Every year it seems, for the past five seasons, the Arizona Cardinals have been the trendy pick to make the playoffs because of their loaded talent on the offensive side of the ball, and improving defense. Every year, this perennial underachiever falls short and we all act surprised.
This year though, this team has started 7-3 and has clear command over their playoff destiny simply because they have done what they've needed to do in beating up an awful division and taking care of the games they've had to win.
Their closet divisional opponent is San Francisco, currently sitting at 3-7 but since the Cardinals have already swept the season series, they actually hold a five-game lead on them (not that this one extra game would have made a difference).
The rest of the division sits the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams both at 2-8. When it became apparent four games into the season that all of Arizona's divisional opponents weren't going to be competitive and it looked like six or seven wins may be all it took to win this putrid division, that is exactly what I wanted to happen.
I wanted each team to beat up on each other so that when the dust settled, we had a 6-10, or 7-9 team not only making the playoffs, but winning a division, clearly an NFL first, and then having to watch Roger Goodell, the rest of the NFL execs, and the announcers involved in their inevitable playoff game search for positives on which to hype this game in order to create interest and viewership.
While that obviously won't happen anymore, I am glad that even in this division, the best team is going to win. I believe that every city and every team deserves to see a winner every once in a while, and this is why I cheer for underdogs.
Since the Cardinals moved to the desert in 1987, they have made the playoffs exactly once and won exactly one playoff game. What's worse, that one playoff game is the only such win in the entire existence of the franchise-one that dates back to 1920 in Chicago.
To make matters worse, it was not only common for the Cardinals' home stadium to be half-empty, but of those fans that did show up in attendance, half of them would likely be wearing the colors of their opponent, namely in "rivalry" games versus the Dallas Cowboys when both were members of the old NFC East. (Yes Arizona was in the east, go figure, and yes, Atlanta was in the NFC West, along with Carolina).
Not only could the Cardinals not win at home, but they seemed to lack a real presence of a true home-field advantage. All of this changed, however, last year, with the introduction of coach Ken Whisenhunt, who immediately established this long lost presence and had the club victorious in eight of their last ten such games.
When Whisenhunt was hired as a replacement for fired coach Dennis Green, many people, myself included, wondered what the offensive-minded coach credited with the Pittsburgh Steelers success in their route to the Super Bowl and subsequently as eventual Champions, was doing when he agreed to take this job.
It was widely believed that the Steelers job, a perennial playoff contender, was his for the taking once current coach and longtime legend, Bill Cowher, stepped aside.
Not even two years later, it looks like Whisenhunt had a plan and stuck to it, and now the Cardinals, long been considered favorites for the playoffs are indeed on the verge of taking that next step. But one has to ask themselves, are they really this good, or are they simply fortunate to be playing in historically one of the worst divisions ever assembled?
While one cannot argue with the statistics and victories the team has been able to produce, or the fact they have taken care of business, especially in the division, with a perfect 4-0 record, one still has doubts whether they will be able to do anything in cold weather climates or in Eastern time zones should they actually get out of the wild-card round with a win.
We all know the record of teams from the West that travel East as it has been much discussed and the fact that this victory number equals zero in over a dozen tries. But the Cardinals must first take care of business at home when a nation and legion of fans is watching them on the biggest of screens, in the unfamiliar territory known as the playoffs.
As of now, they would be the No. 3 seed and at home to face the similarly upstart Atlanta Falcons. It would be a shame to see the Cardinals come as far as they have this year, only to be one and done in the playoffs. Here's hoping that doesn't happen.
They can prove a lot to us this weekend, should they break the East Coast jinx by beating the defending World Champion New York Giants in their own backyard.
A victory would give the Cards an 8-3 record but more importantly elevate them into the much coveted No. 2 seed, should the Carolina Panthers fall victim to those same pesky Falcons this weekend. Securing this seed would give the Cardinals an unheard of first-round bye and an extra week to scout their next opponent.
On top of that, it would still give them at least one home playoff game and coincidentally, be one less game they'd have to travel East to play.
We should find out a lot about this team this weekend. For those who want to criticize their schedule, or their cakewalk division, this is the first true test for the Cardinals this season. Will they pass? I don't know, but I hope so, for the good of this team, franchise, ownership, and fans who truly deserve it after waiting so long.
Are the Cards "for real" or simply an opportunistic one-year-wonder? This weekend should begin to answer those questions concerning their staying power in a division that can't truly be this bad, and won't be down forever.
Or will it?