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Arizona Cardinals' Road To Elite Status

As we prepare for the Cardinals-49ers Monday Night Football matchup, with a chance for Arizona to claim its second NFC West crown in a row with a win, lets take a look back at the season to date to see what we have learned. In the name of reader enjoyment, I'll start with my synopsis, with a skimming of the surface breakdown to follow.

What have we learned? I don't have to tell any of you that we can all watch every snap and come away with very different versions of what we saw. So maybe it is more appropriate to say, what have I learned?

I have learned that the 2009 Cardinals are a new improved version of the 2008 Cardinals. Sounds simple enough doesn't it? 

More precisely, the 2008 model was good enough to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in team history, but inconsistent and unreliable, especially at the most inopportune times such as the excruciating Steelers' game winning drive.

Last year, the teams primary weaknesses, arguably of course, were giving up the big play way too often, not winning on the road, and general inability to run the ball.

This year the Cardinals are not giving up nearly as many big plays on defense, are 5-1 on the road, and have increased their team yards per carry average from 3.5 last year to 4.1.

But it goes further than the numbers.

This team has demonstrated that they are more mature and resilient. Arizona is more focused and physical.

Additionally, key players have simply gotten better with each passing week. An alarming number of players are playing at a Pro Bowl-caliber level. Defensively, Antrel Rolle, Adrian Wilson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett should at least get consideration. Not to mention special teams warrior LaRod Stephens-Howling, punter Ben Graham and kicker Neil Rackers. Offensively, the usual suspects Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald could all be locks for the Pro Bowl.

Forget about the Pro Bowl for a minute though. Calais Campbell, Lyle Sendlein, Deuce Lutui, Reggie Wells and Tim Hightower have all improved.

Don't bother doing the math, I've already done it: that is 13 out of the starting 22 that are either playing at a Pro Bowl level or have in the least improved their game. On special teams, Graham and Rackers have played nearly flawlessly, and LSH has been an upgrade on kick returns and return coverage.

This team has more character, even when they lose. In my not so humble opinion, the Titans game was a huge character win despite the loss. MattLeinart had some things to prove that day, and he did. There were more players making plays in that game than most I've seen. True, the Cardinals again let a QB execute another two-minute drill to perfection—their Achilles heel—and lost the game, but they can't win them all can they?

Finally, I have to talk about head coach Ken Whisenhunt for a moment. He has a methodical, patient approach, and his teams' progress is a reflection of that. In his first season he took an under-achieving talent-laden squad to their first 8-8 record in many moons. Last year they improved to 9-7, but caught fire and made it to their first-ever Super Bowl. This year their weaknesses have been shored up even moreso—defensively they are more consistent and the rushing attack is better—and the Cardinals have cleared yet another hurdle. Now, my fellow Arizona fans, the Cardinals are becoming one of the elite teams in the NFL right before our very eyes.

As I recall the 12 games played to date briefly below, by my count the 8-4 record can be broken down as follows:

Of the four losses, two were respectably played games that ended in a loss (Week 1 vs. 49ers and Week 12 vs. Titans), and two were games that the Cardinals simply laid an egg (Week 3 vs. the Colts and Week 8 vs. the Panthers).

Of the eight wins, all of them had at least two quarters of completely dominating play by Arizona.

The word dominate is used repeatedly on purpose to drive home my point.

1. San Francisco L  16-20 (0-1): Hard fought game, division rival.

It can be said that with the departure of Todd Haley, the flow of the Cardinals' offense wasn't quite in sync with Ken Whisenhunt's first time out calling plays in awhile.

Held Frank Gore to 30 yards on 22 carries.

2. @ Jacksonville W 31-17 (1-1): The Cardinals' nemesis last regular season was winning on the road. In their first attempt, they completely dominated Jacksonville for three quarters.

Jacksonville's 17 points were a little deceiving as it came up against prevent defense.

Held Maurice Jones-Drew to 66 yards on 13 carries, but 36 came on one run.

3. Indianapolis L 10-31 (1-2): After a promising start to the game, this was a poor all-around effort by the Cardinals.

They were flat and out of sorts in all phases for most of the game.

Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, and Pierre Garçon embarrassed Arizona, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in particular.


5. Houston W 28-21 (2-2): Arizona again completely dominated for three quarters.

When they went to prevent defense, Matt Schaub and company mounted a comeback.

A goal-line stand by Arizona prevented the Texans from tying to force overtime.

6. @ Seattle W 27-3 (3-2): Arizona completely dominated this game from start to finish.

One of their most complete wins in team history.

Held Matt Hasselbeck to 112 yards passing and Seattle to 14 yards rushing on 11 carries.

7. @ NY Giants W 24-17 (4-2): In a signature win, the Cardinals stymied the Giants who were 5-1 before this game, by forcing four turnovers and holding last year's best rushing team to 107 total yards on the ground.

The Giants could only muster three second-half points.

8. Carolina L 21-34 (4-3): Another poor all-around effort by the Cardinals, who were dominated by the previously stagnant Panthers, in a revenge game.

The Cardinals had embarrassed the Panthers last postseason on their home turf, and the Panthers returned the favor.

Arizona came into the game with the top ranked run defense, but were exploited for 270 ground yards.

9. @ Chicago W 41-21 (5-3): Cardinals rebound nicely by dominating the Bears. It was 31-7 at halftime.

In prevent defense, the Bears got back into the game. Matt Leinart helped them out by throwing an INT on his only attempt, and was immediately replaced with Warner.

10. Seattle W 31-20 (6-3): Seattle gave it everything they had, playing maybe their best game of the season, only to lose by 11 points to a superior team.

11. @ St. Louis W 21-13 (7-3): With Kurt Warner at the helm, the Cardinals were cruising with a 21-3 halftime lead.

He suffered a concussion at the end of the second quarter however, and the still rusty Leinart was unable to lead the team to points.

The defense held strong and mopped up, securing the win.

12. @ Tennessee L 17-20 (7-4): Playing the hot Titans, who had won four straight, without Warner.

Leinart improved, and the Cardinals held a 17-13 advantage with two minutes remaining before Vince Young's now instant classic, 18-play 99-yard drive, won the game on the last play of the game for Tennessee.

An all around well-played game by both sides.

13. Minnesota W 30-17 (8-4): Many pundits weighed in and very few gave the Cardinals a chance leading up to kickoff. The Vikings had been anointed the best all-around team by some, with only one loss in 11 attempts coming in. BrettFavre had only thrown three picks, but threw two in this one. Jared Allen was held without a stat, and Adrian Peterson was held to 19 yards on 13 carries. After giving up a 7-0 lead early sparked by Tim Hightower's fumble on the second play of the game, it was all Arizona.

What are your thoughts on the Cardinals season so far? Do you think they have achieved elite status, or is there still more work to be done?