Arizona Cardinals' Ascension to Elite Almost Complete

Chris FarmerCorrespondent IDecember 13, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 06:  Runningback Tim Hightower #34 of the Arizona Cardinals rushes the football during the NFL game against the Minnesota Vikings at the Universtity of Phoenix Stadium on December 6, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Vikings 30-17.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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.

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.

Matt Leinart 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?

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

Of the four losses, two were well played games that ended in a loss (Week One vs. 49ers and Week 12 vs. Titans), and two were games that the Cardinals simply laid an egg (Week Three vs. the Colts and Week Eight vs. the Panthers).

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

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, the Cardinals are becoming one of the elite teams in the NFL right before out very eyes.