GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals won’t know until Sunday if they clinched the NFC West title, but they made sure Thursday that they are going to the playoffs — and likely as one of the NFC’s top two seeds.
Arizona held off the Minnesota Vikings 23-20 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Cardinals blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead but got a 47-yard field goal from Chandler Catanzaro, his third of the game, with 1:23 remaining to snap a tie and take the lead for good.
The Vikings had a chance to win it or at least force overtime, but veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney forced a fumble by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater that was recovered by the Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell with five seconds to go.
Arizona had to take just one kneel-down after the turnover to run off the clock.
The Cardinals (11-2) extended their winning streak to seven games and officially assured themselves of at least a playoff berth. They can claim their first division title since 2009 if the Seattle Seahawks lose or tie Sunday at Baltimore.
Freeney got the sack on his patented spin move.
“It’s funny because I spun three times on that series,” he said. “The first one, he blocked me, so I said no one will ever expect another one. The second one I spun and I got killed so, I thought, he will never expect a third one, and I actually got in there and made a good move and we had good coverage in the backfield.”
The victory was the second in five days for the Cardinals, who beat the Rams 27-3 in St. Louis on Sunday.
“It’s big. We’re in the playoffs,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “We don’t know where or when, but we’re in.
“We always take great pride in that to win twice against two very physical fronts. I’m pleased with that. I’m happy that on Tuesday I can chew their ass out and we can get better.”
Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer worked over a depleted Minnesota defense that was missing a handful of starters, throwing for 310 yards and two touchdowns. He has 31 scoring passes on the year, breaking Kurt Warner’s single-season franchise record.
Palmer also reached 4,000 passing yards on the season, becoming the first quarterback in team history to record two such seasons.
“When the records start falling, the season speaks for itself,” Arians said. “Those were high records Kurt set. I think that with three games left, he’s just going to set them even higher.”
The loss was the second in a row and the third in four weeks for the Vikings, who are jockeying to stay in playoff contention. Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson helped Minnesota (8-5) get in position to tie the score at 20 with 4:55 left in the fourth quarter, but the Vikings’ defense couldn’t stop the league’s No. 1-ranked offense down the stretch.
Minnesota ultimately was done in by three turnovers, all fumbles. Peterson, who rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries after twice calling out the Vikings’ coaching staff for only giving him the ball eight times in last week’s loss to the Seahawks, had one of the fumbles.
It came on a reverse when Peterson tried to pitch the ball.
“Anytime you give the ball away, especially coming out of the half, creating a good drive and getting down to the 30- or 20-yard line and you give it up and they get points from it, it can come back and bite you,” Peterson said. “On that play, I really hold myself accountable. It was just a bad decision by me to try to pitch it. I should have just held onto it and taken the loss.”
Palmer, who was 25 of 35 with no interceptions, threw touchdown passes of 65 yards to wide receiver John Brown and 42 yards to wide receiver Michael Floyd. After Catanzaro connected on a 23-yarder at the start of the fourth, Arizona had a 20-10 lead.
Following a 54-yard field goal by Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, Bridgewater, who was 25 of 36 for 335 yards, fired a 7-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Wallace to tie the score at 20.
“I think we took a big step as a unit,” Bridgewater said. “We showed we’re capable of doing some great things whenever we’re clicking on all cylinders and that we’re a tough team to stop. We just shot ourselves in the foot with the three turnovers.”
Minnesota limped into the game without four starters on defense and without three others right behind them on the depth chart. The missing starters were nose tackle Linval Joseph (foot/knee), linebacker Anthony Barr (groin/hand) and both safeties, Harrison Smith (knee/hamstring) and Andrew Sendejo (knee).
Those losses looked as if they would doom the Vikings early as the Cardinals and their top-rated offense easily motored down the field on the game’s opening possession. Palmer completed his first eight passes until running back David Johnson dropped a bullet at the goal line on third-and-goal from the Minnesota 9-yard line.
After holding Arizona to a field goal, the Vikings had to like their chances as Bridgewater and Peterson took turns making big plays. Minnesota went 80 yards in less than 3 1/2 minutes on its opening drive, capped by a brilliant 9-yard run by Peterson in which he made two cat-quick cuts, then powered through the middle for his 100th career touchdown.
The Cardinals were missing their share of impact players as well, including tight end Jermaine Gresham (knee), cornerback Jerraud Powers (calf strain), defensive tackle Frostee Rucker (ankle) and running back Andre Ellington (turf toe).
However, they still had Palmer, and they have perhaps the best speed in the NFL. Palmer used it to his advantage once again, connecting with Brown on a 65-yard touchdown pass and a 10-7 Cardinals lead.
Both quarterbacks had almost identical numbers at halftime. Bridgewater was 11 of 14 for 162 yards. Palmer was 12 of 16 for 161 yards.
Minnesota got a 44-yard field goal from Walsh with two seconds left in the second quarter to send the Vikings into the locker room tied at 10-10.