The past two seasons have spoiled us as Cardinal fans. I guess a couple of division titles and a Super Bowl appearance will do that. So this new thing of being other than in first place has people a little (a lot) grumpy. It's been so crazy that (I didn't hear this first hand) supposedly on one radio show it was intimated that Ken Whisenhunt is on the hot seat with ownership.
What? While there have been some eyebrow raising concerns with personnel (quarterback) moves and playcalling, among other things, there certainly should be no talk of Whisenhunt possibly losing his job. That's just sheer insanity.
Yes, the Cardinals appear to have taken a step back (most notably because their quarterback decided that he needed to spend his time struggling to do ballroom dancing instead of throwing touchdown passes). Yes, the Seahawks and the Rams have taken steps forward. But it is halfway through the season and Arizona is only one (yes, just one) game out of first place.
The division is anything but determined. After the jump, let's look at the chances that the Cardinals have of being crowned for a third consecutive year as NFC West champs.
To start, it would be best to get the scary stuff out of the way. There are obviously some glaring problems with the Cardinals. To start, looking at net points or Arizona's point differential, it is terrible. They have the worst differential in the division, a -68. It can be misleading, of course, but what it tells us is that when the team loses, it does so in action film exploding fashion -- it's big. Even San Francisco, at 2-6, has a differential of -41. The Cardinals are in the same company as some dismal teams. The 2-6 Broncos are at -69, the 1-7 Cowboys are at -71, and the winless Buffalo Bills are a -83. That's not good company to be in.
Offensively, the Cardinals rank 31 (yep, that would be out of 32 teams) in yards per game and 20 in points per game. It should be noted, though, that the team only ranks that high on points because of the defense and special teams, as they have scored eight touchdowns on returns (kickoff, fumbles, interceptions).
The running game is still ineffective, ranking 28 at just under 88 yards per game. That is nothing new. The running game has been the Cardinals' bugaboo for years now. The issue is that the passing game isn't what it was before with Warner flinging the ball around for a consistent 300 yards passing. This year, they are 31 in passing offense.
The team has also turned the ball over 24 times so far this season. In 2008, they had a total of 30 turnovers for the season and 36 for 2009. Defensively, things have not been great. The defense is 30 in yards allowed per game and 28 in scoring defense.
So both the offense AND defense have struggled, which would normally be a recipe for disaster, but remember, the team is 3-5 and a game out of first place.
The Cardinals should still be the favorites to win the NFC West. Why?
The Cardinals are still, on paper, the most talented team. No one has a clear edge at quarterback. We know about the Cardinals' issues, but San Francisco is not better at the position. Matt Hasselbeck is better, but has not been consistently healthy for years and is inconsistent. Sam Bradford, as good as he will probably be, is still only a rookie. Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston are still the best receiving tandem in the division. Arizona has the most potential playmakers on defense, with Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. Jay Feely is as good a kicker in the game as there is, and LaRod Stephens-Howling has become an elite kick returner.
Despite the questions and concerns that this season has brought us, can anyone honestly say that Ken Whisenhunt isn't the best coach in the division? Mike Singletary is always just a step away from crazyland, Pete Carroll has yet to show his mettle as a professional head coach, and Steve Spagnoulo is the same guy that led the 1-15 Rams just a season ago.
So far, the NFC West teams have proven to be solid at home (ok, the 49ers haven't been solid at all, except maybe in the skull), but terrible on the road. The division's combined road record is 2-14. This is good news for Arizona. The Cardinals have five home games remaining. San Francisco and Seattle have four left and St. Louis only has three remaining.
That home-field advantage has been key for division games. With the exception of the Cardinals' opening week victory over the Rams, all other division games have gone to the home team. If we assume that trend continues, that nets the Cardinals three more wins (bringing the season total to six), the 49ers three (taking them to four), Seattle two (a total of six), and the Rams one (that gives them five).
That leaves the other games on the schedule. The Cardinals face the 2-6 Broncos and the 1-7 Tony Romo-less Cowboys at home and the 1-7 Carolina Panthers and 5-3 KC Chiefs on the road. Those, at least on paper, should be three more victories, bringing Arizona to nine on the season. Even slipping up in one of the games they should win gets them to eight wins.
Seattle has home games against the Chiefs, Panthers, and Falcons and road games against the Saints and Tampa Bay. Only in the Panthers game would Seahawks be favored right now. They would be lucky to get to eight wins.
St. Louis will host the Falcons and Chiefs and will visit New Orleans and Denver. They will be lucky to go 2-2. That is only seven wins for the year.
San Francisco will host Tampa Bay and visit Green Bay and San Diego. Winning even one game of those three would be an accomplishment, and that would only get them to five for their season total.
If you allow for a Cardinals' slipup, Arizona and Seattle finish 8-8. The Rams go 7-9 and the 49ers go 5-11. Who is the division winner? The Cardinals, because of the win in St. Louis. They would have the better division record, having gone 4-2, while Seattle will have gone 3-3.
To the playoffs the Red Birds go, for the third year in a row.
But here's the thing -- this weekend's game against Seattle is the test. If the Cardinals win, they are on track. If they lose, things get messy.
Even with the recent losses to Tampa Bay and Minnesota, there is reason to feel at least okay inside for the Cardinals. Tampa Bay is a quality team and Arizona was right there. Minnesota is still a very talented team and will (in my opinion) be in the thick of things in their division when all is said and done this season, and it took some Brett Favre magic (and an interception return fumble out the back of the end zone) to pull out a victory.
All of this is happening without good (or even solid) offensive play.
So, while it has been hard, Cardinals fans, breathe. Relax. Sit down and watch some football. It is still premature to say that these are "the same old Cardinals." What we should see and be talking about are the "same Cardinals" -- the NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals.