The Arizona Cardinals did themselves no playoff favors early in the season when they lost four of their first seven games — three losses coming in the division — including a few that could end up being big ones when it comes to tiebreakers.
But forget all that right now. The Cardinals are hot. They are dangerous on defense and vastly improved on offense. They're a team we must now take notice of in a deep but confusing NFC picture. It's a dreaded phrase, but if the playoffs started today, Arizona — and not the San Francisco 49ers — would be in the big dance.
It's that offensive transition that had made the team so much more legitimate. Bruce Arians is a Coach of the Year candidate for the second straight season, but with a new team. The team he accomplished it with last season, the Indianapolis Colts, is the team his Cardinals absolutely dissected on Sunday to move to 7-4 with their fourth straight victory.
Carson Palmer is no longer a liability. Rashard Mendenhall, if Sunday's win was any indication, is running as if someone is chasing him. Michael Floyd has put two exceptional games back to back. And Larry Fitzgerald is back to being a coverage-dictating No. 1 receiver who still makes plays.
But the most shocking development? The offensive line. To a man, it's a below-average group, but they have come together so well. They allowed three sacks Sunday, but none were killers. For the most part, they run-blocked well and the Cardinals stayed ahead of the chains, something they have not done consistently this season.
With this defense and kicking/return game, the Cardinals can be a very dangerous out if they keep it up — and, of course, if they make the playoffs. This might just be one of those seasons where a 10-win team misses it, like last season when the Chicago Bears went 10-6 and stayed home in January, costing Lovie Smith his job.
But no matter how the race finishes, the Cardinals have captured our attention for the first time since the Kurt Warner days as a legit contender with prowess in all three facets of the game.
- - - - - - -