanding the Minnesota Vikings offense, while his offensive line kept him mostly clean and protected. That is, until the last play of the game.

The Vikings were already in field goal range, down 23-20 with 13 seconds left, when the got a little greedy and paid dearly for it. Bridgewater dropped back to pass on 3rd and 10 from the 31, and didn’t get much time to assess his options before he was under duress. As the Minnesota quarterback attempted to step into a throw, veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney used his patented spin move to get around his man, made a move toward Bridgewater and chopped the quarterback’s arm just before it came forward to pass. That chop knocked the ball loose and it was pounced on by defensive end Calais Campbell to seal a 23-20 Cardinals win.

The victory was Arizona’s seventh straight and moved them to 11-2 on the season, one win or Seattle Seahawks loss from clinching their first NFC West title since 2009. After their latest win, Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald beamed about the makeup of this Arizona team and how many different contributors they have to their success, Freeney being just the latest one.

“It’s a different hero every game,” said.

The Cards got contributions from all over on Thursday evening and built a seemingly commanding 10-point lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, before Minnesota waged a comeback.

There was quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw for 310 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, his ninth 300-yard passing game of the season and sixth without an interception. There were wide receivers John Brown and Michael Floyd, who each turned short-medium passes from Palmer into long touchdowns using their speed up the sideline to race past the Minnesota defense. Fitzgerald pitched in too, in his own way, with five catches and one huge block to spring Floyd on his touchdown catch.

Arizona rookie running back David Johnson also had a big night with 92 yards rushing on 19 carries and nearly had a long touchdown run of his own before it was called back on instant replay review when it was ruled he was down short of the goal line. On defense, although Bridgwater played a mistake free night until that last play, the Cardinals did manage to force three fumbles, including a big one from Adrian Peterson early in the third quarter that short-circuited a promising Minnesota drive and led directly to Floyd’s touchdown on the ensuing Arizona possession.

After coming up short from inside the 5-yard-line early in the fourth and being forced to settle for a field goal, things could have unraveled for the Cardinals, but the team showed the type of resilience associated with a champion. After the Vikings’ came up with that goal line stand on the last plays of the third quarter, they gained some momentum and put up 10 unanswered points of their own. Then on the first play after Minnesota had tied the game, it appeared for a second that Palmer had thrown an interception. But the Vikings were offsides, giving the Cards new life. They made the most of it, driving 55 yards in 11 plays for a 47-yard field goal by Chandler Cantanzaro with 1:23 remaining that gave them the lead back.

That lead was in peril when Minnesota started the move the ball and got all the way into field goal range, but with just one play left before the Vikings attempted the game-tying kick, the Cardinals made one more big play to carry on the incredible story of their season.

This time it was Freeney, who has played sparingly since signing with Arizona in October, but whom they trust and use in situations such as that one and have come to expect big plays like that one from. Freeney ranks fifth among active players and 19th all-time in sacks with 119.5, and now has four this season, despite being on the field for just over 20 percent of Arizona’s snaps.

“It was absolutely fun to get out there,” the veteran defensive end said. “That’s why I came back. Moments like this, you can’t duplicate these moments in life, to be able to have this type of dream situation, fourth quarter, game on the line.”

His outlook mirrors that of the veteran-laden Cardinals, and if not for the undefeated run of the Carolina Panthers, they might be the story of the season right now. They appear to be one of the most complete teams in the league, and they’re going to present a big challenge to anyone who comes up against them in the NFC. A rolling Carolina team and a rising Seattle club have been getting all the attention of late, but Arizona could easily be the team to beat in the NFC.

VIKINGS AREN’T FADING

It’s going to be hard for the Minnesota Vikings to not look back at Thursday’s game and think about what could have been had they not gotten greedy on the last play of the game. But the Vikings proved in Arizona that they’re not going to fade into the background of the NFC playoff picture this season, as some began to expect after their blowout loss in Seattle last weekend.

On Thursday night, Minnesota showed an uncanny resilience to bounce back from multiple deficits and keep themselves in the game by any means necessary. Bridgewater appeared poised throughout the night, and played nearly flawlessly until the very end of the game. His targets in the passing game were plentiful, as 11 different Vikings had at least one catch on Thursday night. He also still has one of the league’s best backs behind him in Adrian Peterson, though he’ll need more than he got out of the veteran running back last night. AD scored his 100th career touchdown in the game, but was otherwise limited by a strong Cardinals defense, which held him to just 69 rushing yards on 23 carries, an average of three yards per run. But that’s not something that’s going to happen often.

The Minnesota defense certainly has some corrections to make. They got exposed on the two biggest passing plays of the night, each short-to-medium passes that went the distance thanks to poor tackling and pursuit of the ball. But they followed those miscues with the most impressive defensive stand of the night. At the end of a long Arizona drive, spanning double-digit plays, the Vikings stood tall at the goal line, denying the Cardinals a touchdown after David Johnson’s scoring run was ruled down at the two-yard-line. From there they stuffed the Arizona running game, sacked Palmer and forced a field goal to keep themselves alive. That stand sparked a Minnesota comeback and would’ve been looked back on as a turning point in the game if not for the way it ended.

In last Sunday’s loss in Seattle, the Vikings were exposed for their flaws. But on Thursday in Arizona, Minnesota showed more about why they are where they are, in the playoff hunt, than about why they might fall out of the race. The follow that brutal five-day stretch with a chance to get some rest over the next 10, then have back-to-back home games against the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, two very winnable games. The Vikings may well be a game out of first after this week with the Green Bay Packers set to host the Cowboys. But if they can get back on track in the next two weeks, they’ll be in prime position to win the NFC North when they visit Green Bay in Week 17. That opportunity is all they can ask for at this point.

WATT WILL PLAY WITH BROKEN HAND

Houston Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt showed up at his weekly press conference on Thursday donning a cast on his left hand and wrist, and opened the news conference by revealing that he had broken his hand in practice the previous day. But it’s going to take more than that to keep Watt out of action.

Despite the injury, which forced him to miss practice on Thursday, Watt plans to play with the broken hand in Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots.

“People are going to try to make a big deal out of this, but I’ve played with worse than this before, even this season,” he told reporters Thursday. “This, I’m not very worried about. My elbow a couple years back was way more painful. This was painful when it happened, but it’s football. In a game of football you’re going to play with pain.”

Watt has never missed a game over the course of his five-year NFL career, the third longest streak among defensive ends in the league, behind Julius Peppers, who has played in 96 straight games and Rob Ninkovich, who has played in 77 straight, one more than Watt. The Houston defensive end has famously playing through, groin, thigh, leg and elbow injuries, as well as a likely litany of injuries we haven’t heard about.

He is without question of the league’s toughest players, so when he was diagnosed with the broken hand, there wasn’t even a moment of worry about his status.

“Football is a game where things happen and you play through it,” Watt said. “You go out there, you do whatever you can to help your team win. So that’s what I plan to do.”

The Texans, who are tied with the Indianapolis Colts for the lead in the AFC South, will need all the help they can get against New England on Sunday. Watt leads the NFL in sacks this season with 13.5 and has 70.5 for his career, but has never sacked Tom Brady in two regular season meetings with the Patriots. The injury will make doing so a little bit more challenging, as will a New England team that is now fully aware of his injury, but Watt is ready for it.

“Opposing players come after me every week with every type of thing in the book you can think of,” he said. “So feel free, go ahead, come at me. I’ll take advantage of whatever you try to do. It’s my job to get to the quarterback. That’s what I do.”


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys