What we learned: Playmakers come up big for Cards


Veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney's third-down strip sack on Teddy Bridgewater prevented the Minnesota Vikings (8-5) from attempting a game-tying field goal as the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals (11-2) escaped with a 23-20 victory Thursday night. Here's what you need to know:

1. The Cardinals go as deep as any other team on a weekly basis, but this performance was all about the star power. MVP candidate Carson Palmer showed his typically excellent footwork, delivering a pair of touchdown passes to break Kurt Warner's single-season franchise record. Michael Floyd went over 100 yards for the fourth time in the last five games. Larry Fitzgerald welcomed Vikings safety Anthony Harris to the NFL with a brutal pancake block on Floyd's 42-yard touchdown. Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell controlled the line of scrimmage and recovered Bridgewater's fumble to seal the victory. Patrick Peterson held top receiver Stefon Diggs to just two more yards than Cardinals guard Mike Iupati. Leading tackler Tyrann Mathieu was a menace as a blitzer versus the run as well as the pass. Coach Bruce Arians has generated 11 wins in back-to-back season for the first time in the franchise's 95-year history.

2. It's a shame Vikings coach Mike Zimmer chose to run one more play rather than attempting the game-tying field goal with 13 seconds remaining, because it will overshadow Bridgewater's most impressive performance since Week 2. With the exception of a gadget play that backfired with an Adrian Peterson fumble, offensive coordinator Norv Turner called an excellent game, giving his quarterback clear looks on play action. Bridgewater was under control, saw the field well and repeatedly beat Arizona's blitzes. He led a picture-perfect 11-play, 88-yard touchdown drive to tie the game with five minutes remaining and finished with a career high 335 passing yards. It's an encouraging outing for a quarterback who appeared to be regressing of late.

3. The Cardinals are arguably the NFL's most balanced team, with the No. 1 offense and a top-five defense. Their two primary concerns haven't changed since September: Missed opportunities in short-yardage and the red zone too often keep inferior opponents in the game, and the lack of a dominant one-on-one edge rusher forces them to rely on blitzing for pressure. The Cardinals lost seven first-half points on a third-down drop at the goal line and a third-down sack that pushed them out of field-goal range. They could have sealed the game with a better third-down throw to Fitzgerald prior to the Vikings' final drive. Arians hasn't given up on fixing the problems, quipping after the game: "I'm happy that Tuesday I can chew their (butts) out and we can get better."

4. Adrian Peterson came out on fire, making Cardinals defenders miss with jaw-dropping jump cuts en route to 37 yards and a highlight-reel touchdown -- the 100th of his stellar career -- on four opening drive carries. Credit Campbell & Co. for shutting him down thereafter, swarming the line of scrimmage while holding the NFL's leading rusher to 32 yards on 19 carries (1.68 YPC) the rest of the way.

5. It was interesting to see Cardinals defensive tackle Red Bryant, signed off the street two weeks ago, rallying the defensive troops on the sideline. When Around The NFL interviewed Seahawks players and coaches at Super Bowl XLVIII, many pointed to Bryant as the primary team leader. Between Bryant and Freeney, the Cardinals have done a commendable job of adding leadership for a potential Super Bowl run. Beyond clinching the victory and an NFC playoff berth, Freeney's fourth sack of the season will earn him a cool $200,000 incentive bonus.