If you had come to me late in the 2012 season, having watched the team I follow drop 11 of the last 12 games following a 4-0 start, and told me in less than two years time, this team will be challenging for the division, I would've checked you into a mental health institute. The roster was sparing of talent in the most vital of positions - Quarterback, Left Tackle and had no relevant edge rusher; the coaching staff were unable to groom and develop young talent, who were poorly selected by the front office in the first place, and yet, here we are.
In just two drafts and two offseasons together, Bruce Arians and Steve Keim have cobbled together a competitive roster, able to rival the top teams in the NFL - without necessarily having the talent to match. That couldn't be more true in our own division, heralded as the best in the land, the NFC West, home to arguably the two best teams in the NFC in the last two or three seasons, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers.
Arians has an indisputable aura about him. Players love playing for him, coaches love coaching for him, and the media loves
mediating his story of how a man, who was all but retired a couple years prior, has managed to reignite his career in his twilight years, reinvigorate an organization, and turn a losing franchise into a winning one in such a short space of time.
As for the 2014 Arizona Cardinals, you can't say this wasn't coming. If we look back to 2013, as the season went on, there was a chemistry forming between Coach Arians and Carson Palmer. Familiarization of the offense grew stronger, and the team went on to win seven of their last nine games as they went on to enjoy a 10-6 season, including a statement win against the Seahawks, in Seattle, their first home loss of the Russell Wilson era. And of course, that team went on to win the Super Bowl, which could only leave some residual confidence in the team.
If you want to go another year back, to when Arians was the interim head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, you again see how this man, seemingly nearing the end of his coaching road, manages to galvanize a team which went 2-14 the season before. The Colts went 9-3 under Arians, leading them to a play-off berth, something the 2013 Cardinals were unlucky not to receive.
There is a feel about the the 2012 Colts around the 2014 Cardinals. The impromptu wins from improbable positions, the spirit in the locker room, and how the team has a never-say-die attitude in games. In his first game coaching the Colts in 2012, as well as calling the offense, he orchestrated the first of five fourth quarter comeback victories, which would tie an NFL rookie record for Andrew Luck. It does help when you have the pieces around you, but you cannot doubt the role Arians had to play as play-caller and mentor for Luck.
It's not that the Cardinals having been making fourth quarter comebacks (which they have done in two of their four wins, and were tied entering the fourth quarter against the Redskins last week), its that it's a combination of both offense and defense coming together, making big plays in the crunch moments of games. In three of the Cardinals' four victories this season, the defense has shut out the opposing offense, and that goes to Defensive Co-ordinator and probably soon-to-be-head-coach Todd Bowles.
The Cardinals were first in the NFL against the run last season with a defense stacked with talent, and of that defense, only Dan Williams remained as a starter from that defense in last weeks game. Dansby left in free agency, Washington suspended, Dockett out for the season, Abraham out for the season, Mathieu returning from a torn ACL, Bell retired, Powers demoted to slot corner and now Campbell is banged up. Despite this, despite what the media were saying about how this defense couldn't hold up this season, the team are third against the run, allowing 75.8 YPG.
When you're able to take away on option of the offense like the running game, that allows your secondary to play a bit more opportunistically. The Cardinals rank 32nd in the NFL defending the pass, allowing 309 YPG through the air. They have faced some pretty illustrious quarterbacks thus far - Peyton Manning, Phillip Rivers, Eli Manning, Colin Kaepernick, and Kirk Cousins (four of these quarterbacks rank in the top 13 in total passing yards, three of those rank in the top seven in terms of yards p/game), but regardless, it's dismal to be honest.
However, as I said, it allows the Cardinals defense to play more opportunistically when you know how the offense will try to attack you. The Cardinals rank third in the NFL in turnover differential (+8), are tied third for interceptions (7) and are eighth in total takeaways (11). It's your classic bend-but-don't-break defense. It's all about field position in the NFL, when your defense can force turnovers and give your offense better starting positions, the fact they're giving up a league high in passing yards really doesn't matter, and when that defense can shut out the opponent in the fourth quarter, then it really doesn't matter how many yards you give up if it doesn't result in points.
So, even with injuries, even with a roster which doesn't have as many so called 'elite' level players as their rivals, the Cardinals sit atop the NFC West, at 4-1, while their two-loss rivals the Seahawks and 49ers are staring up at them, everything is set up perfectly for the team to go on a bit of a roll and perhaps steal the division for the first time since Kurt Warner was defying us all.
While the Cardinals have glaring holes on both sides of the ball - inconsistent running game, depleted roster, injury concerns and a secondary that can't stop giving up big play after big play, they have found a way to win in spite of this, and that is the key. The Seahawks and 49ers are still lacking this ability, both teams are beginning to get found out.
The Seahawks can't get efficient and consistent production out of their offense, and a blueprint is being formed on how to beat them - control time of possession, run the ball early and often, and don't be afraid of Richard Sherman. The 49ers on the other hand have a similar problem, not to mention the media circus that follows their head coach and his future. While they battle their own problems, the Cardinals can craft themselves a lead in the division.
Already a game up on both teams, and having beaten the 49ers will help in tie-breaking scenarios, need to hold strong in the next few weeks before their week 11 showdown at the Seahawks, which will give us insight into where the division title is likely heading. While morale is high and favour is on our side, with the upcoming Super Bowl in their own back yard, it's time for the Cardinals make themselves known as one of the NFL's elite franchises.