Whisenhunt: Playoff-bound Cardinals will play to win final two games

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals won't rest up for the playoffs, not after that struggle in Detroit.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt plans to play to win Sunday when his team hosts the St. Louis Rams.

The Cardinals need to work out their problems before the postseason, and Whisenhunt noted that the team has a longshot chance to climb to the No. 2 seed and receive a first-round bye.

The Minnesota Vikings (11-3) would have to lose their last two games -- to the Chicago Bears and New York Giants -- and the Cardinals (9-5) must win their last two over the Rams and Green Bay Packers, then several other things would have to occur.

It's a remote possibility, at best.

"Even though who knows what could happen as far as that goes, there are a lot of things that would have to fall into place," Whisenhunt said Monday. "I think it's more important that we continue to try to improve and get on a hot streak going into the playoffs."

The Cardinals blew a 17-0 halftime lead against the Lions (2-12) last Sunday, but came back to win 31-24 on Kurt Warner's 5-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin with 1:54 to play.

Whisenhunt attributed his team's problems largely to the short work week. Arizona lost at San Francisco on Monday night, then played a 1 p.m. game in the Eastern time zone Sunday.

"Not many teams have success doing that," Whisenhunt said. "For us to get the win, I thought, was critical. I know we didn't play at times as sharply as we would have liked, but it's much easier to correct those things after a win than it would have been after a difficult loss."

The Cardinals found out that they clinched their second consecutive division title during their flight home, when they received word that the 49ers had lost in Philadelphia.

Arizona is just the second Super Bowl loser in the last nine years to make the playoffs the next season.

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Even though it was no thing of beauty, Sunday's victory over the Lions accomplished several things the franchise hasn't experienced in decades:

» The Cardinals won consecutive division titles for the first time since the Don Coryell-coached team took the NFC East crown in 1974 and 1975.

» They will have consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1975 and 1976, and their 6-2 road record is their best since 1963.

» If the Cardinals beat the Rams, the franchise's 10 wins will be its most in a season since 1976.

» With a victory over the Rams, the Cardinals would finish the regular season without consecutive losses, something they haven't done since 1975.

Whisenhunt said the team "will be smart with players" who have injuries but might have played if it was a game that Arizona had to win. Otherwise, the coach expects to go with his regular lineup.

"I think that's important because we do have something at stake," he said. "We want to obviously get to a point where we're playing good football going into the playoffs.

The Cardinalswill be without starting left tackle Mike Gandy, who underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia Friday. He will be out 3 to 6 weeks, and there has been no decision on whether he will be put on season-ending injured reserve. Gandy's replacement is Jeremy Bridges, who signed with the Cardinals on Sept. 9 after the Washington Redskins released him.

Whisenhunt said the Cardinals' passing game was "just a little bit off, out of sync" against the Lions. The ground game was just fine, with rookie Beanie Wells topping 100 yards for the first time in his young career, gaining 110 on 17 carries, including a 34-yard run to set up the winning touchdown.

Wells has 706 rushing yards this season, second only to the Denver Broncos' Knowshon Moreno (879) among NFL rookies. Moreno, though, has 71 more carries.

Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald also reached two milestones. He topped 1,000 receiving yards for the fourth time in his six NFL seasons and is the first receiver in franchise history to top 1,000 in consecutive years. He also became the youngest player (26 years, 111 days) to reach 7,000 receiving yards; Randy Moss did it in 26 years, 220 days.

Warner completed 23 of 37 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions, but he also threw an interception that Detroit rookie safety Louis Delmas returned 100 yards for a score. The play was painfully familiar to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison's 100-yard interception return at the end of the first half of Super Bowl XLIII -- except Delmas is a lot faster.

"Sometimes that happens in this business, that you win ugly," Warner said after the game. "It was an ugly win today. Again, it still moves us one step closer to our goal. We've got to continue to get better and get polished up for the next couple of weeks."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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