Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Cardinals not getting enough respect, even as NFL’s best team

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The Cardinals sit quietly atop the NFC West with the best record in the NFL, and yet there’s not a lot of talk about them as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

That attention is reserved more for Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, the defending Super Bowl champions, and Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Even the Cowboys seem to have generated more chatter than the Cardinals.

Yet the Cardinals are a league-best 10-2 entering their home game Monday night against the Rams. A win over the Rams (8-4) not only would make the Cardinals the first team in the league to clinch a playoff berth, but also would essentially lock up the divisional title.

Arizona already has its most wins since it went 13-3 in 2015 and lost in the NFC Championship game. Since that season, the Cardinals have gone 7-8-1, 8-8, 3-13, 5-10-1 and 8-8.

There’s not a lot this Cardinals team is lacking. They’re an NFL-best 7-0 on the road. Their quarterback, Kyler Murray, is completing 72.7 percent of his passes for an average of 266.6 yards per game. He has thrown for 17 touchdowns and rushed for five more. And he has done all that despite missing three games with a high-ankle sprain.

Receiver DeAndre Hopkins (37 catches, eight TDs in nine games) remains one of the best deep threats in the game. Running back James Connor has 630 rushing yards and 12 TDs.

The Cardinals are third in the NFL with a 28.6-point scoring average and are fourth in defense, allowing 18.7 points per game. Defensively, they take the ball away — cornerback Budda Baker has three interceptions and corner Byron Murphy has four. They get after the quarterback. Former Giant Markus Golden is leading the way with 10 sacks and Chandler Jones has 8.5.

Cardinals
Kyler Murray
Getty Images

There isn’t a lot missing from this team, which has its sights set a lot higher than on merely making the playoffs for the first time in six years. Arizona is on track to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC and to gain home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

Here are the Cardinals’ playoff scenarios entering Week 14:

  • A win or a tie against the Rams would put them in the postseason.
  • A win over the Rams would mean the Cardinals would lose the division only if they lose their final four games and the Rams win their last four. For the Cardinals to clinch the No. 1 NFC seed this week, they’d need to beat the Rams while Washington beats the Cowboys, the Bills beat the Buccaneers and the Bears beat the Packers.

What’s most impressive about this Arizona team is that it went 2-1 with Murray and Hopkins out of the lineup for three games. The two wins came against division opponents, the 49ers and Seahawks.

Cardinals
Jordan Hicks and Budda Backer celebrate.
Getty Images

“Not having your quarterback for three weeks and winning two out of three, especially divisional games, that’s huge for your team,’’ Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph told reporters. “Most teams lose their quarterback and they probably lose all three.”

Arizona left tackle D.J. Humphries said playing without the team’s offensive stars “was a good test for our team to [see] how we respond to adversity, going out there not having those such huge pieces.

“They’re not like role players. Those are cornerstones of our team that we [were] missing and being able to still [go] out there and go get it done and that was a huge confidence booster for our team.”

It should have been a pretty good indicator that the Cardinals actually are the best team in the NFL

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