What I'm about to say is going to rankle some people. Most of these people are centered around the Charlotte, North Carolina, area.
The NFC's best team is not the team with the best record. The NFC's most complete team is not the undefeated Carolina Panthers.
Now, Panthers supporters will point to the two losses the Cardinals have, throw up their hands and scoff at that assertion.
Yes, the Redbirds have two in the loss column. Bad losses, even—to the St. Louis Rams and Ben Roethlisberger-less Pittsburgh Steelers. They also have quite a few more signature wins than the Panthers, especially recently.
Just since the team's Week 9 bye, the Cardinals have gone to Seattle and defeated the Seahawks. Followed that up with a win over the AFC-leading Cincinnati Bengals. And then capped that (after a couple of wins over bad NFC West teams) with Thursday night's thriller against the 8-4 Vikings.
Over that span, the Panthers have played just one team that would make the playoffs if the season ended today—the 5-7 Washington Redskins. And Arizona still has Green Bay and Seattle left on the slate.
This is in no way meant to denigrate what the Panthers have done. Carolina has the leading MVP candidate in quarterback Cam Newton, who has taken the next step to superstardom in 2015.
Arizona's Carson Palmer, however, has quietly had an MVP season of his own.
|Carson Palmer 2015|
|*Entering Week 14|
The 13th-year veteran threw for 310 yards and two scores on 25-of-35 passing in the win. The former pushed Palmer over 4,000 passing yards on the season. The latter gave him a franchise-record 31 touchdowns this year. His 117.6 passer rating was the ninth time in 13 games Palmer has hit triple digits in 2015.
Even Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer admitted before the game Palmer is an MVP candidate:
Just as at the quarterback position a year ago, the Cardinals have been hit hard by injuries at running back. Unlike last year at quarterback, the team has shaken off those injuries without a hitch.
Much of that can be credited to rookie tailback David Johnson, who entered Week 14 leading all first-year players with nine total touchdowns. Johnson didn't find paydirt Thursday, but he did chip in 123 total yards and averaged 4.8 yards a pop on 19 carries.
Wide receiver Michael Floyd topped 100 yards and scored. John Brown hit another home run, scoring on a 65-yard catch-and-scamper. Larry Fitzgerald had as many punishing blocks as receptions, showing yet again that he is perhaps the NFL's most complete receiver:
Relatively speaking, it was actually a ho-hum performance from a unit that entered Week 14 leading the NFL in total yardage and points scored per game.
That's what passes for ho-hum in Arizona these days.
Besides, it was the defense that won the game, anyway.
It was the defense that held Adrian Peterson to just 69 yards on 23 carries. A defense that entered this week's action third in takeaways and forced three turnovers, including a Teddy Bridgewater fumble after a Dwight Freeney (yes, that Dwight Freeney—he's old, not dead) strip-sack that sealed the game. The defense that completely erased top Vikings wideout Stefon Diggs from the contest.
The offense has been generating all of the headlines, but first-year coordinator James Bettcher's defense has done plenty of generating of its own—mostly big plays and turnovers.
Bettcher has taken Arizona's weakness at linebacker and depth at safety and made it a strength by playing Deone Bucannon at linebacker and spending more time in the dime (51.2 percent, per the NFL Network broadcast) than any team in the NFL.
And it's working. The Cardinals entered this week fourth in total defense, just behind the Panthers. The two teams are virtually identical in terms of yardage and points allowed.
Where the Panthers have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Cardinals have diminutive safety Tyrann Mathieu. And as Albert Breer of NFL.com pointed out, Mathieu played like he was eight feet tall Thursday night:
Nevermind defensive end Calais Campbell—that Arizona defense's elder statesman. All he did against the Vikings was notch four tackles, three stops for loss, a sack and recover that Bridgewater fumble.
What a bum.
After the game Campbell told sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson the Redbirds' scheduling gauntlet of late is actually helping the team prepare for January:
That was a hard-fought battle. That was pretty much like a playoff game. They needed a win. We needed a win. Coming up at that big play at the end was huge.
(The) offense made big plays when they needed to, and the defense made big plays when they needed to. These are the kind of games we're going to have moving forward. It's a playoff atmosphere, and this shows we can do it. We have confidence.
And make no mistake. That confidence can have an impact too, especially if things start to go a little sideways in a playoff game. By the time the postseason (which the Cardinals clinched a spot in by virtue of the win) rolls around, Arizona will have been tested a handful of times over the season's second half.
For the Panthers? A parade of tomato cans since beating Green Bay back in Week 9.
As I said, in no way is this a knock on Ron Rivera and the Panthers. The two teams are getting it done in different ways but are very similar—right down to the firebrand coaches in Rivera and Arizona's Bruce Arians, both of whom are strong candidates to be named Coach of the Year—again.
But if these two teams meet in the NFC title game—even if that game is in Carolina—my money is on a repeat of 2008, when a lower-seeded Arizona team bumped off the home-favorite Panthers. I trust the Arizona defense more than the Carolina passing game. Trust the Cardinals' ability to weather storms after a brutal second-half schedule.
They don't have the NFC's best record. And they aren't getting the most press in the conference, either.
But Thursday night the Arizona Cardinals showed yet again that they are a well-rounded team without a glaring weakness. They are the NFC's most complete football team.
In fact, they might just be the most complete team in the whole league.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter, @IDPSharks.