The Team No One Is Talking About

The Cardinals are quietly staking their claim for an NFC Wildcard spot - Christian Petersen

The race for the wildcard places in the NFC is really heating up with only six weeks to go. With several teams still in the mix, there is one team that no one is really talking about as a true post-season contender: the Arizona Cardinals.

There was a sense of new life being brought to the desert with the arrival of Bruce Arians in the offseason. The expectation was that he would rejuvenate the stagnant offense with the acquisition of Carson Palmer and bring the successful passing offense from Indianapolis to Arizona. In a division with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, two of the top teams in the NFL, it's understandable that people would sleep on or pay less attention to what the Cardinals are doing.

The Cardinals currently sit seventh in race for the wild card spots, ahead of the likes of Chicago, Green Bay and Dallas on tie-breakers (one game ahead of the Cowboys), and are tied with the 49ers in the NFC West and in close proximity of the Carolina Panthers (who the Cardinals have beat this year already).

So why don't the Cardinals get the respect they deserve? Well, I can't really answer that.

When you turn on your TV, and tune into NFL Network or ESPN or any other show debating likely play-off contenders down the stretch, no one mentions the Cardinals. It's always the same rehashed chatter of 'well the Bears under Marc Trestman are playing great offense' or 'the Packers are too good to miss out they have too much talent' or 'the 49ers are one of the best defenses in the NFL, Colin Kaepernick is a star...', yet no one talks about the seventh seeded Cardinals.

Of all the teams in the mix: Arizona, Chicago, Green Bay, Dallas and Philadelphia, it's the Cardinals who have the least amount of problems with their team. Chicago are without starting quarterback Jay Cutler for another couple of weeks through injury. Even though Josh McCown is playing fairly decently, he's still a downgrade on Cutler, and not to mention the Bears defense have so many injuries with Charles Tillman, Henry Melton and Lance Briggs all having missed a lot of game time.

The Packers are without Aaron Rodgers, who to me is the best quarterback in the NFL and the single-most important player to any team in the league. He's out until Thanksgiving, and now his backup Seneca Wallace is injured. The Packers are 0-2 since Rodgers went down (including the game he was injured in against the Bears) and their season is in the hands of Scott Tolzien. Not to mention they are without Randall Cobb, their most dynamic offensive weapon: the Packers could be out of the mix by the time Rodgers is back.

The Eagles are totally inept of stringing together multiple wins together and maintaining form. At 6-5, they hold a one-game lead in the NFC East over the Cowboys who were on the bye this week, so they can feasibly win their division, but I don't see them or the Cowboys exceeding 9 wins. The Eagles struggle to win at home this season; you have to win at home in the NFL if you want to be a legit contender.

Let's look at the Cardinals. They are 6-4, and have taken some notable scalps including the NFC North leaders the Detroit Lions, and the rampant Panthers. With a very favorable schedule coming up to add, they have a real chance of being in the mix come Week 17 when they host the 49ers.

Week\Team Cardinals Eagles Bears Packers
12 vs Colts BYE @ Rams vs Vikings
13 @ Eagles vs Cardinals @ Vikings @ Lions
14 vs Rams vs Lions vs Cowboys vs Falcons
15 @ Titans @ Vikings @ Browns @ Cowboys
16 @ Seahawks vs Bears @ Eagles vs Steelers
17 vs 49ers @ Cowboys vs Packers @ Bears
Combined Record* 37-25 (.567) 25-25 (.500) 26-35 (.426) 25-35 (.385)

* Records are those going into Week 12

Of the four games until they travel to Seattle, the combined record of those teams is 21-20 with only two teams with a winning record, and that's the Colts who have not been as good as their 7-3 record suggests in the past couple or weeks, and the Eagles at 6-5 who, as mentioned, can't string wins together. The Cardinals have a legitimate shot of being 10-4/9-5 by the time they play the Seahawks, which we can probably put down as a loss as they just do not lose at home. The Week 17 game against San Francisco could be essentially a play-off game with the winner securing a post-season spot.

The table indicates however, that the Cardinals have the hardest remainder of schedule of the play-off contenders, mainly skewed by the final two inter-divisional match-ups.The Cardinals are also the most form team of the four, and are currently on a three-game winning streak which will be put to the test this week against the Colts. One thing that can be said though, is that the Cardinals are a considerably better home team compared to their performances on the road.

On the road the Cardinals average 350.4 YPG, which is a little more than what they average at home, 302.4 YPG. However, they average a touchdown more per game at home than on the road (25 PPG at home compared to 18.2 PPG on the road) and that extra score is the difference in the big games. The Cardinals are undoubtedly one of the top teams on their own turf, as proven by their wins against play-off contenders Carolina and Detroit.

The burden of the NFC West, the toughest division in football, is a large one. It's tough to face the Niners or Seahawks once a season, but playing them both twice is a near insurmountable task. Right now, I'd say the Cardinals are not far off the Niners; both with identical records at this stage, but their offensive output, although shoddy right now, has greater potential. They edge out in key areas, especially at running back with Frank Gore.

If you ask me, the Cardinals stand as good a chance of making the play-offs as any team in contention right now. A the saying goes: anyone can beat anybody on any given day. In a way, that is perfect to describe the Arizona Cardinals in the last few seasons. Media members class the Cards as a 'nearly' team. A team which is lacking at the most important position in football: quarterback. With Carson Palmer, there isn't a more roller-coaster ride in terms of performances in the NFL.

Att Comp Comp % Yards TDs INTs Rating
Carson Palmer 358 224 62.6 2,573 14 15 79.7

*Stats from NFL.com

These are probably predictable stats, well they are to me anyway. I envisioned Carson Palmer to be a perennial 250 yard passer, 2 TDs and an INT every game. Averaging 257.3 YPG passing and around 3 TDs and INTs every two games, Palmer has been too error-prone for mine or anyone's liking. He has thrown multiple interceptions in five of ten games this season, three of those games resulting in defeats. That is not play-off caliber football. Then again, during this three-game win streak. Palmer has been surprisingly efficient. Going 79/110 (71.8% completion) for 952 yards (317.4 YPG) 7 TDs and 2 INTs, including his first zero-interception game of the season against the (woeful) Jags, this vein of form will do wonders for his confidence. As we have seen with the Chiefs, turnover-free, composed football can be the key to success. Palmer has looked erratic at times, rushing throws and often overthrowing wide open receivers. It's also no surprise this stretch of games have coincided with the improving play of the offensive line.

'Defense wins championships' is a saying we are all familiar with, but whether it still applies to the modern day NFL can be questioned.

The Cardinals have one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL. According to Football Outsiders, the Cardinals have the top ranked defense in 2013. (Their methods of configuring their stats is rather complex, so take a read of how it's done here). In terms of plain old league rankings, the Cardinals are allowing 81.4 YPG rushing (2nd in the NFL) and 3.4 YPR (2nd in the NFL) which is only behind the Jets in both categories. The weak-link of this defense last year was against the run, which has evidently been addressed by new Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles.

There was a total turnover of the secondary, with three starters, Kerry Rhodes, Adrian Wilson and Greg Toler all off the roster this season (one of the top ranked units last season) this area has played a version of prevent defense all year. The Cardinals rank 19th in passing yards allowed (2,435) but have been solid against preventing big plays, Keeping the opposition in front of you is the easiest way of stopping them from securing the big gainer.

Being able to to rush the passer was something questioned about this team coming into the year, but their have proved doubters wrong, being 6th in the NFL in sacks (28.0). Forcing turnovers is essential to be a successful team, and again this is an area the Cards are excelling in. 14 INTs on the season, 2nd in the NFL, and 8 FF on the year, all of which were successfully recovered; they rank 4th league-wide in total turnovers forced this season.

It's easy to see that the Cardinals have one of the most talented defenses in the league, with Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington and Patrick Peterson, who all can be mentioned in the conversation for best players at their position league-wide, and also rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu and linebacker Karlos Dansby who is playing at an All-Pro level.

So why isn't this team being considered as a legitimate play-off contender?

Bruce Arians' team is not a 'sexy' team. There is no superstar quarterback to capture the headlines. There is no outspoken individual who draws media attention. This is a team that knows their capabilities and have belief in themselves that they can beat anyone. In all honesty, the pieces are there if they perform well. There is no reason they can't make the play-offs. Whether they will is up in the air due to the competition surrounding them, but the fact this team isn't getting the recognition it needs, deserves in fact, baffles me.

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