Arizona Cardinals: From the NFL Shadows to Playoff Contenders

Cedric HopkinsContributor IDecember 8, 2011

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 04:  Quarterback Kevin Kolb #4 of the Arizona Cardinals prepares to run out onto the field before the NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 4, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Cowboys 19-13 in overtime.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Just before the Arizona Cardinals played the St. Louis Rams in Week 9, I wrote how I thought the Cardinals would win the NFC West. Arizona was just coming off a six-game losing streak and many in the NFL community had written them off. 

It was clear—at least to me—that the Cardinals were maturing as a team and could've easily won four of their six losses.

Since Week 9, though, the Cardinals have gone 4-1. The sole loss in that span was to the San Francisco 49ers, a team that is projected to play in the Super Bowl. Quarterback John Skelton also threw for three interceptions in that game—not Arizona's best look.

So maybe I was short-sighted. Maybe, just maybe, the Cardinals have bigger plans in mind than the NFC West. And maybe a team that is currently 5-7 can make it into the playoffs and be a contender for the NFC.

Those are a lot of maybes; let's look at what's real.

Four of the Cardinals' games were lost by a total of 11 points. You can look to each one of those losses and identify a factor that determined the loss for the Cardinals—Beanie Wells didn't play, Kevin Kolb didn't play, an immature secondary—but those are just excuses. The Cardinals lost and that's that; they put themselves in that hole.

Over the past five weeks, however, they have been climbing out of that hole, and have been doing it convincingly. 

One of the most vulnerable aspects to the Cardinals' game was the soft secondary. Opposing quarterbacks were picking apart the young cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and A.J. Jefferson. With each game, however, Peterson and Jefferson were making strides. Their maturity culminated in a strong, competent performance in Week 13 against the Dallas Cowboys—one of the better passing attacks in the league. 

Arizona defensive coordinator Ray Horton has turned this Cardinal front seven into an attacking unit that is disrupting offenses and shutting down opposing running backs. Over the past two weeks, Arizona has shut Rams running back Steven Jackson (3.8 YPC) and Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (3.2 YPC) down. 

Horton has the defense humming, and now the offense is healing.

After sitting out for three weeks with turf toe and a foot injury, quarterback Kevin Kolb has taken back the reins of the offense and looks confident with the ball. His offensive line is one of the worst in the league, but that didn't stop him from being effective at driving the offense downfield against the Cowboys. He needs to remain consistent in order for the Cardinals to be in scoring position.

Of course, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and running back Beanie Wells will come to play each Sunday, and no one needs to worry about Arizona's special teams. Whether it's blocking a field goal or returning a punt for a touchdown, the Cardinals keep that threat in their pocket at all times. 

So with Arizona coming together as a team, the playoffs are well within sight. With the slate of games on their schedule, they have a legitimate shot at finishing 9-7. With that record, the Cardinals would most likely meet up with either the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Giants in a Wild Card game.

Arizona has already shown that they can beat both of these teams.

From there, the Cardinals' future enters the unknown. But what is known is that whomever lines up on the other side of the ball from Arizona will see a team that not only plays hard but plays with a tremendous amount of pride. Only players with the greatest sense of pride could pull themselves from a 1-6 start to the season to become playoff contenders.

Arizona is that team.

The Cardinals are a team that has provided its fans with exciting finishes—some good, some bad. The most exciting finish to this roller coaster season would be to make the playoffs and contend for the NFC. With the road ahead, it is a feat that can be accomplished.