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Lions vs. Cardinals Preview

When: 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale TV: FOX

They might not be the sexiest teams playing Sunday afternoon, but the best game in the NFL this weekend is between the Arizona Cardinals and the Detroit Lions.

At stake is NFC supremacy and tiebreakers that could end up meaning one team stays home in January and the other goes on the road. If Arizona wins, it keeps the league’s best record for another week. If Detroit wins, it takes over the top spot in the NFC.

But there is more.

The matchup also features two of the top three rushing defenses in the league.

Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discuss Sunday’s matchup:

Weinfuss: The Lions come in with the second-best run defense in the league, and with the news that Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is out for the season, how much will Detroit commit to stopping the run since that seems to be the healthiest part of Arizona’s offense?

Rothstein: They will absolutely focus on stopping the run, Josh. What has been extremely impressive about Detroit this season is how the Lions have managed to do it. Most of the time, they rely on their strong front four to handle the rush, which allows them to be a bit stronger when needed in coverage. Of course, one of the team’s better run defenders is Nick Fairley, and he is out indefinitely with a knee injury, but the Lions still held up pretty well against Miami. Overall, this is a defense that believes if it plays like it is capable, it can stop any team. So far, statistics have shown how good this unit can be. This is a team that is first in the league in QBR defense (33.9), first in yards per game allowed (283.4), second against the run (71.33) and third against the pass (212.11). In almost every important defensive category, the Lions are in the top 10, and that has to do with the way defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has been able to play to specific players’ strengths while absorbing injuries to Fairley, middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch and a bunch of cornerbacks. It has been impressive.

Palmer is done, but the Cards have won with Drew Stanton this season. How does the offense change with him in the game, and how might that affect the Lions?

Weinfuss: The Cardinals’ offense won’t change very much, if at all, because coach Bruce Arians doesn’t want it to. Palmer and Stanton are similar quarterbacks in the sense that they are mainly pocket passers. I’d say Palmer is about a 95 percent pocket passer and five percent running quarterback, and I would label Stanton as 90 percent pocket passer. They both take their deep shots -- and Arians won’t shy away from dialing those up for Stanton. The main difference between the two is that Stanton likes to run -- as in he will go through progressions, not see anything, tuck the ball and take off. Palmer tends to spend more time in the pocket waiting for something to develop. But with a rookie and a third-year vet who hasn’t started a game since 2012 behind Stanton, Arians has stressed to Stanton that he can’t take off as much, and if he does he has to slide. Too much is at stake for him to be running around reckless, is the message.

How much as Calvin Johnson's injury hurt the Lions this season? Or has it helped the offense, because now it has been forced to become more diverse?

Rothstein: Though the Lions always -- always -- want Johnson on the field and healthy, having him essentially limited or out for five weeks forced Matthew Stafford to become better acquainted with his other receivers. Golden Tate has blossomed into one of the best receivers in the league -- already setting career-highs in receptions (66) and yards (909). Jeremy Ross has caught passes on game-winning drives, and Corey Fuller caught the game-winner against New Orleans. All of this will only help the Lions the rest of the way, because Stafford no longer feels he has to force the ball to Johnson in critical situations. The evidence came Sunday, when Stafford threw the ball to running back Theo Riddick in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. A year ago, he might have forced that pass to Johnson in double coverage instead.

Last season, Arians said even though Arizona has Patrick Peterson, they would not single-cover Johnson. Now that the Lions have Tate, how do the Cardinals plan to deal with them?

Weinfuss: Arians said this week Arizona will mask its coverage of both receivers, but will play both man and zone. However, I do think the Cardinals’ secondary is better equipped to handle Johnson and Tate this season because of the addition of Antonio Cromartie. And, I’d even go out on a limb and say Cromartie, because of his size, might be a better fit to defend Johnson, but Peterson is physically gifted with his athleticism, so Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles have their pick.

Is Stafford feeling the pressure of winning a playoff game? Is this the year the Lions get there and get him a win?

Rothstein: That hasn’t even come up yet, and I highly doubt it. This is a franchise that has been to the playoffs once since Y2K was a thing. Is there pressure on Detroit to make the playoffs, especially considering a 7-2 start and what happened to the Lions in the second half of last season? Yeah, there is, even if Jim Caldwell has no interest in talking about the playoffs. But right now it doesn’t feel like there is pressure on Stafford to win a playoff game. Making it is the first obstacle. That said, this is a team that can win against anyone in the NFL at home, so if Detroit wins the NFC North and has a home game, that pressure could be on. But this is still a franchise not accustomed to sustained success, so baby steps are appropriate here.

Much like the Lions, the Cardinals have been able to win despite some devastating injuries. What has been the biggest key for them?

Weinfuss: It comes down to two things that revolve around the mindset: the belief and the implementation of the next-man-up philosophy. You hear it all the time around sports, and especially the NFL, and it sounds like a cliché or coach-speak, but in Arizona it’s gospel. First, the Cardinals have bought into and believe in the next-man-up concept that Arians has instilled. They prepare like they’re one play away, even if they are buried on the depth chart. The reason they have bought into it is because they have seen it in action. With so many players having gone down, the locker room has watched guys like Sam Acho, Alex Okafor, Frostee Rucker, Tommy Kelly, Marion Grice and, most importantly, Stanton fill roles on the fly when needed. It is clearly working since they are 8-1.