On the day the Arizona Cardinals goal for the season came to an official close, the roof was open at University of Phoenix Stadium. Even though it was a cool, crisp, 50 degree afternoon rays of light seeped through for the Cardinals future.
The San Francisco 49ers clinched the NFC West with a 26-0 stomping of the St. Louis Rams. The 49ers are where the Cards planned on being.
It was not too long ago Ken Whisenhunt's club was sitting at 1-6 and questions were starting to swirl about where the blame for this disappointing season was going to go. Should Coach Whisenhunt be held responsible, the front office, new starting quarterback Kevin Kolb, defensive coordinator Ray Horton, the lack of productive receivers behind Larry Fitzgerald, the porous offensive line, or the secondary?
After Sunday's 19-13 overtime win against the Dallas Cowboys, questions still remain, but many have been subdued. This wasn't a victory over the St. Louis Rams or a faltering Philadelphia Eagles squad. They defeated the Cowboys, a legitimate playoff contender with high talent level on both sides of the ball.
One of Coach Whisenhunt's favorite sayings over the past year and a half through the Cardinals struggles has been "stay the course". I will be honest; I got tired of hearing him say it, but what Whisenhunt said ended up being the truth. The Arizona Cardinals stayed the course, continued to believe in their coach when it would have been easy to give up on the season, and now are reaping the rewards.
Sunday, in the second half and overtime against the Cowboys we saw what the identity of the Cardinals needs to continue to be going forward.
On offense Arizona is starting to understand how to win with a quarterback like Kevin Kolb. I don't believe Kolb will ever be an elite NFL QB, but he can be a good one. The transition from the finesse football they played with Kurt Warner at the helm to a physical, balanced offense with poise in pressure situations (unlike the Cowboys who completely crapped the bed as a whole).
Beanie Wells was not spectacular on Sunday averaging 3.4 yards per carry, but he still was given the ball 20 times. The threat of the run game opened up the rest of the offense.
The two main benefactors were Andre Roberts and Larry Fitzgerald. Roberts produced his best game of the season with 6 receptions for 111 yards. Fitz only counted for 55 yards receiving on four catches, but he was more involved in the offense during the second half.
Throughout the past two years we have seen how special LaRod Stephens-Howling can be with the ball in his hands on kickoffs or on a simple dump off that he can turn into a 52-yard touchdown.
Going forward, and I have been calling for this since the beginning of the season, I want to see Stephens-Howling get the ball more. I would love for Coach Whisenhunt, and who knows maybe he has, to watch tape of how the Saints use Darren Sproles. I don't think Howling needs as many touches as Sproles because the other Cardinals running backs are more talented than the Saints, but six to eight touches a game on offense is an appropriate number for the dynamic change of pace back.
Defensively, we have seen the Cardinals improve the past few weeks. Since giving up 30 points or more in four straight games to the Giants, Vikings, Steelers and Ravens, Arizona has only allowed 16.6 points per game. The defense as a whole is starting to gain confidence in Coach Horton's scheme and the pieces have begun to fit into place.
If the Cardinals continue to build, grow, and improve maybe next year on December 4th they won't be watching another team break out NFC West Division hats. Maybe, the last four games of the season will help decide who wins the NFC West division crown next year and the Cardinals stated goal in training camp will have a real chance to come true.
At this point I usually do My Big Three, but I'm throwing a curve ball this week. I preface this by saying this is not what I think is going to happen, but I will map out what would need to happen for the Arizona Cardinals to sneak into the NFL Playoffs.
1. The Arizona Cardinals need to win their final four games to get to 9-7. The angle for that to happen? The most difficult game left on the schedule is Sunday when they host the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers just clinched the NFC West and the Cardinals are sandwiched between a Monday Night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
San Fran overlooks the Cards, has a let down game, Redbirds get the victory. The Cardinals then beat Cleveland with ease then head to Cincinnati. The Bengals falter under the pressure of being a young team in the heat of playoff race with all the pressure in the world on them. Arizona then finishes the season beating up on the Seattle Seahawks. There is your 9-7 and very important for later they are 7-5 in games within the NFC.
2. The Falcons pretty much have the fifth seed locked up. They are 7-5 and have games left @ Carolina, vs. Jacksonville, @ New Orleans, and vs. Tampa Bay. We are penciling them in for 10 wins.
3. This leaves only the sixth seed up for grabs with the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, and Chicago Bears all fighting it out. One of the Giants and Cowboys will win the NFC East.
4. Up first the Lions. After a 5-0 start Detroit has lost five of seven games. They are undisciplined, young, and reeling. Their last game of the season is @ Green Bay who most likely will be playing for an undefeated season, loss. Which means they need to lose one of the next three weeks either vs. Minnesota, @ Oakland, vs. San Diego. We will give them a loss to Oakland or San Diego, Detroit Lions 9-7 and 6-6 in the conference.
5. The Bears also currently sit at 7-5. They are 0-2 without Jay Cutler and while the defense still looks good the offense is putrid. Not to mention reports that they have lost star running back Matt Forte to a Grade 2 MCL Sprain which is a two to six week injury. The Bears have become so desperate there is talk of them bringing in Donovan McNabb. Despite a relatively easy schedule @ Denver, vs. Seattle, @ Green Bay, and @ Minnesota I don't think it's out of the question to say everything falls off the rails and Chicago finishes 7-9. Bears done, no playoffs for them.
6. With the Giants and Cowboys is where it can get really confusing, I am going to go with the simplistic version. The cleanest way for the Cardinals to get in is for the Giants to lose two games putting them at 8-8 and the Cowboys win the division by going 2-2. New York and Dallas play each other twice. The Giants other two games are against the Redskins and Jets. Besides the Giants the Cowboys play @ Tampa Bay and vs. Philadelphia. This would leave the Cowboys as NFC East Champions and the Cardinals and Lions tied for the 6th and final wild card spot. Based on conference record the Cards would get in over the Lions.
7. If there ends up being a three-way tie for the final seed it gets extra difficult to figure out. You have to work through scenarios based on which games the certain teams lost and I am leaving this alone for now, but as we get later in the season can take a look at once the amount of scenarios cuts down.