While the Arizona Cardinals remain alive in the playoff hunt, a disastrous start to the season likely put their postseason hopes out of reach.
Finishing with a winning record, though, is looking like a realistic possibility.
The Cardinals look to match their longest winning streak in more than 12 years Sunday when they host the woeful Cleveland Browns.
After winning its season opener, Arizona suffered a season-worst six consecutive defeats to drop into a last-place tie with St. Louis in the NFC West. The Cardinals, however, have since won three straight and five of six to get their record to 6-7.
Arizona, which hasn’t won four in a row since Nov. 14-Dec. 5, 1999, still is a longshot for the playoffs with several teams sitting ahead of it in the wild-card standings.
“I’m proud of our guys, the way they have played, and the way they have hung together after facing a lot of criticism,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “… A lot of times that will fracture your team, but our guys believed in it and stuck together.”
Having a winning season “would be incredible,” he added. “It would be very significant for the character of our football team.”
The Cardinals have to like their chances of inching closer to accomplishing that feat with Cleveland (4-9), riding a five-game road losing streak, coming to town. Arizona visits Cincinnati (7-6) next week before concluding its schedule against Seattle (6-7).
The Browns, who haven’t lost six in a row on the road since Sept. 25-Dec. 11, 2005, were handed their sixth defeat in seven games overall Dec. 8, 14-3 at Pittsburgh.
“We felt good, we just couldn’t score points,” said Colt McCoy, who threw for 209 yards and two interceptions. “That’s the problem. We’ve got to figure it out.”
While McCoy’s effort on the field wasn’t really of note, it was the Browns’ handling of their starting quarterback’s injury that became a topic of debate.
Though team president Mike Holmgren says McCoy didn’t show any symptoms until well after the game, McCoy sustained a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit from linebacker James Harrison. He was helped off the field but returned less than four minutes later.
McCoy continued to feel symptoms through the week, meaning Seneca Wallace will start in his place. Cleveland went 1-3 in Wallace’s four starts last season.
The Browns could struggle to move the ball through the air versus an Arizona defense surrendering an average of 214.4 passing yards since Nov. 14 - the 10th-best mark in the league.
The Cardinals’ quarterback situation remains unsettled, as Kevin Kolb was forced from last Sunday’s 21-19 win over division-champion San Francisco after taking a knee to the head on Arizona’s third play of the game.
John Skelton stepped in and completed 19 of 28 passes for 282 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions to finish with a career-high passer rating of 106.5.
“You’re only as good as your last play, your last game. You kind of have to live with that until you get another opportunity,” Skelton said. “You never know when that opportunity is. You’ve just got to be ready and make the most of it.”
Kolb, however, practiced this week and could return Sunday.
Having All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald makes things easier on both quarterbacks. Fitzgerald had seven receptions for a season-best 149 yards last week - including a 46-yard TD.
“Every day, every single day, he comes to work and works his tail off to try and get better,” Whisenhunt told the team’s official website. “You are talking about one of the best players in the league. How much better do you think you can get by doing that every day? Well, obviously, Larry thinks he can.”
With 1,092 receiving yards, Fitzgerald is the eighth player in NFL history to post six 1,000-yard campaigns in his first eight seasons.
With his team on the rise, Whisenhunt was presented with one of last Sunday’s game balls. The coach has 42 victories - including playoffs - is one away from breaking a tie with Don Coryell and becoming the winningest coach in franchise history.
“It was very meaningful that our team did that,” Whisenhunt said, “but it’s a team game, so we are worried about focusing on Cleveland this week.”
These teams haven’t met since the Cardinals won 27-21 at home Dec. 2, 2007. Cleveland holds a 33-12-3 advantage in the series.