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Cardinals clinch playoff berth with victory over Vikings

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The Arizona Cardinals are back in the playoffs for the second straight year under Bruce Arians. An old friend from his days with the Colts helped get him there.

Dwight Freeney forced a fumble on Teddy Bridgewater with five seconds remaining to secure a 23-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night. The Vikings were in position to kick a game-tying field goal, but Freeney's Canton-patented spin move sealed the victory for Arizona.

"It was a great play by him," coach Bruce Arians said after the game. "That's why he's going to the Hall of Fame."

The Vikings certainly made the Cardinals earn this clinching. Bridgewater played one of his best games of the season, and moved the ball all night. But three lost fumbles by the Vikings were their undoing. Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro hit a 47-yard field goal with 1:27 left to take the lead, and the Cardinals barely hung on. Now 11-2, the Cardinals can clinch the NFC West title Sunday if the Seattle Seahawks lose to or tie the Baltimore Ravens. This is the first time in team history the Cardinals have won 11 games in consecutive years.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer decision to run a play with 13 seconds left seems highly questionable. Instead of attempting a field goal, the team risked something going wrong -- and it went very wrong when Freeney beat Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil to win the game.

"We were trying to throw the ball to the sideline," Zimmer said about the team's final drive. "We told (Bridgewater) 'You can't complete the ball inbounds because at 12 to 13 seconds it's right at the time you can spike the ball and get the clock stopped. Can't complete the ball in bounds and you can't take a sack.'"

We can't kill Zimmer for being aggressive. The Vikings could have tried to win the game with a deep throw, but Bridgewater needed to have more awareness to get rid of the ball. It was an atypical play by both teams. The Cardinals struggled to get pressure on Bridgewater all night without sending blitzes, but they only rushed four linemen on the final play. And Freeney got the job done.

This was probably Bridgewater's best performance since Week 2 against the Lions. He finished with 335 yards and a touchdown. He led the Vikings on a 10-point fourth quarter comeback and often knew exactly where to throw the ball against the Arizona blitz. Adrian Peterson was held in check after the first drive of the game, so it was on Bridgewater to carry the offense. He did his job well until the last play.

This was not one of the flashiest games of the season by the Cardinals' offense. Carson Palmer has been a mad bomber all season, but the Vikings' zone defense had him mostly working short and intermediate routes. He was lucky that a few possible interceptions were dropped. But this Cardinals team is complete and they have so many players that can step up and win games.

Defensive end Calais Campbell, who recovered Bridgewater's fumble in the closing seconds to secure the win, was a line-wrecker against the Minnesota run. Cornerback Patrick Peterson shut down Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs all night. Tyrann Mathieu made plays behind the line of scrimmage. Receiver Michael Floyd topped 100 yards receiving and rookie runner David Johnson had 123 yards from scrimmage.

The Cardinals are the only team in the league that ranks in the top five of offense and defense, and you could see why Thursday. They will need Carolina to slip up to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs, but a playoff bye is well within their reach.

The Vikings, meanwhile, have a lot of work to do to get to the tournament. They have lost three of four games to fall to 8-5. They played hard and well without three of their best defensive players, but will need to hold on to the ball better in the coming weeks or watch a promising season slip away.

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