It's Time for Cardinals to Prove Whether They're a Contender or Pretender

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterNovember 21, 2013

Sep 15, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians stands on the sideline prior to the game against the Detroit Lions at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY Sports
Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY S

After a 1-2 start, with losses to the St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints, pundits from around the league believed the Arizona Cardinals were no better off than they were during the last couple of years under head coach Ken Whisenhunt.

Fortunately for the Cardinals and their new commander Bruce Arians, the NFL season consists of a 16-game schedule. Amidst Arizona’s 1-2 kickoff to the season, Arians knew he had to have patience and trust that both sides of the ball would start to hit their stride at just the right time.

Lo and behold, Arians’ persistence and ability to weather the storm paid off. Since the team’s subpar beginning, the Gridbirds have righted the ship by securing five wins in their last seven contests. Heading into Week 12, the Cardinals possess the 19th-best offense in the league and the ninth-best defense.

Without a doubt, their offensive numbers, as a whole, would be improved if their ground game had a pulse. Sadly, Arians continues to pin his hopes to veteran running back Rashard Mendenhall. In nine games, the sixth-year pro has been about as bad as it gets.

Rashard Mendenhall vs. Andre Ellington
Pro Football Focus

He’s only averaging 2.9 yards per carry on 117 total attempts and has lost two fumbles in the process. It’s safe to say that Mendenhall does more harm than good when Arians calls his name on game day. Obviously, a sense of loyalty to a veteran player is important, but at some point, the coaching staff has to let go and free Andre Ellington.

According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the sixth-round pick out of Clemson is currently the 11th-best running back in the NFL. Despite the fact he has logged a mere 265 snaps, Ellington has made the most of every touch he has garnered on a weekly basis.

Every time the 199-pound speedster touches the ball, he amasses 7.4 yards per play. Every time Mendenhall gets a hold of the rock, he averages 4.6 yards per play. I’m not a rocket scientist, by any means, yet it’s evident who the more productive player is.

Sure, Arians doesn’t want to beat the smaller scatback into the ground by overusing him, but he will need to get him more involved down the stretch if wants to ensure the Cardinals make a postseason appearance for the first time since 2009.

NFL Game Rewind

Moreover, the first-year head coach will have to incorporate Ellington’s skill set into the offensive game plan if he wants to show the nation that the Cardinals are contenders and not pretenders.

Even though a 6-4 record with six games left to play may be persuading to some, Arizona’s wins have come against teams who sport a combined record of 20-40. Additionally, its present three-game win streak has come against the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Those three teams own a combined record of 5-25, which means that Arizona’s three-game winning streak shouldn’t impress anyone outside of its own fan base. Yes, the Cardinals have no choice but to beat the team that is placed in front of them every week, yet to be considered a contender, they will first have to beat the likes of the Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.

The Colts, Seahawks and 49ers have compiled an astonishing 23-8 combined record. To capture one of the two wild-card spots in the NFC, the Cardinals will not only have to win four of their next six games, they will have to learn to win within their own division.

Arizona Cardinals Remaining Schedule
WeekDateOpponentTime (ET)
12Sun, Nov. 24Colts4:05 p.m.
13Sun, Dec. 1@Eagles1:00 p.m.
14Sun, Dec. 8Rams4:25 p.m.
15Sun, Dec. 15@Titans1:00 p.m.
16Sun, Dec. 22@Seahawks4:05 p.m.
17Sun, Dec. 2949ers4:25 p.m.

Versus NFC West foes this year, Arizona has managed to hang tough. Yet when it was all said and done, the team had nothing to show for its valiant efforts in all three contests. A 6-1 record outside of the West is brilliant; however, fruitful teams that advance deep into the playoffs know how to win inside their division.

The good news is that the Cardinals play their best football at home (4-1), and two of their three remaining divisional games are in front of their home crowd. That is not to mention that both of their home contests in the NFC West are against the Rams and 49ers.

While St. Louis may have beat Arizona in a Week 1 showdown, there’s no way quarterback Kellen Clemens out-duels quarterback Carson Palmer in the desert. Palmer is playing some of his best football of the year right now. During the Cardinals three-game winning streak, he has one 400-yard passing game, six touchdowns and two interceptions. Furthermore, his passer ratings over the last three weeks have been 116, 93.4 and 119, respectively.

Unfortunately, the 49ers game won’t be as uncontested as the Rams game. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. haven’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard as of late, but any team with as much talent as San Francisco is a threat, regardless of its current circumstances.

There’s also a good chance the Cardinals-49ers game in Week 17 could end up deciding the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC. Undoubtedly, the organization would be grateful to be in a position to contend for a postseason opportunity in the final week of the season, but it may be in the team's best interest to get to 10 wins prior to the San Francisco game.

That way, win or lose, its playoff ticket will already be stamped ahead of time.

As crazy as the notion sounds, the Cardinals have the necessary talent to win four of their next five games. By no means will the feat come easy, but to be viewed as true contenders that deserve a chance to make noise in the playoffs, they will need to beat the best.

If they can’t beat the best and are relegated to victories over the Tennessee Titans and Rams, their true colors will show. In turn, this means that the pundits who doubted them at the beginning of the season will have the last laugh and will officially be free to label Arians’ ballclub as pretenders.

Nonetheless, Arians and general manager Steve Keim appear to have the ability to draft well and win games. As simple as that sounds, there are plenty of teams who wish they could replicate the same success the Cardinals have had through 10 games in 2013.

Arizona fans should consider themselves lucky. The franchise is embarking on a new generation that will be filled with its fair share of success, thanks in large part to Arians and Keim.


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