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And then there was one: What’s the ceiling for the last undefeated team in the NFL?

The Cardinals authoritatively announced their presence as a contender with their win over the Rams on Sunday. How good can this team really be?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams
Kyler made it look easy against the Rams. Can he keep it up as the season goes on?
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Please, before anyone else asks it: Of COURSE the Cardinals are “for real.” They’re the only remaining undefeated team in the league at 4-0, they have the #1 scoring offense and a top-10 scoring defense, they have a legit MVP candidate at QB, and they just trounced the Rams, who had beaten us 8 times in a row and looked like the best team in the league before Sunday, on the road.

So, yeah, the Arizona Cardinals are for real.

Whether or not this team is “for real” is not the right question to be asking right now. The right question is how good this team can be, how high its ceiling is. To do that, I’m going to ask a series of escalating questions, starting with…

Are the Cardinals the best team in the NFC West?

Through 4 games, the answer is obviously “yes.” They’re 4-0 with that win against the 3-1 Rams, with the Seahawks and 49ers both at 2-2. But, of course, they play more than just the 4 games, and there are still 5 more divisional games to play. The Rams still have the makings of a juggernaut (they’re at #5 in DVOA; we’re #3), and they’ll be out for blood when they come to the desert for Monday Night Football in Week 14. And the Seahawks and Niners still have talent-laden rosters. So while I think it’s too early to say the Redbirds are the best team in the division, I think it’s a 2-team argument between us and the Rams (who I still think have a more complete roster). But this team is clearly capable of winning the division… and perhaps more.

Are the Cardinals one of the best teams in the NFC?

I could have asked “Are the Cardinals a playoff contender?”, but I didn’t. We very clearly are. But are we one of the NFC elite, the teams that can compete for the #1 seed, perhaps string together a few wins in the playoffs even if we don’t? Let’s compare the Cardinals to the rest of the NFC contenders:

  • There are a few teams clustered at 2-2, but I think the only two that could be considered true contenders are our division rival Seahawks and 49ers, who I covered above. At this point, it sure seems like we’re a better team than those two, who have both shown their flaws. I suppose we’ll find out about the Niners on Sunday, though.
  • On to the 3-1 teams. I like our matchup against the Panthers. Although Sam Darnold has been playing well in Carolina, we have a huge advantage at QB. And the Cowboys just showed that the improved Panthers defense isn’t exactly an elite unit. I think we’re better than this team.
  • I also think we match up pretty well with the Packers. They have a talented roster, no doubt, but the defense is beatable and Aaron Rodgers has come back down to earth a bit after his otherworldly 2020 MVP season. But would I say we’re definitely a better team? Not quite yet. I think we’re on about equal ground with this team.
  • I mentioned the Cowboys above, whose only loss so far was on a last-second FG to the defending Super Bowl champs. The Cowboys actually make me a little nervous—they have the offense to keep pace with ours, and an opportunistic defense that could make life tough for Kyler. This might not go over well in the comments, but I think Dallas might have a slightly better team than we do.
  • The same goes for the Rams, as I already said above. They just have so many playmakers on offense and difference-makers on defense. Yes, we just took them to the woodshed on Sunday, but if we played that game 10 times, I don’t know if we beat them more than 4-5 times. The Week 14 rematch will obviously be huge.
  • That leaves us with the Buccaneers, who got whooped by the Rams as bad as we whooped them. So, by the transitive property, we’re the best team in the NFC… right? If only it worked that way. The Bucs are still a very dangerous team, and one I wouldn’t feel confident playing against in the playoffs, at home or on the road.

But to answer the question, yes, I think the Cardinals are one of the best teams in the NFC. We stack up fairly well with this list of contenders. Interesting note: We actually play ALL of these teams except the Bucs before the season is out, so we’ll have a chance to prove it to them.

Are the Cardinals one of the best teams in the NFL?

Rather than going through the whole list of contenders like above, I’m going to cop out a little bit and say it’s too early to say whether we’re one of the best teams in the entire league. I’m absolutely buying this team as a contender in the NFC, but I want to be prudent and pump the brakes a bit before we start talking about being a Super Bowl contender, which is what this question is really asking.

Before we start talking about all that, here are some things I’d like to see this team improve on, some nits to pick about this 4-0 start (roughly in descending order):

  • Run defense. This is the big one. We’re #26 in rush defense, and tied for dead last with the Chiefs in YPC against—teams are averaging 5.4 yards a pop against us. The main culprit is our D-line, with every contributor besides J.J. Watt grading well below average per PFF. Run D isn’t quite as important as it used to be, but this is the team’s one glaring flaw right now. Can guys like Corey Peters and Zach Allen step up?
  • Marco Wilson. Byron Murphy and, surprisingly, Robert Alford have impressed thus far, but rookie Wilson is the secondary’s weak point thus far. Whenever opposing passers have completed a big pass, it sure seems like it was against Wilson, and that is borne out by his woeful 53.3 PFF grade (#80 out of 108 CBs). The effort from the rookie is commendable, but the Cardinals defense is going to need better play out of him (or someone else) before the season is out.
  • Penalties. This old bugaboo. After another 7 flags against the Rams, we have the 9th-most penalties in the league. At least they mostly haven’t been backbreakers, as we’re middle of the pack in penalty yards at #19. Most of the penalties have been on the offense, include 7 false starts and holding calls, both tied for 2nd-most in the league. Think about how much better this offense would look if we stopped making things harder on ourselves like this.
  • Coaching. Don’t get me wrong—Kliff has mostly done a great job so far. The offense is playing extremely well (penalties notwithstanding), and the playcalling and time management gaffes that were so prevalent in his first two seasons haven’t reared their ugly heads… yet. I still worry that Kliff could cost us a winnable game or two, and we’d be at a likely coaching disadvantage against several other NFC contenders. I need to see Kliff thrive in more pressure situations like the Vikings game before these worries will be assuaged.

Final Thoughts

So I guess I need to answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this column. How good can this Cardinals team be? How high is its ceiling? It’s obviously tough to say after only 4 games, but I see this team being a factor in the NFC all season. We should be competing for the NFC West crown, and potentially a top 2-3 seed going into the playoffs.

But to talk about anything more than that would be premature at this juncture, I think. This team still has some work to do to prove it’s one of the best teams in the league—4 games is a very small sample size, after all.

That proving starts on Sunday at home against the 49ers. True contenders don’t drop home divisional games to backup QBs… as the Cardinals found out first-hand last season. Then we travel to Cleveland to take on a 3-1 Browns who are #4 in DVOA with their only loss a close one to the Chiefs. If we can win those two—and that’s a big IF (you can tell because I capitalized it)—we might be looking at the best Arizona Cardinals team ever.

Do you think this team has what it takes?