After a 4-4 start to the season, pundits were quick to write off head coach Bruce Arians and the Arizona Cardinals. Rightfully so, considering quarterback Carson Palmer was playing like he was still a member of the Oakland Raiders and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ defense hadn’t hit its late-season stride.
With that said, it’s a good thing the NFL consists of 32 different teams that each play 16 different games.
As we all know, playoff appearances and Super Bowl titles aren’t won at the conclusion of eight regular-season games. Some teams peak earlier in the year while others peak later.
After Arizona’s Week 12 trouncing of the Indianapolis Colts, it’s evident that the Cardinals are one of the organizations that are peaking later in the season. Since their Week 7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Gridbirds have amassed four victories in a row and outscored the opposition 121-62.
Additionally, Arians’ offense has been performing at an unprecedented level during the team’s four-game winning streak. Palmer has thrown eight touchdown passes, tallied 1,146 yards through the air and registered a quarterback rating of 110.6.
This is without mentioning that his days of tossing multiple interceptions into double and triple coverage are long gone.
He has made it a point to not only make better decisions, but to attempt more high-percentage throws. His 69.4 percent completion percentage is a direct result of his change of philosophy as a passer. Moreover, one has to think that Arians’ complex system has started to come full circle for the 11th-year veteran out of USC.
Implementing a new quarterback and offensive scheme will provide plenty of growing pains with the hopes of it all coming together down the stretch.
The good news is that, with five games left to play, the Cardinals are absolutely red-hot on both sides of the ball.
We could sit here and praise Arizona’s offense for the job it has done in recent weeks, yet that wouldn’t be fair to Bowles’ defense. Why? Because the Cardinals defense has been a monster against the run while steadily improving versus the pass.
After limiting quarterback Andrew Luck and Co. to 239 total yards on 55 plays this past week, Arizona’s defense is now the seventh-best unit in the league. Opposing offenses are only garnering 317.1 yards and 19.2 first downs per game against the Cardinals while converting just 38 percent of their third-down attempts.
However, the million-dollar question from now until the end of the season is simple: How far can the Cardinals’ offensive and defensive units take them?
With a fairly tough schedule from here on out, Arians will have to rally his troops and beat teams who have a combined record of 32-22.
Obviously, Arizona’s matchups against the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans will be categorized as its easiest because of the sub-.500 records they possess. However, there is really no such thing as an easy contest when your final five opponents are the Philadelphia Eagles, Rams, Titans, Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
All five of those teams are playoff-caliber squads and at least three of them will be postseason-bound when all is said and done. Realistically, for the Cardinals to punch their own playoff ticket, they will have to finish the season with three more wins under their belt.
Undoubtedly, the two most important games on their schedule are divisional showdowns in Weeks 16 and 17. Beating the Seahawks on the road is as hard as it gets, yet that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Let’s not forget, Arizona had its fair share of chances to beat Seattle on Thursday Night Football. Unfortunately, costly interceptions and third-down ineffectiveness doomed it in the end.
As far as the Cardinals' Week 17 affair against the 49ers, this will prove to be a must-win game.
In all likelihood, one of the two wild-card spots will be decided at the end of this game. Both teams are sitting on four losses and will need to be a wild-card selection if they want to get into the playoffs.
The only blemish for the Cardinals is their abysmal record against their own division. Outside of the division, they are 7-1. Within it, they are 0-3. Clearly, they weren’t playing their best football when they took on the Rams, 49ers and Seahawks earlier in the season, so a 3-3 finish seems plausible based on the way they are playing right now.
Nonetheless, 2013 won’t be 2008 all over again. As well as Palmer has played as of late, he’s not Kurt Warner. Furthermore, the running game isn’t where it needs to be. Sure, that could change if Arians decides to use Andre Ellington more, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Even though the Cardinals’ ceiling for this season looks like a wild-card berth, that’s okay. Fans should be happy with the team’s overall direction.
Arians and general manager Steve Keim have this franchise headed in the right direction. In their first year at the helm, they made subtle moves in free agency and struck it rich with top-tier draft picks.
Without a doubt, things are on the up and up in the desert and the best is yet to come.
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