The Arizona Cardinals won Sunday despite finishing with only 12 first downs and a 21 percent conversion rate on third down. They won despite losing the turnover battle.
Their 21-19 victory over the San Francisco 49ers marked the third time since 1940 a Cardinals team has won a game with two-plus interceptions and zero takeaways, according to Pro Football Reference. A combination of stifling defense, poor opposing offense and sensational play from receiver Larry Fitzgerald lifted Arizona.
Quarterback John Skelton finished the game with a career-high NFL passer rating of 106.5. But with Cardinals receivers gaining 180 yards after the catch, a season high by 84 yards, Skelton emerged from the game with a middling 44.1 out of 100 in Total QBR.
Huge gaps between NFL passer rating and QBR have been fairly common in the NFC West this season. QBR has sometimes downgraded Skelton's teammate, Kevin Kolb, and 49ers starter Alex Smith even when raw passing stats suggested they played well.
Those quarterbacks' season-long QBR scores are all below 50, which represents average play. Sacks have been a leading factor most of the season.
Cardinals receivers, running backs and tight ends have also gained significant yards after the catch. Quarterbacks share blame for sacks and credit for yards after the catch under the QBR formula, one reason Arizona's scores have lagged.
Fitzgerald made the pivotal plays for Arizona on offense. Among his contributions:
Throwing the key block on Early Doucet's 60-yard scoring reception;
Tracking down 49ers safety Dashon Goldson following an interception return in Cardinals territory, saving a potential touchdown;
Heading off another potential Goldson interception with a leaping grab, followed by an improbable spin move and dash for the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown;
Setting up another Cardinals touchdown by turning a short pass into a 53-yard gain.
The Cardinals, more than any NFC West team, have proven an ability to strike for big plays on a historic scale.
From 1990 through last season, no Cardinals quarterback threw two scoring passes of at least 40 yards in the same game, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Skelton did it Sunday. Kolb did it against Carolina in the regular-season opener. Those games featured the team's highest totals for yards after the catch. That helps explain the gaps between triple-digit passer ratings and roughly average QBR scores in those games.
The chart shows game-by-game and full-season QBR scores for NFC West quarterbacks heading into the St. Louis Rams' game against the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night. Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson now holds the top season-long QBR score for the division after Smith's season-low 9.4 QBR against Arizona dragged him down.
Note: Check out newly configured expanded QBR pages showing breakdowns across multiple categories, including by division. The 49ers' Smith owns the four highest scores among NFC West quarterbacks this season.
2011 NFC West Total QBR by Week (50 is average, 100-point max)
Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 14 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:
John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals (44.1 QBR, 106.5 NFL rating): Skelton completed 19 of 28 passes for 282 yards with three touchdowns, two interceptions, one sack and one fumble (lost). He scrambled six times for 25 yards. Skelton played poorly enough to lose the game, then well enough to win it thanks to tremendous play from the Cardinals' defense and what should stand as one of Fitzgerald's finest games. Skelton showed great improvement from his previous start against the 49ers. He played better than expected against a strong defense, and he did it without taking many practice reps. This was a step forward for Skelton and his efforts to remain a viable No. 2 quarterback. His size and strength gave him and advantage over Kolb when it came to extending plays.
Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (9.4 QBR, 62.3 NFL rating): Smith completed 18 of 37 passes for 175 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions, five sacks and one rush for minus-3 yards. He did not fumble. The 49ers suffered no turnovers, in part because the Cardinals failed to capitalize on a couple prime opportunities, including one on a pass Sam Acho tipped to himself. Smith did little to lift an offense whose troubles extend beyond the red zone. He faced third-and-12 or longer five times. Protection faltered, and Smith wasn't able to find quick outlets against pressure. Coach Jim Harbaugh said the game plan called for more passes than usual. The odds were against Smith and he could not overcome them.
The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 14.
The clutch-weight average column reflects game situations, not how well players performed during those situations. Any clutch average above 1.0 reflects a quarterback performing in higher-pressure situations.