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Are the Arizona Cardinals legitimate Super Bowl contenders?

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The Arizona Cardinals have had a very unlikely start to the 2014 NFL season. It was only a year ago that rookie head coach Bruce Arians was letting everyone know that Arizona wasn’t scared of the rest of the NFC West. Suddenly the Cardinals are oddly the team the NFC West should be afraid of.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

This post comes from Justin Becker of FantasyFootballOverdose.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NBAandNFLInfo or on the Fantasy Football Overdose Google+ Page, and for more Arizona Cardinals Rumors and News visit Fantasy Football Overdose.

The Arizona Cardinals have had a very unlikely start to the 2014 NFL season. It was only a year ago that rookie head coach Bruce Arians was letting everyone know that Arizona wasn’t scared of the rest of the NFC West. Suddenly the Cardinals are oddly the team the NFC West should be afraid of.

In fact, the Cardinals are on a fairly unpredictable run as winners of six of their first seven games (6-1), with their lone loss coming on the road to a pretty good Denver Broncos team.

So, at 6-1 and atop what was supposed to be one of the toughest divisions in all of football, are the Cardinals locks for the playoffs after barely missing out on them at 10-6 a year ago? More importantly, is this team a legit threat to make a run at the Super Bowl?

Some would say, why not? Carson Palmer gives the offense a competent leader under center. The team hasn’t lost with him at the controls, either, as the offense has remained balanced and even explosive, with the Cardinals winning in blowout fashion, as well as ending games with a closer’s mentality at times, too.

The running game is there, too. Andre Ellington is everything Cardinals fans hoped he’d be. His yards per carry average has dipped a bit due to injury and more touches, but he’s still been quite productive, while giving a formerly one-dimensional attack a dynamic weapon.

In fact, the only thing that could have really been looked at as a weakness statistically -- the defense -- still has done enough to keep this team in an elite position. In fact, the Cards’ boast a top-five run defense (something Super Bowl teams often have), while they’ve given up the fourth fewest points in the league (another stat Super Bowl teams tend to own).

Take away a 40+ point outburst by the Denver Broncos in a game that was actually close and merely got out of hand, and Arizona might be even better than we think. That loss was their only blemish on the year, while it also makes their points allowed and passing defense look worse than it actually is.

At just 13 points behind the Detroit Lions on that points allowed list, it’s reasonable to think Arizona is truly the best defense in the entire league.

Of course, this is just Week 9. The midway point of the season has never won anyone a title before, and it’s not going to in 2014, either.

If the Cardinals are going to finish strong, make the playoffs and accomplish the impossible and get to or even win the league’s title, some things will have to happen.

For one, a 34-year old Palmer who already dealt with a shoulder/nerve issue is going to have to stay both effective and healthy. How likely is that? Only the stars know, as Palmer already missed three games with the issue and something like that could very easily pop up again.

That health question can be passed on to Ellington, too. He’s been dealing with a troublesome foot issue all year and either that or another ailment could easily hamper him further or even end his season. Ellington and Palmer both staying healthy is absolutely crucial for Arizona’s offensive success. If either goes down for a large amount of time, they’ll undoubtedly be in serious trouble.

That trouble comes in the form of a pretty tough schedule that still includes two dates with the Seattle Seahawks and another with the San Francisco 49ers. That’s just inside the division. That’s not including a huge week nine battle in Dallas, a massive Week 11 battle with the Detroit Lions or two other toss up affairs with the Falcons and Chiefs.

One other key issue for the Cardinals is their alarming lack of a pass rush. Stopping the run and holding teams to under 20 points per game on a regular basis is awesome, but how long can it keep up for a team that has just seven total sacks? That paltry number settles in at 31st in the entire league and when you compare it to the league leader (Bills with 28 sacks), you can see just how little AZ gets to the quarterback.

That inability to rush the passer has yielded major passing yardage (worst in the league at over 302 yards per game), while the Cards have become a bit of a joke in that area of their defense.

Needless to say, Arizona’s pass defense remains their Achilles heel. Even if Palmer and Ellington are fine and the run defense stays elite, the pass defense is the worst in the league and enough on it’s own to end a solid playoff run before it starts. In a conference with elite passers like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, Arizona needs to find a way to correct their secondary and pass rush before the playoffs come. If they can’t, they may eventually be stuck in shootouts that could go either way.

Of course, one big weakness doesn’t mean the Cardinals can’t make a run for the Super Bowl. They absolutely can. While one facet of their defense is terrible, the rest lines up with past Super Bowl winners.

On paper, the Cardinals are a winner and can absolutely make a deep playoff run. They’ll just have to close the season out strong and hope their pass defense doesn’t ultimately do them in.