ST. LOUIS -- The two-time defending NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals scrapped their way to a 17-13 victory over a St. Louis Rams team with a rookie quarterback and six victories in its previous 48 games.
The popular favorite to win the division this season, San Francisco, already faces tough questions after suffering a 31-6 humiliation in Seattle against the rebuilding, and surprisingly rejuvenated, Seahawks.
It's nearly impossible to know how this division race will shake out after one dizzying week, but it's looking like it'll be a race, not a runaway. Oh, and one other thing: Sam Bradford looks like the quarterback to make the Rams competitive.
"I wish another team had drafted him," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Don't let the brutal stat line fool you. Bradford threw three picks and finished with a 53.1 passer rating. The Cardinals picked him off on a Hail Mary to end the game and on a late fourth-down play when Bradford had to take a chance or turn over the ball on downs.
The Rams converted 10 of 23 times on third or fourth down. They couldn't finish except when Bradford rolled out and found Laurent Robinson for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the Arizona 1-yard line -- a gutsy call revealing just how much faith the Rams have in their new leader. Bradford even beat defensive lineman Darnell Dockett and linebacker Clark Haggans to a loose ball after tight end Billy Bajema fumbled.
"That is our new leader, him and Steven [Jackson] and O.J. [Atogwe]," Rams defensive tackle Clifton Ryan said. "I view him as a leader even though he is a rookie because of the confidence that he prepares with, the confidence he came in with, the confidence that he played with today. As he progresses, you're going to see him lead us to victory in games like this."
It could happen next week in Oakland. It nearly happened Sunday, but the Cardinals did just enough.
Quarterback Derek Anderson overcame inaccuracy and manpower issues at receiver to find Steve Breaston seven times for 132 yards. He showed the leadership Whisenhunt wanted -- and the guile Matt Leinart failed to muster -- by shaking off repeated hits. Anderson took nine hits but only one sack, and afterward Rams defensive end Chris Long said Anderson surprised him with his feel for when to get rid of the ball.
There were stretches during the game when I wondered if we might see another quarterback change in Arizona within a couple weeks. That was probably a hasty judgment. Afterward, Whisenhunt said he was very comfortable with where the offense is heading under Anderson.
Anderson at times exploited a Rams secondary that went much of the second half without its third and fourth cornerbacks. (Kevin Dockery and Justin King left with injuries, while rookie cornerback Jerome Murphy was already inactive.)
The Cardinals had their own personnel issues. They lost receiver Early Doucet, leaving undrafted rookies Max Komar and Stephen Williams to play critical downs. Anderson missed open receivers -- especially Larry Fitzgerald, whose tender knee became a problem as the game progressed -- but Whisenhunt said he was comfortable the passing game would progress in time. Anderson did find Fitzgerald for the go-ahead 21-yard touchdown with 6:19 remaining, an accurate throw on second-and-20.
"I think we still need to find out what our strengths are going to be with Derek as far as the types of passes we are going to be able to run," Whisenhunt said. "What I really liked was when he moved out of the pocket, made the throw to Larry Fitzgerald for the touchdown and put us in the lead. ... His leadership was good and he never lost his desire to be the quarterback and lead the team and he made some plays at the end that were big for us to win."
The Cardinals couldn't score at all when Leinart was the quarterback at St. Louis for two quarters last season. Anderson was better than that.
But Arizona probably wouldn't have won this game if Breaston, with his team trailing 13-10 in the third quarter, hadn't hustled downfield and stripped the ball from Ryan just as the defensive lineman was nearing the goal line with a fumble return. Center Lyle Sendlein also gets credit for scrambling downfield and landing on the ball in the end zone.
"That is why they are the only NFC team to win a playoff game in '08 and '09," Ryan said. "Until we find ways to win games like this, we're going to be behind them. But I think we are headed in the right direction."
Bradford makes it so.
The rookie showed poise against pressure, operating "like he always does, like a 10-year vet," guard Adam Goldberg said.
That was apparent when Bradford rolled away from an onrushing Dockett and still found Robinson for an 11-yard gain. It was apparent by the way Bradford led the huddle.
"He commanded the offense in the huddle when he needed to and even corrected some calls," Jackson said.
Bradford took only two sacks in 57 dropbacks despite a few jailbreak situations that easily could have overwhelmed a lesser player. Adrian Wilson, the Cardinals' Pro Bowl safety and enforcer, was unblocked and blasted Bradford on one play. Bradford got up and threw a strike to receiver Mark Clayton well downfield on the next play, a third-and-13 (Clayton dropped the ball).
Bradford and the newly acquired Clayton have been together about a week and the receiver already has a 100-yard receiving game. The Rams had zero 100-yard receivers last season and only one in 2008. They're 1-for-1 with Bradford after Clayton caught 10 passes for 119 yards. The 33-yard strike Bradford threw to Clayton against Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie couldn't have been delivered any more accurately.
Yes, Bradford is looking like a guy who can play.
"Looking like? He is a guy that can play," Ryan corrected.
The Rams' defense even has a new mindset on the sideline when its offense faces third down.
"Instead of punt alert, we are thinking first-down alert," Long said. "We have faith in 8 [Bradford] and faith in this offense."
Jackson remains the Rams' best player. The offense arguably should have gone through him more Sunday. But it's easy to see why the coaching staff wanted to showcase Bradford. He's their best hope. The Edward Jones Dome responded, too. The crowd was into it.
"We can't expect him to just turn things around in one day," Jackson said.